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Bad reporting of Zanzibar's election
is part of a wider problem



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

November 12, 2005

LONDON - The dust is beginning to settle on Zanzibar's notorious election. Perhaps we can now look at it with a little more objectivity. Reporters flocked in, lured by the promise of rigged elections in an African tourist paradise where the smell of blood-letting mingled with the scent of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and all the other wonderful things that the spice island grows.

Moreover, the Tanzanian balloon was too tempting not to prick - an African country, which incorporated the islands of Zanzibar in 1964, is one of the continent's success stories: politically peaceful, democratic and exhibiting consistently high rates of economic growth; surely something must be wrong.

After days of journalists highlighting the run up to the election with stories and photos of mayhem and murder, intimidation and fraud, the election did take place and the ruling party, the one allied with the ruling party of the mainland, as most diplomatic observers expected, did win by a small majority but with the opposition winning a considerable presence in the House of Representatives. Yet The Economist this week reports, "Western diplomats tended to deride the vote in private but endorse it publicly".

I have talked with the diplomats, the local reporters and the president of Tanzania and to quote one senior European ambassador who has often feared the worst, worried the situation might blow, "The media don't see it from the inside…We have not had a catastrophe here." Others point to the extraordinary lengths President Mkapa went to avoid a blood bath and make sure the election was conducted fairly and openly, overcoming much resistance from his party colleagues on Zanzibar.

The observer mission of the Commonwealth said, "Overall, this was a good election." The European Union's team concluded, "The election process was a marked improvement on past polls and it was generally administered in an efficient manner."

No wonder President Mkapa explodes and says, "Derision, cynicism, prejudice, stereotyping and hunger for stories of failure than of success will be the undoing of democratic progress on the continent."

The media are stuck in a rut on Africa. For over a decade from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s Africa was largely in a mess of economic misrule and civil war. Whilst Tanzania was exceptionally peaceful it also was in economic decline and Zanzibar, with the traditional hostility between its Arab-descended ruling class and its African peasantry and proletariat, was always simmering on the edge of violence.

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But a lot of good things have been happening in Africa the last decade, as Prime Minister Tony Blair's Commission For Africa report makes clear. Violence has gone sharply down. The number of civil wars is much reduced and the current election in Liberia is one more indication of how the most sadistic violence can be ended by a mixture of forceful African diplomacy, African and UN peacekeeping and quiet backroom support from the U.S. and Europe. President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, President Thabo Mbeki and former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa have worked hard at mediating successfully a wide number of civil wars.

If one looks at the economies of Africa a seeming miracle is underway. Seventeen sub-Saharan African countries attained 5% annual growth in 2003. If we narrow this field down to the active democracies with firm term limits on the elected head of state we see an even more significant degree of promise. Senegal, Mali and Ghana have had for a number of years steady 5% growth rates. Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa (with half of West Africa's population) has achieved 5-6% the last few years, Mozambique 7-9%, Botswana 7-10% (the world's fastest growing economy during the 1990s) and Tanzania near 6% the last four years.

In all of these countries inflation is sharply down and the received wisdom of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is that if they continue with their reforms at the same pace as they have over the last decade they can push these growth rates up even further. This will make a big impact on a range of very important things, from adequate water supplies to girls' education to declining birth and poverty rates.

It is a question of perspective and mind set. How many of today's African reporters and editors in the newsrooms knew Africa in the 1960s and early 70s when there was progress? Not very many. Most of their memories only go back to the dark 80's and 90s when it has been decline and carnage. So, as the French say, "the idea is fixed" and as Disraeli wrote, "Thought is the child of action". But Disraeli also wrote in the same breath, "Experience is the child of thought" and the press covering Africa badly need to have some new experiences.


Copyright © 2005 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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