Professor Keith Somerville, University of Kent

For most people around the world and even for many living in Africa, knowledge and understanding of events and forms of government in the continent as a whole and in specific states is gained not from personal experience but from the media, particularly major newspapers, radio and TV broadcasters, and internet-based journalism.  Those with a global reach and appeal often have the most influence and are important opinion formers and agenda setters.   Their classification of the politics of particular states and of sub-Sharan Africa as a whole has the ability to create frames through which people and even governments view countries and regions, and through that influence policy on aid, international security and trade. Countries can be represented in ways that can be hugely simplistic and overwhelmingly negative, and have a profound effect on how they are treated in terms of aid, investment and other international instruments of policy.


Before going into detail about how reporting and analysis of the West African state of Guinea-Bissau has exemplified this framing and given a particular image of failure and criminality to that country, it is worth briefly explaining what I mean by framing and representation.  They are prisms through which the media projects and audiences view world events.  A news story or piece of longer analysis is like a picture frame with some characters, objects, landscapes or other images included in the frame and represented in certain ways with greater or lesser prominence. Many things that may be important can be excluded from the framing of the story, according to the criteria used to select content or perspective.  Those actors or things that are included can be represented as active or passive, core or peripheral, positive or negative, aggressor or victim, witting or unwitting –  this will affect how the story is told and with what effect on the recipient’s understanding.  Often, for perfectly understandable reasons of webspace, column inches or broadcast time, stories are short, simplified and limited in their ability to provide context. This can have the effect of distorting reality through the prism of selection of what is in the frame.

Framing also involves the basic of selection of which stories are reported by the media and which are not – which countries are regularly in the news and others which rarely figure, but when they do are presented in simplified ways, telling sensational stories that do not represent the reality of that story or the country it is portraying but give racy thumbnail sketches concentrating on events or trends that will grab attention, often with little or no context to enable people to make sense of it all.  This leads to the establishment and periodic reinforcement of negative and misleading images of states, particularly those only reported when there is something appalling or novel that will give a country it’s 15 minutes of infamy (for a more detailed explication of framing see  Keith Somerville,   Framing Conflict and War: The Cold War and After, March 2016,; and, Asya A. Besova and Skye Chance Cooley, Foreign News and Public Opinion: Atribute Agenda-Setting Theory Revisited, Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies,  vol 30 (2), 2009,  pp.219-242).

The importance of framing and representation in reporting of states in Africa was brought home forcefully when I started reading the new book on Guinea-Bissau edited by Toby Green and the late Patrick Chabal (Patrick Chabal and Toby Green (eds), Guinea-Bissau. Micro-State to ‘Narco-State’,  London: Hurst and Co, 2016). his is a much-needed, detailed and minutely-researched collection of chapters – topped and tailed with a broader, context-setting and very well-argued introduction and conclusion by Green.  The book is going to be welcomed by those with a specific interest in Guinea-Bissau, in Lusophone Africa but also for those interested in the historical development and political/.economic dynamics of what are termed micro and fragile states. 

The volume provides a timely antidote to the potentially poisonous and certainly misleading writing off of Guinea-Bissau as a failed state that has become a narco-state, with the implication that it exists only in some sort of criminal underworld among states and that it can only be understood or treated as of any importance through the prism of its role as a drugs transit point between South American cartels and markets in Europe and North America.  This representation of a whole state and its people is part of one of the new frames used to portray certain states – the international criminal frame, which runs alongside war on terror, humanitarian crisis, basket case and general failed state frames used to categorise Africa (Keith Somerville, Framing news in Africa – how journalists approach stories and reinforce stereotypes, African Arguments, 26 February 2013; These frames are becoming dominant now that the Africa Rising frame has come apart at the seams (Rich Rowden, Africa’s Boom is Over, Foreign Policy, 31 December 2015,

Without going into endless examples of how Guinea-Bissau is presented in the world media, just looking at a detailed piece in the Guardian earlier this year is instructive. The newspaper’s newspaper reporting of Africa has generally been more thoughtful and grounded in fact and informed analysis than much media coverage of the continent.  On 7 January, the paper reported that despite its surface appearance as a potential tourist paradise (another of the misleading frames used about Africa – with beaches and safaris presented as the only reason to take note of these supposedly remote places) the country was fighting to end its position as the world’s first  narco-state (Antony Loewenstein, Guinea-Bissau struggles to end its role in global drugs trade,  A picture is framed of a poor, violence-wracked state with empty beaches and guesthouses, where the only trade that is of importance is the drugs trade.  The article reminded readers that the Guinea-Bissau had been regarded for more than a decade as the world’s first narco-state, a new category in the panoply of failed state framings of Africa.  Back in 2005, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reporting on the steady rise in the quantity and value of drugs being shipped through West Africa, said that Guinea-Bissau was becoming a focal point for much of that traffic, with evidence that government and senior army and naval officers were deeply involved. The crux of the article is that attempts are being made by some inside Guinea-Bissau with crucial external support to fight the trade but  are not making progress. There is little historical, social or political depth to the article.  It is perhaps more thoughtful than many you will find in the media on Guinea-Bissau but it seems to present a stark choice for Guinea-Bissau between drugs or tourists.  The trade in narcotics being organized in the country by political and military elites is also treated as something that has caused conflict and poverty rather than as a symptom of it, with no historical context or real explanation of why it has come about, leaving an impression that Guinea-Bissau has some endemic probl3em of criminality.


