Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and the ‘Arab Spring’

How are conflicts in different parts of the African continent being related to each other by the press? How does the media square its talk of an 'Arab Spring' with the reality of large African-identifying populations being involved or caught in revolts against their governments?

A great way of illustrating the problem with the 'Arab Spring' narrative is available at Swamppost's YouTube channel.[1] The channel has two time-lapse videos of anti-government protests up to early March (check out the Global Sociology blog [2] for some explanation). The first video focuses on 'Middle East and North Africa'. You can see protests happening in Tunisia for some time before seeming to spread east and west. By the time you get into February they've moved north into the Middle East and Eastern Europe. If you pause around 16-18 February, the protests look very much like a primarily Middle East-wide phenomena. Now look at the 'Global Protests & Uprisings' video. Right from the beginning the shortcomings of 'Arab Spring' are revealed. South Korea? More significantly, watch as once again protests seem to spread geographically from Tunisia. Throughout January a focus on the Middle East & North Africa seems justified. Head into February, however, and protests are appearing all over the place: Australia, Britain, Western Europe, Afghanistan and the United States. Now pause once again around 16-18 February. The protests seem to have spread right down the eastern coast of Africa. Although it's true to say by March that the majority of protests are at the northern tip of the continent, a narrative of an Arab Spring reserves little space for those protesting in Swaziland, Nigeria, Gabon, Mauritania or Western Sahara.

My point in highlighting this is not necessarily to argue that all protests happening across the world should be understood as developing as part of a homogeneous protest wave – each protest movement has its own particular dynamics and reasons for evolving the way it has. What I am arguing is that the public narrative of an Arab Spring excludes much of the world's population both from public attention and concern and from discussion of what meaningful political change might look like and how it can be supported by people in other places.

A key illustration of this bias in the current discourse over 'Arab revolutions' centres around Libya. According to a LexisNexis search, during February and March over 1,100 articles appeared in UK national newspapers with 'Libya' in the title. By contrast, just over twenty articles appeared with 'Ivory Coast' title. Just over a hundred articles mentioned Côte d’Ivoire in their opening lines; more than 3,000 did so for Libya. The front pages of today's UK national papers are dominated by discussion of whether the United States and Britain will arm those opposed to Gaddafi in what everyone is calling Libya's civil war. Hidden away in the middle of the papers are articles saying rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire have seized three towns after heavy fighting in what the Guardian now calls a ‘nascent civil war’. More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in Côte d’Ivoire since the beginning of December. While the UN estimates around 390,000 people have fled Libya, it estimates up to 1 million Ivorians have fled fighting in the city of Abidjan alone, with around 116,000 people having crossed borders to get to countries including Liberia, Guinea and Mali.

There is now a lively debate both in the Western mainstream and leftist circles about the justification for foreign intervention in what is happening in Libya. There is no such debate on whether such use of force in Côte d’Ivoire would be justified, or on what could be done to stem the use of violence in that country.

But despite this vast imbalance in quantity of coverage, the events in Libya haven't been entirely separated from the rest of the African continent. What the narrative of the 'Arab Spring' has done is to very effectively stifle public discussion of violence or popular dissent in sub-Saharan African countries on their own terms. Some of those countries have however been mentioned in discussions of Libya. The way these countries have been mentioned is arguably important. Those who read about Libya are being given very particular images of what's happening across the rest of the African continent. An exploratory look at the way the press has linked Libya to other African countries reveals the consequences of the selective imagined geographies of the 'Arab Spring'.


Let's assume that people in the UK are bound for the most part to be much more interested in or aware of conflict in Libya than in Côte d’Ivoire. When those people then read articles about Libya that might mention Côte d’Ivoire, what sort of image of the latter are those people going to get? I calculate just over a dozen articles have been published in national newspapers which link Libya and Côte d’Ivoire. This is barely a fraction of total Libya-focused news coverage, so for the most part people reading about Libya are going to form no particular cognitive frame about Côte d’Ivoire at all. The first thing this does, arguably, is to increase the chances of Côte d’Ivoire being seen through apolitical lenses. The political force in vogue right now is the Arab Spring; if you aren't part of that force, your struggle has no political charge.

