An African Vantage on a European War: The Continent

An Interview with Lydia Namubiru, editor in chief at The Continent

This Feature appears in Vol. 75, No. 2, "War in Ukraine: The World Responds" (Spring/Summer 2023).

The Continent is a digital-only pan-African newspaper covering regional and global events from an African perspective. The Journal spoke with Lydia Namubiru, the incoming editor in chief of The Continent, which is currently based in South Africa. The discussion covers the nature of the newspaper’s reporting, the difficulty of articulating the African perspective on the invasion of Ukraine, and the war’s downstream effects on the people and politics of the continent.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): The Continent utilizes an innovative, digital-only format. Who, then, is the readership? Who is the audience?

Lydia Namubiru (LN): The Continent is a fully-mobile publication for people to receive and read it on mobile, but it is not a mobile site: it’s an actual newspaper that you receive on your phone. It’s designed to be readable on a small device, which is how most Africans access the Internet. For the vast majority of Africans, their primary computer—and perhaps now for most people in the world—is their phone. For a lot of African readers, this might also be their only computer.

The publication itself is many things. I think the thing that’s most outstanding about it is that it’s designed to be distributed via customer messaging apps like WhatsApp. To add a distribution model is primarily to focus on people who want to receive the paper by WhatsApp, Signal, or Telegram, some of the most popular electronic communication apps on the African continent, where more people have a WhatsApp account than have an email address. You know, on the continent, we have some governments that still use Yahoo. Some government officials might give you a Yahoo email, so unlike in the West, in the U.S. or UK, email is not a big thing. If we were a mobile site, it would not be as effective a way to get an audience to read it, because I think that for many Africans readers, the Internet is their personal messaging apps and then social media sites. One of the things is a distribution model, and then the fact that we design a newspaper for the mobile phone. When I say newspaper, I mean a newspaper for hard copy, where there’s a front page of stories with pictures laid out and captions. The experience this time is digital.

The other interesting thing about us is how we came to be. In April 2020, we were witnessing large amounts of misinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic, the so-called “infodemic.” Again, for African communities, because WhatsApp and social media are primarily their experience of the Internet, that world of misinformation was being shared over WhatsApp. The argument came to be, “Well, of course this makes a lot of sense that people are trying to share information about COVID-19, because there was no information,” but there was also a very real threat. With my colleagues who founded the paper (I joined a few months after), we thought, let’s produce a newspaper for these platforms, so that people have something to share, to fill this need for information with credible news and creative information. That’s another peculiarity about how we came to be, which was seeing how people needed very context-specific information and then producing a newspaper for that context.

The third way is in how what we’ve come to be seen as and therefore what we aspire to be: an African voice in global media, an African newspaper that is Africa-centric, Africa-facing, covering Africa when we cover the world. We cover the world for an African audience, first and foremost, and that’s because we’ve come to be seen as that. This also has come out with our audience: people who are smart, educated, middle class—whatever that means in an African context—people who have access to global media and a general disillusion with how things are covered or not covered in global media. In that sense, The Continent came to be a response to the conversation that had been going on about how local media very poorly covers Africa. It’s a couple companies unconcerned with if Africans even want to read those stories, and so it’s indifferent in terms of how stories are told and which pictures it uses. It does not imagine an African seeing that picture or think about how it frames Africa as this exotic place and simplifies them. We can to be that tool, a national publication that covers Africa and treats it with seriousness. It is everything that we want to see in covering events from the outside. That’s generally The Continent. It’s produced by a very small team of about nine people with a very large network of three dozen contributors from across Africa.

JIA: Is the readership cultivated by word of mouth? What about international readership?

LN: About two-thirds of the people who read the paper are located in Africa. It’s in two tiers: the people who directly subscribe to us, and that’s who receives the paper every weekend, and then there’s also primary subscribers who have shared it. We do a reader survey every year, and from that we know that about 100,000 people read the paper. That’s a combination of direct subscribers and the extent to which those direct subscribers tell us that they share the paper out. They tend to be the urban educated, which is not unusual for a newspaper because it’s written in English. We do try to publish in languages like Swahili and French, but not a lot, not as much as would like to, given the size of the team. Primarily, we are an English-language newspaper. You do have to have been educated, and generally not only in school, to get the storytelling in English.

