‘The Media is Part of the Problem of Africa’ – Eric Chinje

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For as long as many can remember, Eric Chinje, a Cameroonian journalist, communication specialist and media trainer, has been involved with the African project. At different levels of his impressive career, Chinje has participated in projects and conferences aimed at improving the fortunes of the continent. Yet little progress has been achieved. What does he think about it all, and what is his impression of the media industry today? On a recent visit to Lagos where Chinje served as one of the facilitators of the Spring School on Media and Migration workshop, Anthony Akaeze engaged him in a discussion that revealed his passion and frustration about his constituency, the African continent and politics therein and the way out of the challenges. Excerpts:

I remember the first time I met you in Senegal this year, you linked migration from Africa to the quality of governance in Africa. Several months after, has your position changed?

You know, the only viable answer that I can give will have to be one that is in effect, an assessment of progress in the continent or the lack of it. Since our exchange earlier this year, quite a number of things have happened in Africa that give us reason to hope and at the same time, quite a number of things have happened that take this process backwards. The most significant development in the continent since our meeting in Dakar has to be what has happened in Ethiopia. There has been a change in leadership in Ethiopia and almost instantly, we’ve seen how much a leader can change the fortunes of any country. Prime Minister Abiy (Ahmed Ali) in Ethiopia has, by adopting a totally new approach to governance, in so short a time, changed the fortunes of that country of over 80 million people. So what that tells us is that it can be done…

He effected a change in policies?

Yes, change in policies. In terms of injecting a spirit of hope among Ethiopians, in terms of making his country more accommodating,  a more  friendly nation.  He brought more women into the workforce. The president of the country, for the first time, is a woman. 50% of the ministers for the first time are women. He’s opened up Ethiopia to Africans. You can come in and get a visa at the airport. This country that has been at the heart of African unity from the very early days of our independence…one man providing the right leadership has completely turned around the fortunes of a country. There’s still a lot of work to be done but the new trajectory on which Ethiopia is, must give every African hope. Now, you flip that coin and look at my own country Cameroon with the total absence of leadership and you see what’s happening. We’ve been sliding into total anarchy. We cannot, because of the system in place, in four years, organise ourselves to host a continental football competition.

Eric Chinje 2
Eric Chinje 2

CAF (Confederation of African Football) cited insecurity in Cameroon as part of the reason for cancelling the hosting right for the Nation’s Cup, earlier awarded to the country.

Well, it’s all part of the same package of poor governance. Countries don’t just erupt into crisis over nothing. So, the point I’m making is that, when there’s no evidence of leadership,  there is no sense of growth and hope. And when there’s defined leadership, a clear vision, a determined construction of the path ahead, you see progress. That’s what’s happening. So, in answer to your question, I think some things have changed. I think we’ve retrogressed in some ways and I think we are making progress in others, and hopefully African countries, those that are stagnating and not making progress could learn from those that are progressing. It can be done in Africa.  We have the Rwandas of Africa today, now Ethiopia has joined that club. Kenya is moving in that direction, Ghana is moving in that direction. So, yes it can be done in Africa and I look ahead with optimism because I know it can be done. But I also look at the state of Africa today and unfortunately, I cannot give it a C grade or C minus.

What you said about Ethiopia, the aspect of opening up to the world is instructive. Because it reminds me of the challenges many Africans face in accessing African countries. Tanzania is one country where, I read, Nigerians can no longer get visa on arrival. The implication for someone like me in Lagos is that, if I need to visit Tanzania, I will have to travel to Abuja to apply for a visa. That will require a lot of money and time, to say nothing of the risk involved. As someone who has travelled round the world, how do you feel when you hear some of these stories; that even in Africa, Africans are not able to easily travel to African countries?

The unfortunate thing is that the forces that drive this continent are fear which is totally unwarranted. You cannot have your policies driven by fear. Another thing is ignorance. A lot of things that happen in this continent are direct result of ignorance of the kind of policies that are needed to move an economy forward. Another is poverty. Poverty not in the absence of what people need but poverty of the spirit. So, I see in some countries where there’s lack of progress, poverty, fear and absence of a vision. The countries that have opened up to the rest of Africa, they have not been invaded. Rwanda has been opened to the rest of Africa for a while now, it has not been invaded by Africans. Ghana opened up, it has not been invaded. So, why is this fear factor still there? Why should any country in Africa today be closing its doors to other Africans. Why is South Africa so afraid – and the other countries like that?

