On August 1, around lunchtime, a UK resident who felt under-briefed on the coup in Niger would have found the homepage of our national broadcaster’s website unilluminating. “Hiccupping giant panda caught on camera in China” had made the editorial cut, though. So had “Boris Johnson’s swimming pool plans threatened by newts”: one of three stories that had to do in some way with housing.
I cite the BBC here because it is uniquely famous, not because it is uniquely culpable. (Its francophone Afrique website is a treasure.) Only two UK-based print outlets, including the one you are reading, have given the Niger story its due. The US, with five times the population of the UK, has given it about the same level of coverage.
Let me anticipate the line of defence — “our audience isn’t interested” — and agree with it. No one has mentioned Niger to me in conversation since the coup began, and my peers are a passport-using, news-addicted crowd, in a city where the African influence is large and old.
At the same time, I can read and hear all I could ever want about: the ordeal of renting a flat, dating and its discontents, the effect of Elon Musk on Twitter’s user-friendliness. But in letting them clutter its view of the world outside, the intelligentsia suggests it has turned a bit small-time and a bit wet.
Now, true, middle age is speaking. I am at that point of life where everything palls in comparison to a generation earlier. The music is goofier and the footballers more robotic. But — and readers under 30 will just have to take my word for this — you once needed to try very hard not to end up in an argument about the Israeli-Palestinian question. The standard of the discourse was mortifyingly low-grade, but it was at least outward-facing.
What happened? A sequence of unsuccessful wars — Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya — drained the west of the moral confidence to even discuss much poorer and weaker countries. (See how tongue-tied some rich-world greens are about “Global South” carbon emitters.) At the same time, a generation that missed out on the asset boom had to narrow its mental horizons to the domestic and the personal.
But if the New Parochialism is understandable, that doesn’t make it affordable. The west is up against one and a half superpowers that view each region of the world as a potential front against US-led liberalism. To push back, it won’t be enough to know about China and Russia themselves (in many ways the most stable pieces of the picture). There are uncountable other moving parts that will impinge on our lives. At some point, a generation is going to have to put away, if not childish, then young adult things.
The Sahel, that luckless band of Earth stretching from Senegal to Eritrea, is nearer to Europe than America is. Maybe its slow impalement by the pincers of jihadism and secular banditry will turn out to be of no external consequence whatever. But — and this might be my west African infancy talking — it seems a subject deserving of more than eerie indifference, for our sake, not just Niger’s. It might be almost as important as the rental market in Victoria Park.
I used to deplore a certain kind of intrepid westerner in the tropics. I had known enough of them in journalism to sense they were simulating a lifestyle — large properties, live-in servants — that was no longer within their financial reach back home. Others, whether in the aid sector or on a year out, dabbled with “nonaligned” politics in a credulous, Graham Greene sort of way.
Well, I take at least some of it back. Give me that voyeurism if the alternative is ever-decreasing circles of introspection. Give me Greene over another millennial novel in which someone mopes into a cortado for 200 pages. (Some call it “sad girl lit”, but there are more than sufficient male exponents of this inessential craft.)
It isn’t a crime that I had to root around a bit to apprise myself of events in Niger. The crime is that I would have paid no social price for my ignorance.