Two wars are going on consecutively in Ukraine. The first war is the one raging on the ground involving troops, missiles, blood and agony. It is as real as hell. But that war cannot and does not make sense of itself. It depends on how it is framed. That makes all those involved in the framing game in any war more important than military commanders. What they do is called Virtuous War. We encounter warriors of Virtuous War in reporting non-existent mass graves or cases of hundreds dead even when some of the supposedly dead victims try to get up in the middle of the filming process. That process of making sense of the war on the ground is the politics of meaning. It is no less vicious than the first layer of the war except that here, it is a war of narratives in which the media, theories, concepts and storylines replaces troops, missiles and physical violence.
The war of narratives operate along the logic of what discourse analysts call inventing the enemy before producing the type of missiles that can most satisfactorily decimate him or her or them. In this context, images, graphics, metaphors and theories of Vladimir Putin as a despot, an autocrat, an inhumane actor who has no regard for international law or human rights perform no less a killing function as missiles because such images or theories legitimizes removing him from the equation, however that is done. If removing him from the equation can come from him becoming so unpopular as to lose power, great.
The world hasn’t had the opportunity to experience as much of the attempts by Russia to also deploy such images, graphics or theories of the Western alliance. It cannot be that the Russians are too innocent as not to have time for the politics of meaning. It must be the language barrier for the English speaking audience. Russia’s little access there has now been blocked with the removal of RT, the Russian English Language global channel, from DSTV. That would have compensated a lot even as it is still not as global as say the BBC, CNN and the leading news agencies upon which the television and newspapers rely a lot although Hilary Clinton once lamented how RT was overtaking CNN, BBC and other such metropolitan channels.
Russia has not enjoyed a global representation of its action in Ukraine. Paradoxically, it is some Western scholars who have provided much of the images, theories and analogies helpful to the Russian cause in the war of narratives so far. Most notable so far too are Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer, the author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Stephen Walt in Harvard has yet to add his voice to the notice of this reporter. If he had done so, it would have meant that the Realists are one and together in their collective opposition to war, historically. They opposed the Vietnam War. A few days to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, they issued a statement against it. It is a major paradox in international relations that the Realists who spend a lot of time on deterrence, game theory and sundry strategies of war are also the most consistent opponents of actual wars. Senator Bernie Sander is not listed in that group because he spoke more as a Socialist who also oppose wars but from a different sensibility.
When one considers all these, one can see that a continent such as Africa is just not ready for the 21st century. It is not a factor in military terms. It is even less a factor in structural power, having to import even toothpick. It is no less zero in terms of institutional power, being in control of no global institution whatsoever, including the African Union. And it is nowhere in discursive power, having no newspaper, radio or television with transnational coverage.
In 2021, African writers won almost all the major prizes in Literature, including the Nobel Prize. Literature is a major component of discursive power. No one can effectively measure how much discursive power Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for instance, has amassed for Africa. But while a novel such as Things Fall Apart suggests that the subaltern can, indeed, speak, the question has since been changed from whether the subaltern can speak to whether there are anyone out there interested in listening to the subaltern speaking.
Africa must be thoroughly powerless in whatever sense of the word power that even when it can speak, no one bothers listening to it. So, if Ukraine were to be in Africa, less than one-tenth of it would be reported. Much of whatever would be reported would be someone else’s interpretation of it, perhaps some expert who doesn’t even know where the continent is on the world map. Is it not instructive that Realists in the United States who never fail to put on record their opposition to war, historically, were nowhere to be found when Libya was crushed in a NATO bombing spree!
It is bad enough that nobody out there listens to the subaltern but it must be worse that no African has yet put on the table the possibility of an African equivalent of Aljazeera? Should the war in Ukraine draws attention to the discursive power dimension of the ‘African condition’, that would have been one paradoxically positive outcome even as the actual war is rendering hundreds of thousands refugees, hundreds dead and all the other evidences that makes any war animalistic. Yet, the world will always lose the opportunity to avoid wars because the false logic of winners and losers is still too fascinating to resist.