HIP 1966 - 2016 Ali Mazrui: Newspapers in Africa face a dilemma

History is a puzzle that expands while time unfolds. Serendipity sometimes helps to create momentum in this puzzle. It is november 3rd 2016 when I type this (even though wordpress stubbornly holds on to October 26th, when I made the first set up of the post). That means it is 50 years minus nine days after November 12th 1966. November 12th 1966 was four years, two months and three days after the official independence celebrations of the nation state Uganda from the British empire.

On this 12th of November of the year 1966 a newspaper in Uganda called ‘The People’ published an edited version of a paper presented by Prof. Ali Mazrui during a conference with a telling title: “The Press in Africa – is it dying?’ We came across the article while doing research for an exhibition on the use of press photographs in Uganda. The research was done as part of a workshop, initiated by HIPUganda in collaboration with Uganda Press Photo Award 2016.

We were pleasantly surprised if not pretty excited by the find of the article in a couple of ways. We is in this case Stella Nantongo, from the UPPA organisation, me Andrea Stultiens from HIPUganda, and the five participants of the workshop (Irene Kimuli, Jim Joel, Katumba Badru, Max Bwire and Zahara Abdul). First of all, we had not heard before of the newspaper that printed the article. It was published every week on Saturday, at least throughout the year 1966. It published a variety of views, some extremely conservative, some very progressive. Discussion was obviously considered to be something that should be encouraged. We do not (yet) know who was behind the paper. Its motto ‘The National Newspaper for, about and by Ugandans’ did increase our enthusiasm though, and we do hope to find out more as time unfolds.

Ali Mazrui, who was then in his early thirties and at the beginning of an impressive academic career, speaks in the article about the press in a way that is both dated and highly relevant in this day and age. His words directly refer to the times they were part of; the building of nations from colonial constructions, the moulding of culturally, linguistically, geographically varied peoples into a group unified by their citizenship. While some ideals may have been covered under dust and/or trauma, one can wonder what did and what did not change in half a century. Mazrui analysis of the functioning of the press in Africa invites the reader to assess the current situation. For Uganda that means wondering how the New Vision differs from the Uganda Argus, the state newspaper during the 1960s. And what it is that the New Vision and the Daily Monitor are doing? What, and I mean this quite literally, makes them tick? Are they (still, again) in service of ideologies of national unity? Are they formed by economical guidelines? Are they building intellectual capacity? When and why are they doing what? Mazrui’s words below give a lot of food for thought in relation to all this.

What Mazrui does not do is address how imagery is used in the press. Since photographic pictures are our core interest we of course will! The next blog post, expected nine days from now, will be devoted to views on photojournalism in Uganda. The exhibition that resulted from our research will open, (how magical is that!) to the day exactly 50 years after Mazrui argued in printed form that

‘It is not enough to maximise communication between the different groups who live in Uganda or Kenya today. It is also necessary to maximise communication between the nationals today and those who will be living here 30 or 50 years from now.’

Part of the opening of the exhibition will be a panel discussion based on the experiences doing the research in the historical papers. All who can join are welcome. See the Facebook Event for more information.

What follows is the text of the article in The People:

Now that the role played by the press in toppling the Colonial regimes is over, are newspapers in Africa in danger of going back to their original role of government gazettes? This was one of the questions posed by Professor Ali Mazrui, head of the political science department at Makerere in a recent lecture to a seminar entitled “The press in Africa – is it dying?” This is a shortened version of the lecture, but the full version, together with all the other speeches made at the seminar, is to be published soon by Makerere’s extra-mural department.

In the short term, the two uses are not necessarily compatible.

We might therefore admit that in the short term the climate in which an intellectual heritage grows is, alas, the sort of climate which could at times be fatal for political stability.

In the middle of this dilemma between constructing a nation and constructing a heritage is, of course the African Press.

This notion might be resting on a fallacy.

Liberalism itself does not seem to realise that what it needs is not the phenomenon of different ideas expressed in different newspapers. To put it in an extreme way, it is different ideas expressed in the same newspaper which would really constitute a competitive intellectual market – a place where opinions do genuinely contest for more general acceptance. After all,

From the short-term point of view of national integration, what a new country might need is not in any case, necessarily the highest possible diversity of thought.

A population split up into little clusters of readers of multiple little newspapers is perhaps a population which is NOT using the medium of the Press for maximum communication at the national level. Given the same number of readers, the fewer newspapers a country has the greater should be the communicative utility of those newspapers. You are not splitting up the readership too much.

And so Ghana achieves greater communication among its people with its three newspapers than the Malagasy Republic does with its 18 newspapers. Social communication is of course a major requirement in the process of welding different groups into a nation. If then among the factors which are needed for national integration is to expose the different groups to the same media of information and ideas one’s advice can only be “Keep the number of newspapers down. Do not split the readership too much.” Yet the trend in much of Africa is not towards having too many newspapers expressing different views. It is more towards having a few newspapers all expressing the same official viewpoint.