The Green and Chabal volume, turns that simplistic view on its head, looking at deep-seated, historical problems of political legitimacy, of economic subordination within a global trading system, and of the use of force and informal networks of power by competing political and military elites..  The contributors don’t pull their punches about the recurrent political and economic crises, the development of the drug trade as a means of providing rents for members of the political and military elite when other income sources declined or dried up, or the weakness of the state institutions and the problem for successive governments of the porosity of its borders (Green, Introduction, p. 4).  The modern failures to establish legitimacy and accountability and the use of ethnicity as a weapon in political struggles are clearly located by the authors in history – pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial.

Green, whose contributions stand out as the most lucid and well-argued, agrees that Guinea Bissau meets the criteria of the Western-imposed narratives of failed state but points out the failings of the narco-state approach, with its implicit belief “that successful change can only come from outside the country””, going on to put the convincing case that “the realities are more complex “ (p.5)  and relate to internal factors, indicating the need for indigenous solutions and the building of a nation from within and below, rather from above and outside.  He points out that despite the role of elites in the drug trade, the recent history of coups and political violence “Day-to-day life in the country remains peaceful, in contrast to the stereotyped image” (p.7).


What makes the book particularly enlightening, from the point of view of someone like me who is interested in Guinea-Bissau as part of wider study of the development of African states, is the way that the volume as a whole and Green’s chapters, in particular, place the history and narrative of Guinea-Bissau as a state in the context, but very nuanced context it should be emphasised, of the patron/client, extraversion and gatekeeper approaches to sub-Saharan African political and economic development as represented in the works of Chabal and Daloz, Mbembe, Bayart and Cooper[1].  Power is very personalized and dependent on transactions between political patrons and their clients within the context of unequal trade between African economies and the outside world.  These patterns developed before colonialism, were entrenched and deepened during colonial rule and have remained in place because of the interest of gatekeeping elites in benefiting from them to garner resources to run patronage networks and accumulate power and wealth through being the conduits for income from trade, aid and foreign finance – and, when income from trade in peanuts and then cashews fell in Guinea-Bissau, from becoming the links in the global narcotics trade, a new form of local gatekeeping.

The detail given in each of the chapters makes clear that this overall analysis and the concepts deployed are used as analytical tools in the context of Guinea-Bissau and its own history rather than trying to cram it into some overall and hugely simplified, one size fits all African frame.  Guinea-Bissau’s problems are common to much of Africa, with its unequal role in the global economy and the prevalence of rent-seeking and other gatekeeping behaviours by elites, but the manner in which these have developed are individual to each country.  And this is why the book is a very good antidote to the simplified frames used to portray African states and Africa as a whole.  The specific history and the internal factors that have created conflict, instability and the weakness of the state are set out in detail – the history, the demographic, regional, economic and ethnic factors.  But they are given real depth and context. Ceesay in his analysis of the narco-state discourse makes very clear that Guinea-Bissau is not a criminal state, in the sense of criminality being the intrinsic nature of the people or the country and that the role in the drugs trade does not explain the political and societal challenges facing the country but is a product of them.

Similarly, ethnicity (another common and misleading frame used by the media to describe the root of African conflict or political instability) is presented in Kohl’s chapter as something manipulated by political and military leaders for their own ends rather than as a causal factor in itself.  Talking of the overthrow of Luis Cabral by Nino Vieira in 1980, Kohl says there was no evidence to support claims of ethnic conflict but rather of economic and political factors (p. 166), and that over time socioeconomic conditions are paramount in explaining political conflict, ethnic competition being a largely manufactured variable produced by these conditions or overtly employed by ambitious politicians and soldiers.


The main conclusion of the work and one that is again very applicable to combating the simplistic images of Africa as a whole, is that despite the problems of unequal trade, export dependence and the proliferation of patronage networks that sustain political elites against the backdrop of the evident weakness of state institutions and accountability of elites, is that Guinea-Bissau “is still a country that ‘works’” (p. 234) in the way that despite the shared and diverse problems of rent-seeking, of lack of independent institutions, the unaccountability of elites and the extraversion of African politics and economics, the states of Africa still work and labels like narco-state, failed state, basket-case and others so glibly used are a hindrance rather than a help in understanding the dynamics of development and change across the states of Africa.

Professor Keith Somerville teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and edits the Africa – News and Analysis website ( His latest book, Africa’s Long Road. The many histories of a continent, was published in December 2016.


[1] Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument, Oxford: James Currey, 1999; Achille Mbembe.  On the postcolony, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, Jean-Francois Bayart, ‘Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion’, African Affairs,  99, 395, 2000;  Frederick Cooper,  Africa Since 1940. The Past of the Present, Cambridge University Press, 2002.