In the last decade or so, Africans in conflict-ridden countries witnessed a tremendous transformation of their lives. Wars that appeared unending gave way to attempts at making use of ballot boxes – rather than bullets – to effect political change in society.
But, as Marie-Soleil Frère discovered, the transition has been far from easy. She has laid bare the problems in Elections and the Media in Post-Conflict Africa: Votes and Voices for Peace? The book is a result of first-hand study of the media during election campaigns and actual elections in the last 10 years in six French-speaking countries that had come out of conflict: Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Congo Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda.
Holding elections in Africa these days is not the abnormality it used to be 30 years ago when one-party states were the norm. ‘Free and pluralistic elections have become so widespread in Africa over the past 20 years that the French political scientist Patrick Quantin once remarked that “countries in which people don’t vote have become as rare as countries in which people don’t drink Coca Cola,”’ Frère points out.
Yes, indeed, such elections are two-a-penny in Africa now. However, the major problem is that journalists and politicians themselves do not appear well versed in operating within this open and transparent political system, as Frère found out.
In normal circumstances the media, playing a watchdog role in African societies, are expected to provide citizens with relevant and timely information to help them make informed decisions when it comes to elections. Secondly, the media’s watchdog role is expected to keep politicians in check by ensuring that they adhere to their oaths of offices while keeping the promises they made to the people who voted them into power.
But the journalists in the six African countries studied have not been up to this task.
For a very long time, political campaigns have not been fought on issues of any substance. They have been confined to personalities or ethnicity. Politicians in Africa need to use the media more to disseminate their policies to the public at large.
But these were the problems that Frère encountered. The widening of the public sphere had failed to have any effect on the way in which politicians mediate with the public.
The media, in playing their role in the democratic process in these post-conflict countries, as Frère points out, must strive to inform citizens of what is happening around them; the media must educate as to the meaning and significance of political communication; the media must provide a platform for public political discourse; the media must act as a watchdog in order to provide checks and balances for politicians; and finally, the media must serve as a channel for the advocacy of diverse political viewpoints. These, of course, will depend on whether true democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights exist in these post-conflict African countries.
But to be fair, and speaking from personal experience, the failings that Frère encountered in the six countries studied are also starkly present in many other African countries – be they English-speaking or Portuguese-speaking. So this book could serve as an excellent textbook on African media practice in general.