In fact the emergence of modern politics in Africa had three parents instead of the usual biological two. Nationalism, journalism and intellectionalism shared a moment of intimacy – and the urge for liberation was consummated. Yet curiously enough the genesis of African journalism lay in dry official publications of colonial governments. It is not for nothing that the word for newspaper in Swahili is “gazeti”. But then history once again indulged her ironic sense of humour. The medium which had been used by colonial governments was adopted and adapted by African nationalistic forces and directed against those governments themselves.

As a generalisation we might therefore say that in many countries of Africa the role of the Press changed from being essentially governmental to being essentially opposed to the Establishment as then evolved. The question which now arises is whether newspapers in independent Africa are about to resume their earliest role in the history of colonialism – and become government gazettes or magazeti ya serikali all over again.

In at least some African countries what were once vigorous newspapers have indeed been reduced to official gazettes or government bulletins. In other African countries a simlar possibility is clearly visible. It is felt by many African leaders that the journalistic freedom which had helped to create African nationalism could not be trusted to create African nationhood. Relative freedom of the Press helped to achieve independence; but it could not be relied upon to achieve national integration after independence. Or so the argument goes.

And yet there are two fundamental fallacies in this whole line of reasoning. One is the assumption that avoiding conflict is the same thing as achieving integration. And so African governments often go to great lengths to avert the appearance of dissension in the country and to try and eliminate every risk of serious conflict either between groups or between the state itself and some groups. What is overlooked is that there is such a thing as an artificial “absence of conflict”. National integration does not consist merely in being forced to smile sweetly at each other. It consists in accumulating the experience of peaceful resolution of conflict and one cannot acquire such experience unless peaceful conflict is permitted to take place. One form of such conflict is verbal debate between speechmakers or open controversy between writers. It is indeed true that such debate could lead to less peaceful outbreaks between the debating antagonists. But similar outbreaks could also occur as a result of trying to enforce an artificial “stability”. In any case the different groups in society would never learn the techniques of non-violent quarrelling unless they are prepared to risk a violent accident now and then. One could never learn to swim without risking a violent gulp or two.

This then is the first fallacy of those who argue that open clashes of opinion are harmful to nation-building. They are wrong in assuming that to avert conflict between groups is the same thing as to integrate those groups. They forget that the groups could never be integrated unless risks of conflict are taken.

The second fallacy of this kind of reasoning is that its view of integration is not adequately intergenerational. It forgets that the process of building a nation is a matter of several generations. It is not enough to maximise communication between the different groups who live in Uganda or Kenya today. It is also necessary to maximise communication between the nationals today and those who will be living here 30 or 50 years from now.

And what is an intellectual heritage? It could indeed be oral, passed from mouth to mouth down the ages. But a heritage is at its richest when the thoughts of one generation can be captured in print and handed down verbatim.

For too long much of Africa has had to rely on oral tradition, on word of mouth from father to son. But neither a literary tradition nor a philosophical one can achieve its maximum richness without the written word. Without the written record too many of yesterday’s insights are lost – too much retention is expected of memory.

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A thousand years ago what were the inhabitants of this part of the African continent like? We might discover through archeology what kind of pottery they used or what kind of tool they employed. But this is because pottery and tools are durable remains that can physically survive to be discovered. It is so much harder ever to find out what kind of political ideas ancient East Africans had or what kind of philosophical stories they told each other, or what kind of poetry they recited to each other.

Because our ancestors lacked the printed word, we have been denied an intellectual heritage which goes far enough back in time. But are we going to sentence future generations of East Africans to the same intellectual deficiencies? We are today equipped with that great preservative of culture – a widespread capacity to reduce our thoughts to writing. This capacity would be useless if the only thoughts we were allowed to reduce to writing were those of harmless mediocrity, too light to stand the slightest chance of rocking the national boat.

Equipped with the printed word, the present generation of East Africans stands at the beginning of an entirely new intellectual tradition on the history of the region. We could bequeath to future East Africans a wealth of poetry and novels, of drama, of philosophical and speculative writings. They in turn could add to it, and pass it on to their descendants. This tradition would be diffused to the different levels of the populace through the popularising tendencies of a vigorous, relatively free Press. It follows that at this particular moment of its history Africa should perhaps momentarily turn away from “ancestor-worship” to “posterity-worship”. She should look to the future and decide what she would like to bequeath to her revered descendants. From this dawn of independence a whole new story of African creativity could unfold. And our gift of the intellect to the next generation might at the same time become a bond of nationhood.

Published in Ugandan weekly newspaper ‘The People’ on Saturday November 12 1966, Page 10, 11 and 17.

The text that disappeared in the gutter, caused by the binding of the newspaper, is omitted.

The reproduced newspaper is part of the newspaper archive of the Africana section of Makerere University in Kampala.

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