- Africa's Media: Democracy & the Politics of Belonging
Francis Nyamnjoh's Africa's Media: Democracy and the Politics of Belonging (2005) provides a fresh, incisive, and insightful account of the contested terrain that serves as a platform for democracy, media, and identity politics in sub-Saharan Africa. While conveying a sobering and pessimistic view of the media's current role and media potential for consolidating democracy in Africa, he elevates the debate about the contextual factors that shape interpretation in the African case with regard to notions of democracy, representation, ethic, responsibility, accountability, and press independence. Conceptions of agency subordinated and reinterpreted as loyalty shifts from individual to group, corporate, party, or ethnocultural identities call into question real motives by those with a voice in the bitter struggle for power, [End Page 117] access to privilege, and redress of governance lapses by repressive regimes that are steeped in kleptomania.
The book's introduction and first two chapters tackle difficult conceptual–theoretical issues that provide a useful framework and road map for the rest of the way. Six substantive chapters focus largely on Cameroon as an apt case study, and despite isolated examples, parallels drawn for much of the rest of the continent stretch the case that Cameroon represents a mini-Africa. The chapter on reappraisal of communication policies in Africa, with critical discussion of Western models, is a useful and appropriate way to wrap up the study.
Nyamnjoh's case examples about the inapplicability of generic interpretive logic for the promise of liberal democratic theory show, in part, that the emphasis on individual rights and their appropriation of Western liberal ideals run counter to African realities. This is because of the spatial straddling of most Africans, who see themselves in terms of fused identities. This fusion exists simultaneously as members of individual and group realms, city and village dwellers, modern elite and traditional leaders, religious and political icons, and nationalist and ethnic guardians. These identities erode the usefulness of interpretations that do not examine how the media and other associated institutions of liberal democracy behave when domesticated in African contexts. When mass media—including radio, television, newspapers, and other forms of cultural expression (radio trottoir, radio boca a boca, alternate small media, the internet, rumor)—are domesticated, their role is far more complex and defies easy categorization, especially in polities marked by fissures that threaten the existence of the state and its corporate constituents as citizens and subjects (pp. 205–230; Bourgault 1995; Hyden and Leslie 2002; Spitulnik 2002).
Nyamnjoh shows that the struggle between the rhetoric of liberal democratic principles on the one hand, and the politics of identity (ethnic, cultural, sectarian, regional) on the other, highlights how
the politics of belonging is thus central to understanding democracy in Africa and the role of the media in promoting it. The predicament faced by the media in this regard emphasizes the need for more domesticated understandings of democracy as mediated by the quest for conviviality between individual and community interests.(p. 3)
Granted that there are persistent problems throughout Africa regarding the media's role in democratization (Ogbondah 1997), and despite several examples to show the coincidence between the politics of belonging and the contest for voice and representation, one wonders if the pessimism expressed about the rarity "of media that have facilitated genuine democratization" and doubts about the capacity of the media "to play an active and positive role in this process" (p. 272) are not more limited to the special case of the Cameroon. No doubt, when viewed in context, it is no surprise that the book [End Page 118] reaches the conclusion that it is doubtful whether the viciousness of the press can be modulated in the interest of genuine democracy without being held hostage by a hostile environment that might resist the questioning of "basic monolithic assumptions, conventional wisdom about democracy, media, government, power myths, and accepted personality cults" (p. 272).
The Cameroon that comes across in Nyamnjoh's portrait is a scary one. The calm exterior belies the deep...