Letter from Africa: Focusing on conflict

African Union peacekeepers take cover, 15 May 2007, as two Somali photographers point their cameras towards the site where the troops were detonating seized ammunition in Mogadishu, Somalia Image copyright AFP

In our series of letters from African journalists, filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers the role of cameras in conflict.

There was an interesting moment at the recent Cannes Film Festival when the Mauritania-born film director Abderrahmane Sissako was answering questions after screening his film Timbuktu - The Silence of Fear.

The film is a fictional retelling of those uncertain months when jihadis took over this ancient town in Mali and imposed all manner of rules including banning music and football, and introduced lashings and stoning.

Sissako, one of Africa's most consistent story tellers, broke down in tears at his press conference and declared that he was crying for all those Malians who had experienced what his film portrayed.

"The real courage," he said, "was to be found among those who lived this on a daily basis.

"Timbuktu was indeed eventually freed but the true liberation was for those people who in their heads sang these songs and this music that had been banned."

The dramatists among us turn the camera on such recent African events to give us moments of reflection.

But in our 24-hour news culture the camera is everywhere, first in the hands of the news reporters - and in the hands of the jihadists too.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Abderrahmane Sissako is a renowned film director and his latest film offers a warning about extremism
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The militants who occupied Timbuktu in 2012 imposed strict Islamic law which banned music

At the turn of the century the late Osama bin Laden kept handing over footage to news channels, which in turn were caught up in a perverse rivalry about who among them would receive the next rant from the man who lived in the mountains.

A decade and a half later we have YouTube, and fighters from Syria to Somalia have taken to the camera like a soldier takes to the gun. The combatants on our own continent have begun presenting us with footage with increasing regularity.

'Nollywood villain'

In this past month the mounting body count of the dead and missing in north-east Nigeria has brought two things into sharp focus - the leadership of President Goodluck Jonathan and the face of Abubakar Shekau, the Islamist militant behind the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok.

The Boko Haram leader has taken to appearing in front of the camera with a theatrical zeal, saying: "I abducted your girls; I will sell them in the market."

Since 14 April 2014 we have been forced to hang on his every word in new videos, in the hope that the pain of Chibok's parents will soon be lessened.

From Shekau's rants, some people might conclude that this was an actor in a Nollywood film playing the archetypal villain, that at any moment he would tell the camera something outrageous - for instance that he had already sold his own mother, aunts and sisters, and that these schoolgirls would go the same way.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau frequently releases videos to the media

Negotiations of a sort may be under way and the Nigerian military, perhaps stung by persistent rumours of their conspicuous absence from distant Nigerian villages under attack, now say they know where the girls are and are reviewing the situation.

It is one of the ironies of our age that in our world overloaded with cameras and recording equipment, where the earth's firmament is populated by satellites - we cannot find a plane or several hundred missing children who are not out at sea but on dry land within heart-breaking distance of their pining parents.

When the dust settles on such events, the artists, novelists and filmakers can give us something the TV bulletins cannot - the opportunity to reflect and to peel sense from the propaganda of the combatants.

Who are these people and what do they want? How do the villagers relate to them? Is it fear or faith that's awoken? Where do the imams stand?

Can the tension be defused in a more traditional African way with the elders and not the soldiers?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption More than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped from the boarding school in Chibok
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption More than a month on and their families are still hoping for their release

But the artists and their cameras have the luxury of time, which those in the frontline of this new struggle do not.

And while answers to these huge issues have proved elusive, the search to find them cannot stop.

Whether or not Nigeria's militants give us another video, the seismic clash of ideas in Nigeria's north as represented by Boko Haram's existence is with us and presents a very real and present danger which is spreading fear.

Such fear exists in other African cities - Nairobi, Mogadishu and lately Djibouti.

The silence of fear is no more preferable than the fear of the silence that greeted Chibok's parents when their daughters first disappeared all those weeks ago - before celebrities held aloft the hashtag signs.

Still, in this age of immediate footage and digital imagery, the most poignant pictures remain those of mothers and fathers holding up ageing portraits of teenage daughters they may never see again.

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