JIA: What is the process of developing stories and providing investigative background, with such a small team in a very big place? Do the stories mostly come down from editors who would like to write about an issue or trend, or is it mostly bottom-up from journalists pitching the editorial team?

LN: I think it goes in both directions. We have a steady flow of pitches on pieces from around the continent. Reporters contribute stories about the places they leave and what’s going on, what are the big issues there. But also, I think part of the reason we chose to go back to the newspaper format is that, as professionals, we think editorial curation and editorial judgment is really important and something that’s been a bit lost. Partly, this is why people are overwhelmed by how much information they receive and must process and contextualize and compare. About half the paper is always the same: we say that these are the big stories, so therefore we will cover them this week and assign someone in our network where we need to do some reporting or if there is no reporting that goes further than what’s already been reported. The other half is the stories that people pitch to us.

JIA: In February 2022, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, it received a great deal of media coverage, especially in the West, given the proximity to the rest of Europe. From the editorial side, how were you first thinking about this, if you’re approaching it from the African perspective? Was the initial idea that it is far away but maybe there will be impacts down the road, or is the idea that it should still be covered because although the impacts are far away, it’s already happening?

LN: Right from the get-go, it was a difficult topic for us. How do you cover this for an African audience? It’s already being covered around the world in a lot of other media. But how do you make this relevant to an African audience? I think we didn’t jump on to it because, at the same time, Ukraine is exotic to a lot of Africans, including us, so even that is a learning. To African journalists, this came out of the West. I suppose Western newsrooms had been seeing the build-up, but it wasn’t so obvious to us. It was this explosive thing. For us as African journalists, there was an initial hesitation around this. Let me just understand: what’s going on? Who is who?

And then, of course, what was nevertheless very obvious to us is that it was not just a war of armies but a narrative one. At the time, it felt a lot like what we had seen at the beginning of the pandemic: so much information coming at people, all of it conflicting. This is not something that you could find out with local knowledge either, in the way that you could about COVID-19 and the pandemic, when you could find African experts to explain what’s going on and to what extent which countries should be the most concerned on the African continent. Again, this is a bit exotic to Africa. You didn’t have the same kind of local knowledge. And then there’s this narrative we’re going off of, with so much propaganda. I think initially it was for us to give ourselves time to understand what’s going on and what can we say that isn’t repeating the narrative from Western journalists of this side or the other side, right and wrong, who is good. It wasn’t necessarily immediately obvious to an African without the same interest in Eastern Europe. Part of this history was, “Let me first educate myself about what was going on.” As a newspaper that comes out once a week, part of trying to break the news, if we’re going to propose anything, is that we need to first of all understand what’s going on. Then also, how does this impact Africans? How is this relevant to our audience?

About three weeks or a month into the conflict, we did actually cover it on our front page. I think the thing that struck us about that time is how much everybody on every side wanted African countries to take a side immediately— is there was a very obvious right and wrong here. But then, how much more difficult would it be for African countries to pick a side because of an ideology or shared history of long-standing conflict than it might have been for an observer sitting in the West? For Africans, it was always going to be a very serious matter. If you choose one side, will you still have access to the grain you are so dependent on, from this part of the world, by the one of these countries? If you take position, what about fertilizers? These are some very basic bread-and-butter issues, and we could sense that a lot of African leaders were quite reluctant to place their feet on one side or the other.

I think, on some level, we also took our cue from the leadership, especially at the diplomatic level, because they would know geopolitics and how it impacts us a lot better. Then there is also the very complex history between Africa and foreign powers: colonization, the history with the West, and the Soviet Union’s history with Africa, with liberation struggles. Some African countries, especially in southern Africa, like Tanzania, attempted to implement socialism earlier in their independence journeys.

While it was difficult to decide how to cover it, we did cover it, and when there is something really big in the news, we are going to find a way to say something about it. However, it took a bit of learning for our Sunday edition. Then, we had to determine what’s the way to tell Africa something that they are not already hearing in global media, which is therefore not just who is saying what from the conflicting parties. As much as we want to be our readers’ only primary source of information, we know they have other sources as well. And we waited to see how Africans perceived this, what’s their level of awareness, what sort of errors, misinformation, propaganda are they picking up that we might introduce some perspective on.