I know you’ve participated in many programmes, including conferences in Africa, what somebody described as talk shows. How do you feel when you go to these events and propose ideas and at the end of the day, nothing seems to change?

You know, it can be quite frustrating. But I would not, for that reason, count myself in anyway amongst the pessimists of this continent. I continue to, in spite of all these problems, look to the brighter side; I continue to hope for Africa and I continue to work within my own possibilities to help in moving this continent forward. That’s what it should be. There are too many of us who refuse to have faith in Africa, who continue to think it’s about the individual and not the collective, who continue to refuse to share what we have because if we do, it might threaten our ability to control what we have. There are too many of us in Africa who think so. But I refuse to belong to that group. I continue to think that, ultimately,  this continent will find its way. Those that give us hope like the new prime minister in Ethiopia, like President Paul Kagame, President Akufo-Addo and others, I thank them and hope that by pointing out value in what they are doing, others can follow up in their footsteps. We hope that, ultimately Africa will get there. Yes, it is frustrating experience to continue to hear all the good things about Agenda 2063, the AU Agenda for Africa. Wonderfully done document, and that’s all it is so far. It’s not even been communicated to Africans, as if Africa will grow without Africans. Every time there are meetings in Addis Ababa. I was in Addis Ababa last week talking about this new institution called the African Risk Capacity which deals with disaster risk insurance, something that’s very needed in Africa. Right there, we could make the connection between protecting our countries and our institutions against natural disasters and other risks and achieving agenda 2063 but again, it is just a lot of talk. We need to move our agenda to palpable reality on the ground. There’s need for it to go beyond the intellectual surmise of people and let the African on the streets of Lagos, Nairobi and Accra (benefit from it).

Eric Chinje 3
Eric Chinje 3

There’s terrible poverty in Africa and this is a real problem…

There is – and we know there shouldn’t be. We cannot continue to speak of the world’s most endowed continent with enormous natural wealth, and speak in the same voice about extreme poverty, persistent extreme poverty. There’s something wrong, something viciously wrong about the African condition and it will only take Africans to resolve it. I cannot reconcile the fact that I come into Nigeria and I see obvious poverty on the street, and then I turn around and visit a friend and find ten cars in his garage and he can look me in the eye and say, well, I deserve this and I worked for it. I don’t know….where are our morals? The richest man on this continent, Aliko Dangote will not be rich if Nigerians had not invested tax money into building some of the roads, hospitals and schools that he attended. I want Africans to create and own wealth but not at the expense of everyone else. It is just immoral, as far as I am concerned, that there will be so much poverty, juxtaposed with so much wealth. It doesn’t make sense, and I think it is high time we started  naming and shaming people. You are not going to take the money into your grave, you are not going to be buried with ten cars. Why do you own ten cars when Africa does not even smelt iron?

What is your view about the state of the media industry?

I think the media is part of the problem, and until we can flip things around and have the media become part of the solution,  I don’t think we are going to see light at the end of the tunnel. Media in Africa, especially in some of our key economic centres like Nigeria, has to be part of the solution but the media is not. We know for example that Nigeria will not take off economically without resolving this problem of electricity (shortage). There’s no way Nigeria will take off (without it). It’s not going to happen. Nigeria will continue to coast along if it does not resolve the issue. Why does the media in Nigeria not focus totally on that issue and ensuring that all the players are lined up to seek a solution? If the problem is a cartel of people who order and sell generators, the media should expose them.  If it’s at the legislative level and parliament isn’t passing the laws, media should look at the existing laws and have a national debate on the issue. If it’s about refining oil in Nigeria, an oil producing country like Nigeria, a country with so much hydraulic potential, why is the media not exposing these? I look at agriculture in this country…I think the Nigerian media is part of the problem. Why is the media talking about everything but the fundamental facts that are needed to understand where this country is going with agriculture? Where’s the media in it? You meet journalists, they are complaining. 90% of the journalists I meet in this country complain. Why aren’t they complaining about the state of the nation?