When articles on Libya have discussed Côte d’Ivoire, they've talked about the latter in three respects. The first is mercenaries. In late February The Times, The Guardian and The Sunday Times all ran articles on ‘widespread rumours’ that Gaddafi was using ‘African mercenaries’, with those mercenaries coming from countries including ‘Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad’. It's crucial to note here that these reports of mercenaries had at that point in time not progressed beyond accusations and rumour. Back on 7 March the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, warned on Democracy Now! of the danger of this narrative of 'African mercenaries'.[3] He's worth quoting at length:

‘I think the whole story of the African mercenaries in Libya should be a case study for journalism schools all across the United States, because it’s a prime example of irresponsible reporting and just lazy reporting. You know, rather than going out and investigating these incidents and whether they’re true, these rumors, Western journalists from very reputable publications just published the rumors as true. And they talked about African men running wild, raping women and all of these things, which is just about as racist a myth as you can get.’

This of course isn't to say that Gaddafi isn't using mercenaries – the man certainly has a long history of involvement in financing sides in other African wars [4] – but talk of African mercenaries has only stoked anti-black African sentiment among the rebels, the consequences of which are now becoming horrifyingly clear, with rebels detaining black Africans 'suspected' of working for Gaddafi.[5] Indeed, the United Nations has confirmed reports of racist attacks on black Africans and rapes of black African women.

Then there was British Foreign Secretary's William Hague's speech to a conference of African leaders and businessmen in London, in which he said populist uprisings could spread south. This represented one of the rare times the events of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were linked to sub-Saharan African countries. The Times quoted Mr. Hague as saying: ‘In Ivory Coast the former President, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to concede that he lost last year's presidential election and is sanctioning attacks on defenceless civilians in a desperate attempt to cling illegitimately to power’.

Finally, there have been one or two articles arguing that the world's focus on Libya has been to the detriment of Côte d’Ivoire. Most recently, the Daily Telegraph ran an attack 'Forgotten disaster in Ivory Coast' on 24 March, citing the UN's World Food Programme whose spokesman urged the world ‘not to forget the situation in Ivory Coast and Liberia, where many Ivorians are fleeing to. This has the potential to develop into a serious but forgotten humanitarian disaster’.

The overall image given of Côte d’Ivoire fits this last article. For those reading about Libya, Côte d’Ivoire either doesn't exist or, if it does gets mentioned, is the site of a humanitarian disaster, a source of instability. There is no discussion of political dynamics, except when a Foreign Secretary considers them relevant to his own narrative of 'popular uprisings'.


While barely a dozen articles linked Libya and Côte d’Ivoire, more than fifty linked Libya and Zimbabwe. Three ideas have been used to make this latter link: 'Western hypocrisy', 'fellow tyrants' and 'old friends'.

By far the most frequent reason for mentioning Zimbabwe was to talk of Western hypocrisy at choosing to intervene in Libya but not elsewhere. About two-thirds of these were readers' letters: ‘What hypocrisy we have here… Nothing has been done to overthrow dictators in Zimbabwe, Darfur and Burma’; ‘If we have human rights as the motive for action, why has the Government not taken action against the illegal regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe?’; ‘It is extraordinary that one country studiously ignored for years is Zimbabwe’. Many of these letters pointed to one commodity to explain this hypocrisy. ‘Is there any resolution on the table to liberate Zimbabwe,’ asked one reader, ‘or is it only oil-rich countries we have a conscience about?’. Opinion pieces too noted the problem of intervening in Libya but not in other countries. ‘We don't have the luxury of an interventionist foreign policy,’ began one Daily Telegraph writer, arguing that if we tried to have such a policy, ‘how much of the rest of the world [would we have to intervene in]? Zimbabwe?… That Libya should command such humanitarian impulses suggests something more is at stake. Could it be oil?’

