Seven teams of African journalists and Western colleagues unearthed hidden truths in the 2015 AIPC-ZAM investigations

For the first time on such a large scale seven teams of African and Western journalists jointly investigated conflict, health and governance in African countries -and how these are impacted upon by ‘the West.’ Questions arising in malaria-ridden areas in Ghana and the DRC were presented to Bill Gates’ Global Fund offices in Geneva; Western anti-terrorism programmes were scrutinized in five countries from Somalia to Burkina Faso; five other projects also unearthed, often uneasy, truths. Project coordinator and editor Evelyn Groenink describes how it was done.

When, exactly, we started to feel uneasy about Western-initiated ‘cross border investigations’ is difficult to say. Was it when no Western newspaper wanted to hear about Muno Gedi’s survey in Somalia that showed that the dreaded female genital mutilation practice was on the way out? (‘We must still continue the fight,’ was all the lady at the development-minded newspaper in the UK said, perhaps uncomfortable with the fact that Somali women had already waged that fight –and were winning.)

Or was it when a ‘fair trade’ organisation brazenly told us –after three African journalists had interviewed over two hundred cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon, with the clear outcome that ‘Fair Trade’ had only brought them new problems and no solutions- that they had ‘interviewed the wrong farmers?’

Or when a Nigerian journalist who had produced a hard-hitting report on ritual witchcraft killings had to deal with a refusal from a ‘sympathetic’ editor in Switzerland, saying that he could not possibly publish this because the report ‘confirmed stereotypes about Africans?’

Humans in Virunga were portrayed as happy noble primitives

Or when, also in Nigeria, investigations into the Niger Delta kidnapping of Dutch nationals seemed to lead to a money-making scheme by a Nigerian conman –who posed as an ‘exiled Nigerian human rights activist’ in the Netherlands- and some warlord friends and not one media house in the Netherlands dared follow up?

Or when in the DRC, starved and oppressed human inhabitants of the Virunga park were portrayed as ‘happy noble primitives’ in an award-winning documentary about injustices committed against gorillas?

 Unknown unknowns

There were many of such moments of uneasiness. But it was when legendary Ghanaian undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas  told a group of Dutch journalists at a lunch meeting that ‘almost all your perceptions are wrong,’ that the penny dropped.

We needed African-initiated cross-border investigations. Not just Western-initiated ones. Western-initiated ones always covered the ‘known knowns’ and the ‘unknown knowns’, to quote Donald Rumsfeld. But it was the ‘unknown unknowns’ we should go after.

Under the leadership of Anas, with extra energy from Eric Mwamba –who had broken the Virunga story in ZAM-, Muno Gedi, Idris ‘Not everything is Shell’s fault’ Akinbajo, Tobore Ovuorie and Selay Kouassi, a total of  fifteen African investigative journalists  came together in the African Investigative Publishing Collective.

Their mission: to put African narratives on international agendas.

Their first project: seven transnational investigations, on subjects that originated on the African side.

Their problem: find western partners to buy into their ideas.

It was ZAM that was given the latter, rather unenviable, task.

Very few western publications immediately said ‘yummy’

As expected, we did not get many western publications -or often needed additional financial support- to immediately say ‘yummy’ to all the African ideas. Zack, who had proposed to investigate the failure of donor-aided malaria programmes in his country and elsewhere in Africa, was told that ‘we are not going to engage in donor bashing.’ Obtaining a letter of intent –a demand rightly enforced by our eminent international jury-  for the ‘witchcraft mafia’ story was just as difficult, let alone getting some badly needed extra funding. ‘If some people use magic to frighten politicians in Africa, how does that show anything besides that conmen exist?’ was the response of a funder’s jury that, in spite of our many explanations, clearly had no clue about the endemic organised witchcraft structures that plague good governance in many African countries (1).

The peaceful country that wasn’t

The other proposals were slightly less difficult to obtain letters of interest for, but they were no easy ride either. Who, for example, was interested in Botswana’s military millionaires? If we had evidence of western companies selling arms to dictatorships, it would be another story. But Botswana was a nice peaceful democratic country, so who cared if its leaders bought arms? Our argument that Botswana had become a securocracy -with secret service killings and all- was so far away from perceived reality that it fell on deaf ears.

When push came to shove, most difficult to counter was the argument from Western media that they couldn’t just accept the observations of African journalists. “We don’t know these people,” was the response –usually only given after a few minutes of confusion, where it was slowly sinking in on the other side that this was not a request for training or a workshop, but an actual offer of a story. (A notable exception was De Correspondent in the Netherlands, which was actually looking for different perspectives. We were very happy to reach an agreement in principle with them.)

And then we just had to do the thing.

The AIPC put a jury in place to make sure that no ‘sub-standard’ story proposals would be worked on. The jury –media trainer Lydia Namubiru (Uganda), Premium Times editor Dapo Olorunyomi (Nigeria), trainer and author Mark Hunter (Paris), ZAM editor Bart Luirink (NL) and media trainer Egidio Vaz (Mozambique) was wonderful. We received mentoring, correction, improvement and guidance on security measures.

We ended up with seven great story projects:

War on Terror (in its now final version titled The Siren Call, on how local and western military programmes in Kenya, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso are making things worse instead of better);

Failing malaria programmes (a quest for patient treatment in the DRC, Ghana, and Tanzania, with a foray into the headquarters of Bill Gates’ Global Fund in Geneva);

Good civil servants and their fight against corruption (a team found such heroes in Ghana, Uganda, and Nigeria, and compared their needs for support with what is offered in the European Commission’s ‘good governance’ programmes for these countries);

Witchcraft mafias (now called The Demonic Universe): an in-depth exploration on the paralysing effects of witchcraft power on society in Cameroon, Benin, and Nigeria;

Ruby plunder in Mozambique, in which the Mozambican side investigated the ‘killing fields’ of Montepuez; a UK colleague posed questions to the company’s headquarters in London; and the Mozambican ruling elite stonewalled from beginning to end;

Botswana’s military millionaires, in which a colleague in the UK helped unearth evidence of western diplomatic and private sector support for the military build-up in that country);

Monusco’s business of war (2), in which a DRC-Netherlands team chased a budget in vain, were met with outright refusal by the DRC UN honchos, until it found the papers simply available in a UN archive in New York.