What do they complain about – their welfare?

Well, they are complaining about their welfare. They say we don’t have the money…we don’t have this you know…we are not well paid, so we cannot do this, we cannot do that. The Nigerian journalist that I see is constantly telling you what they cannot do. What can they do? Why are they not asking themselves that question? Why are you guys not coming together and say, let’s focus on some key issues and work on them together as an important sector of national life in this country? Why are you not carrying conversations that allow other Nigerians to participate in the process? If you can get Nigerians thinking, provide them the facts with which to understand, analyse and reflect on such issues in critical sectors of the economy: power, agriculture, education, health and infrastructure…why isn’t the media focusing on these things – why not? So, I think, you know, my take on the media is, we need to have more people specialize because this attitude of having everybody do everything, has failed us. We need specialists in the media. I often hear, “We have people on special beats” but it’s clearly not good enough. You don’t have a critical mass of the Nigerian media on the critical issue of governance and economic construction in this country. There should be a critical mass of agricultural reporters; there should be a critical mass of people who understand the maritime economy which is critical to Nigeria. There should be a critical mass of journalists who can write and talk about energy and so on. So my answer to you is: I come from this sector, I have been a key player in trying to build media capacity both as a senior official of the World Bank, senior official of the African Development Bank, head of the African Media Initiative. I have tried as an individual to strengthen capacity  but there are overwhelming forces around the sector, so much interest that we allow this interest to destroy what should be the most powerful, transformational instrument available to any country and to Africa. That’s my problem with the media.

What’s your opinion of the Ambazonia struggle in southern Cameroon which has been on for a while?

Again, it allows me to say this about African journalists. We tend to be too internally focused when we need to open up. We cannot have African unity without a media that is open to the imperatives of unity and integration. How often do you come into a country and there is a natural disaster next door and you hardly even hear about it. So, I’m glad you asked it. We are here in Lagos; you are asking me about a neighbouring country and I think we need to generate more African information within Africa. African media needs to report Africa, it’s not been doing that. Look at how many cross border reports are in any given country – almost non existent. So we don’t even know Africa. Africans don’t know Africa. How are we going to integrate if we don’t know each other? But that’s not the question you asked me. The question you asked is what’s going on in Cameroon. I come from English speaking Cameroon, what people call southern Cameroon which has people wanting to secede from Cameroon.  My approach to answering the question obviously tells you that I’m not for secession; I am not for what I hear called Ambazonia. I do not believe in further fragmentation of Africa, I believe in Africa coming together as the only hope we have for ultimately becoming a power player in the world. So if the integration of Africa is the sine qua non for meaningful growth, then people like me cannot be for further fragmentation of the continent. But having said that, we have a serious problem in Cameroon. The Anglophones have a true and deep and a very frustrating problem and that needs to be addressed.  I believe that the leadership in Yaounde has failed and continues to fail the Anglophones and I believe again it’s because the system is so centralized in that country, so centralized that what’s happening in the periphery can easily be of no interest to the centre. You can’t run a country that way. The president of Cameroon has never been to Anglophone Cameroon during this crisis to see what’s going on. He’s not even said things that will appease those who are fighting, he’s not even called them to the table. Mr Biya is either just tired or unable to do what he has to do or he must be extremely cynical. If your country is falling apart, one arm of you as a man is being chopped off and you ignore it? He’s been known to say that as long as Yaounde breathes, Cameroon lives. How cynical can a man get. So I think there’s a problem of leadership governance on the one hand, for a government that is willing to ignore a part of  its territory which has taken a military option to resolve a political problem and, on the other hand, so called secessionists who offer indeed nothing- I want to believe nothing. I have sat with President Salva Kiir of South Sudan and I know in a very deep and personal way, what secessionist movements that are ill prepared for the task, can do to their people. I have been close-up with leaders of countries that that have been through war and I know the impact it has, the traumatizing impact it has on citizens. I watched closely President Johnson Sirleaf  of Liberia and I know that country is still struggling with the trauma of war, so many years later. We don’t want war in Cameroon but we have a leadership that has declared war against its own people. It’s a problem.

– Dec. 18, 2018 @ 15:17 GMT |

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