Muammar Gaddafi and Robert Mugabe have also been linked (not, of course, unjustifiably) explicitly under the headings 'tyrants', 'strongmen' and 'dictators'. Some articles linked the two men in reference to Britain's arms sales. Just as Tony Blair cosied up to Gaddafi in recent years, the Daily Mail stated, so Blair also sold weapons to Zimbabwe's ‘deranged despot, Robert Mugabe’; this was under the heading 'How can we be so blindly stupid as to sell arms to despots then bleat about democracy?'. Other articles portrayed Gaddafi as the latest in a long line of moral problems for the West. ‘Iraq, the Balkans, Zimbabwe and now Libya,’ said the Independent; ‘[o]nce again the world faces the dilemma: how to halt a ruthless tyrant’. William Hague was widely reported for linking Gaddafi and Mugabe in his London speech to African leaders and businessmen; Hague argued the popular uprisings could spread south and topple other ‘autocratic leaders’, as the Daily Telegraph put it. While Hague mentioned Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire, according to The Times, he ‘reserved his most aggressive remarks’ for Mugabe.

Finally there's been the friendship factor. As rumours spread of mercenaries coming from sub-Saharan African countries to help Gaddafi, reporters were quick to note the support Gaddafi has previously given Mugabe, and of the two's ‘intense closeness’, as one article quoted a Whitehall insider as remarking. The notion of Gaddafi turning to ‘his old friend Robert Mugabe’ for help or, indeed, exile, soon caught on amongst reporters. This narrative has continued up to today.


Virgil Hawkins, author of 'Stealth Conflicts', has argued that the mainstream media have a history of giving vastly more attention to conflict in the Middle East than in sub-Saharan Africa. In a recent blog post Hawkins applied this argument to Côte d’Ivoire, noting that a focus on 'revolution in the Middle East' has excluded Côte d’Ivoire from discussion. ‘Côte d’Ivoire’, Hawkins says, ‘doesn't quite fit into the “big frame” of the times’.[6].

Unlike Côte d’Ivoire, however, the sub-Saharan African country of Zimbabwe has been allowed into this frame, in discussion of the Libyan civil war and the Arab Spring more generally. The reason for this, in the British press at least, is that Zimbabwe has a well-known leader – reported on, as Hawkins rightly notes, by the British media for years – whose 'tyrant' status fits a narrative both of popular uprisings in the face of dictatorial regimes and of posing a moral dilemma for a West who chooses to intervene to help one 'popular movement' at the expense of others (for better or worse). Lacking an attention-seeking tyrannical leader with a well-known historical relationship with the West, Côte d’Ivoire has nothing to help it ride the wave of attention given to 'popular uprisings'.

This poses questions not just for the mainstream media but for Western progressives who want to see themselves as standing in solidarity with these uprisings. If we focus our attention primarily on the affairs of countries where our own governments have shown an interest, even if we seek to criticise our governments' motivations and interests in those places, are we in fact adopting an imperialist mindset by ignoring those places that our media and leaders have, at least publicly, shown little interest in commenting on or involving themselves in?

Talk of an 'Arab Spring' carries with it the potential of essentialising and reifying 'Arab' and 'African' as fixed markers of identity. It also creates hierarchies of concern in our own minds that have no real justification if our aim is, as Michael Albert recently put it, ‘[m]aximal gain in the quality of life, freedom, and future prospects of people in as many countries as possible’.[7] Let us reject the imagined geographies of our elites with its consequences for ordinary people in places that just aren't exciting enough for our media. We should be striving instead to create emancipatory geographies – of a 'Spring' across all continents.

* Oliver Kearns is a 4th year undergraduate in International Relations & Philosophy at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] http://www.youtube.com/user/SwampPost
[2] http://globalsociology.com/2011/03/26/the-visual-du-jour-protests/
[3] http://www.democracynow.org/2011/3/7/thousands_of_migrant_workers_stranded_at
[4] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/02/how-qaddafi-reshaped-africa/71861/
[5] http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-libya-prisoners-20110324,0,5389027,full.story
[6] http://stealthconflicts.wordpress.com/2011/03/26/the-media-technology-and-cote-divoire/
[7] http://www.zcomm.org/thinking-about-reactions-to-libya-and-each-other-by-michael-albert

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