“What do you want to inform the public about malaria for,” shouted the official

It was all very exciting. In total 24 team members took their work very seriously and went around for months digging up information. They did that on a pitifully small grant payment of Eur 500,- each. This covered expenses and also a bit of accommodation and food during the time worked.  We often felt embarrassed about it. But the Africans –and increasingly the Western side too- are quite accustomed to such arrangements.

What became clear immediately –if we didn’t know it yet- is how much more difficult it is for the African side to get any official information at all. On witchcraft, no stats or data at all exist. On malaria, our team was met with outright stonewalling, unkept appointments, threats, excuses and even imprisonment (Francis Mbala in Kinshasa spent three days in jail and lost his phone and ID card to the police: “What do you want to inform the public about  malaria for,” a health official had shouted before he called the police judiciaire.) In Ghana, the only official comment received by Zack Tawiah was “Go check the website of the Global Fund.” In Tanzania, Erick Kabendera couldn’t even get the list of institutions that received money from the Global Fund.

Undercover

Anas, in Ghana, had to go undercover as usual and also had to keep his sources secret, lest something would happen to the interviewed brave corruption-fighting civil servants. In Kenya, our correspondent had and has to remain anonymous, scared as he is (and we are all scared for him) of the police death squads that target ‘terrorism suspects.’ In Mali, only an official ZAM letter with very importantly phrased language saw David Dembele through to Timbuktu. In Nigeria, Hamza Idris had to go look for, and interview, traumatised youth with weapons in an atmosphere of distrust and violence; fortunately he is quite used to that. Chief Bisong, Alberique Houndjo and Fidelis MacLeva dug around in one of the most secretive, and murderous, sections of their society: witches may not really have ‘magic’ powers, but they do know their poisons -and ritual killings are real (at the end of MacLeva’s investigation, over a dozen people were murdered by a witchcraft cult in a town he had reported on.)

In Somalia, meanwhile, Muno Gedi travelled through territory held by criminalised soldiers –who had been found to rob and rape- as well as through Al-Shabaab dominated terrain, where a woman is judged by dress and manner, and continuously at risk of beatings. In Mozambique, Estacio Valoi was given a warning by ‘the general’ who controls the ruby fields.

And so on.

Goldmine

Then they came back. With pictures, with interviews, with own surveys even. In the data-poor environments of Cameroon, Nigeria and Somalia these had been used to support the journalists’ observations, increasing their value to more than anecdotal.

Then the editing started, the matching, comparing, exchanging of results. That was no pick-nick either. There was the lack of documents and –often- numbers, which made fact-checking difficult. Fortunately, we would often find documents in other places, in archives in other countries. The transnational approach was, in that respect, a goldmine.

Then there was the language. No full team all spoke the same language. In addition, professions, titles, descriptions of places also differ to from country to country: a district is not a region, a malaria programme chief is not the actual Director of the Malaria Programme and a municipal administrator is not a district head. Family hierarchies are country- and culture-specific, too. Who –in Europe- knows that in Mozambique you get sons whose surnames are the first names of their fathers? But we spoke to one another, we google-translated, despaired, then spoke again, then tried again. It took a while, but we figured it out.

“Some uneasy truths you’ve come up with”

Then we had to market the stories. Now that we actually had the results, would these darned ‘establishment’ international media finally take a look? And then several did. ‘Some uneasy truths you’ve come up with,’ said one editor. He mentioned how ‘we’ (meaning people in ‘the west’) like to believe in development aid, like to believe in happy peaceful African countries, like to believe that it’s our goodwill that matters to ‘make’ these countries ‘better.’ If ‘we’ could only stop our ‘bad multinationals.

The editor was interested in the ‘uneasy truths’ from a news perspective, but he, like others, also asked the other question. What then? If aid makes things worse instead of better, if peacekeeping doesn’t work, if Mozambican generals themselves practically encourage their multinational partners to abuse and oppress Mozambicans, what then is there left for international citizens of goodwill to do? Are these transnational investigations only going to satisfy those who feel comfortable with cynicism and passivity?

Solidarity

Well, no. That is actually not the idea. The oppressed Mozambicans in our ‘Ruby Plunder’ investigation have some ideas about what they need to successfully wage the struggle for a say in what happens to their gemstones. The people at increased risk of malaria as a result of failed aid programmes have clear answers to the ‘what then’ question too: why not stop supporting unaccountable elites and start supporting democratic forces in their country? Botswana’s citizens, concerned about the creeping dictatorship in their country, ask the same.

The African colleagues who, at great risk to themselves, overcame countless obstacles to bring out these stories did not do this because they want to encourage cynicism and passivity. They want to bring out the issues as they are, so that the international community can start dealing with them as they are. “For our stories to matter, they need to be published internationally,” says pioneer AIPC member and founder, Idris Akinbajo. “So that our leaders can no longer ignore them.”

That, dear reader, was the point of this project. These investigations are about justice, change and solidarity as much as they are about truth. The AIPC and ZAM ask that you read them. We will also appreciate it if you’d send us feedback.

And if you want us to continue to investigate: donate.

    (1)    See Verbraeken’s articles in De Groene Amsterdammer.

    (2)    This particular investigation is still in progress.