“I want people to know that Africa is relevant,” says Weinberg sophomore Amakie Amattey. Amattey has a right to be frustrated with the erasure of Africa in mainstream media.
Even as foreign affairs become increasingly central to U.S. news coverage, articles about sub-Saharan nations are heavily outnumbered by headlines about countries that have garnered a sense of “importance,” such as Cuba, Russia, India, China and the Middle East.
This disparity in perceived importance plays out on Northwestern’s campus as well. Despite this campus having the world’s largest separate Africana collection, established in 1954, African studies remains an adjunct major at Northwestern, all while Middle East and North African studies has developed into a thriving department.
Nigeria, however, has made its way into mainstream consciousness, but for far from positive reasons. In April 2014, the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by terror group Boko Haram took headlines by storm and sparked the social media campaign, “#BringBackOurGirls.” Ever since, intermittent coverage following up on Boko Haram has had a consistent negative tone and focuses on the shortcomings of the Nigerian government.
From the viewpoint of mainstream media, Nigeria is a collapsing state that serves as a cautionary tale for the world, but this is far from the whole truth. A deeper look into current events in Nigeria reveals a country full of economic hope as it just overtook South Africa as the continent’s largest economy, and a citizenry that is successfully altering the political climate with Nigeria’s first peaceful, democratic change in power upon the election of President Muhammadu Buhari.
From colonial times when Africa was called the “dark continent” to the era of international aid, it seems the West continuously wants to ask, “What went wrong?” We believe it is time to flip this narrative and ask ourselves, “What can we learn from Nigeria?” from both a sociopolitical and economic perspective. Perhaps if more students were encouraged to ask these questions and discovered positive answers, the African Studies program would gain the recognition it deserves.
Asha Sawhney: Shifting the perception of Nigeria’s political climate
Although the “#BringBackOurGirls” campaign successfully brought attention to Nigeria, its presence was fleeting. For a few weeks, social media was filled with celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres, Amy Poehler and First Lady Michelle Obama demanding an international response to the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, but as the search became difficult, public interest passed.
The lack of coverage on Nigeria and its struggle with Boko Haram should not be mistaken for a hopeless situation. After the kidnapping, the Nigerian government received criticism for its slow and ineffective progress in fighting Boko Haram and its deadly terror attacks. But as of late, the government has better delivered progress. At its strongest, the terrorist organization controlled a region the size of Belgium, but by March 2015, Boko Haram was down to three strongholds. By the end of April, the Nigerian army invaded the last remaining strongholds in the Sambisa forest using a fighter jet attack and rescued 300 abducted girls. What makes the Nigerian government’s success in battling Boko Haram most impressive is the lack of Western intervention. Instead the nation has turned to a coalition of neighboring countries Niger, Chad and Cameroon to fight the terror group. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest repeatedly stated that the United States “remains deeply concerned” by the reports of violence in Northern Nigeria. Nonetheless, the United States has declined to send any troops or have any military presence in the region, despite sending 1,000 soldiers to fight ISIS in Syria, a group that is closely linked to Boko Haram. Max Abrahms, a political science professor at Northeastern University believes the United States hesitated to intervene due to the reputation of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, accused of violence, corruption and war crimes.
Nigerian citizens clearly shared the same concerns as U.S. analysts, because Jonathan became the first president to lose his seat as a result of a peaceful, democratic election, and is now being replaced by President-elect Buhari. Both Jonathan and Buhari feared violence would follow the election results, but unlike after the 2011 elections where 800 people were killed while rioting, the change in power went smoothly and peacefully. In addition, Jonathan has said even though he is a former military ruler, “Nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian.”
The question that needs to be asked amid this progress in Nigeria is, why isn’t the United States media covering these events? Generally U.S. coverage of Arab and Muslim nations is quite problematic in its own right, but during the Arab Spring, the news of autocratic governments falling due to protest dominated headlines, giving Americans an image of a dynamic, changing Middle East. Yet the representation of Africa seems to be the same one inherited by colonial powers, of a backwards continent with no hope of moving forward.
Abigail Stratton: From struggling state to potential economic powerhouse
Despite all of the economic advancements made by Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria is still under great scrutiny. The stability of the entire country, politically and otherwise, is under question after the abduction of those 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram. People around the world are questioning Nigeria’s stability and political climate along with the ability of its government to maintain control and correct human rights violations. These events are, of course, horrific, but it is a shame that few mention the positive political and economic changes happening in Nigeria.
For example, Nigeria has overtaken South Africa as Africa’s largest economy, almost doubling its GDP to more than $500 billion as of 2013. It is also significantly decreasing its debt and dependency on oil as its primary industry. The value of the naira, Nigerian currency, is increasing in comparison to the U.S. dollar, and investors are beginning to take notice. As Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria may argue that it should join South Africa as a member of the “BRICS” group at G20, a group of “the most powerful emerging economies.”
In addition to these positive changes, political unrest is diminishing rapidly in Nigeria. The population has been reacting well to the conclusion of a successful, violence-free presidential election and, in turn, the economy is doing the same. The capital market, a measure of the economy, has been on the upswing since the election of General Buhari with the stock market soaring. A possible reason for this economic upturn is the peaceful result of the election. In many ways, it may have lessened the fears of foreign investors as the government portrays an image of unity and stability. This confidence has increased foreign investments, with more international companies buying shares in Nigeria’s capital market.
Despite these economic improvements, Nigeria still has problems to solve. The world is still watching The Nigerian government to see how it will react to current and future security threats. Investors are scrutinizing the economy, hoping growth will continue. Nigeria may have a larger economy than South Africa now, but it lag behind in infrastructure. The Nigerian people have not yet felt the effects of an increased GDP in their own pockets, and there is the potential for unrest. The government is not likely to keep this lead and pull the Nigerian people out of poverty without further improvements. However, Nigeria has the potential to do all of these things. It is proving itself to have the potential to be a major, international economy, and too many people underestimate this growing country.
Nneka Onyeka, a Nigerian Weinberg freshman, said one of the main issues is the frame of reference Americans use to evaluate African progress, which is that of their own country that has had far more years of independence to develop.
“Nigeria gained its independence in the 60s and is encountering all the problems that are expected to arise whether those issues are political, social, etc,” she told The Daily in an email. “I feel like people have an image of what a nation should look like but disregard the process in which it takes to get there.”
It is time to challenge the perception that sub-Saharan Africa cannot move forward despite being recently freed from colonialism and the corresponding idea that Western intervention is necessary to enact progress. The first step to shattering this mindset on a societal level is for individuals to engage themselves on current events spanning all of Africa, of which Nigeria is an important but small piece.
Asha Sawhney is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected] Abigail Stratton is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]