It’s not clear what the right way to cover this is. The distance doesn’t help: the fact that Ukraine is not particularly visible or very well known to Africans prior, and then the serious risk around grain and fertilizers. But then also, I think, stepping into a conflict where absolutely everybody on every side is a lot more powerful than you are, and anyone, even the weaker side, would have local power to punish you for your position. Still, to put this on The Continent in front of our readers, you have to be careful. It’s a minefield.

JIA: Did the need to be deliberate and thoughtful around that initial coverage force the team to rethink or even reconceptualize some of the existing coverage around Russia or the activities of the Wagner Group in Mali or Central African Republic? There was a narrative, at least in the West, that Russia has been making a play, or trying to establish, more of a presence on the continent. In February or March, into the summer of 2022, was there revision of existing coverage or was it judged to be of appropriate amount and quality?

LN: We already had substance on what Wagner was doing in Central African Republic, but I think that wasn’t the priority at the beginning. In the earlier work of reporters and activists in Central African Republic and a bit in Mali, there was not a lot of information about those countries themselves, just because of how hard it is to have original local reporting from those countries. But now, I think, journalism’s role in Ukraine and how journalists have gone about it has changed: for instance, reporting on people in jails, and those people turn out to be African—Africans imprisoned in Russia. Those people then turn up dead, and the lack of privacy around that; we don’t have their bodies. I think that showed Wagner in a way that made it impossible not to speak about it. But its tactics, and its relationship to the Russian state and beyond, were always hard to know, as sources always remained anonymous and that sort of thing. Eventually, we could talk about it with actual information, from the families who have been impacted by its approach and its services to the Russian state. Now we could talk about it in very real terms. I think that’s how we changed that.

After a while, it was quite clear that African audiences nevertheless still seemed quite sympathetic to Russia, and I think what that did for us was to motivate us to go back and dig again at this so-called history of liberation by Russia. Really, it is that history between Moscow and the liberation movements in Africa, even if that Moscow is not the current Moscow and the current Russia. It was the Moscow of the Soviet Union and not necessarily the Russia of Putin. But we asked ourselves how much of this is passed-down history versus how much is the current Russia supporting it? How much had readers held on to the past vision of Russia which therefore became the lens through which they see this conflict, regardless of what actual events in the conflict are today? This motivated us to reflect upon if there was a way for us to honor this history that acknowledges much of it as fact without necessarily using it as apology for more atrocities. It’s been a journey.

But also, in the end, the closest-to-home impact anywhere has been on cost of living, and we see our coverage of that in the Ukraine conflict. Now, we are certainly moving into cost-of-living protests and civil unrest across the continent. We see that through our ongoing coverage of the war in Ukraine, and we hope to cover the fallout without necessarily being in one corner or the other.

JIA: How do those downstream effects influence coverage, whether it’s grain or fertilizer or some of these other commodities that have been impacted? Specifically, how you think about coverage of the cost-of-living crisis without having to relitigate why this is happening or whose fault it is every single time? From the editor’s perspective, what is the correct amount of context, and how does the newsroom negotiate that process?

LN: When discussing the cost of living, we don’t talk about how we got here. We focus on the ways in which our African leaders are trying to resolve the issue, whether that is getting fertilizers from elsewhere or improving local growth of grain. Upstream, it very much ends up being that same geopolitics: African leaders visit Russia, meeting Russian leaders, while Russian leaders are also visiting Africa at an unprecedented level. So in some ways, because it is obviously the genesis of this crisis, the responses to it recognize that, and therefore we don’t necessarily need to take a position because we can just cover events of Russian leaders. We cover what Russian leaders and African leaders are doing together, how often they’re meeting, and what they’re talking about.

Take a recent example of Malawi. You know there is Russian fertilizer diplomacy in Malawi. If you’re reading the paper from the outside, you would be wondering about this connection. But to many African communities, there is also poor governance, climate change, an economy failing to recover from COVID-19. In a way, we are recognizing that this is a big part of it, but definitely not the end-all of it. This is why we don’t wait to cover it, because we know that it’s part of it, and we will see most political or diplomatic officials recognize that. And then we cover those.

JIA: You’ve mentioned reader feedback or sentiment. How does that come about: is it mostly through direct feedback, with readers reaching out on WhatsApp or email, or is it more ear-to-the-ground on this particular issue?

LN: We are young, and we are a good publication, so we are still something of a darling. We don’t get a lot of negative responses. In terms of understanding our own direct communication with readers, it isn’t the best place to look, because people view us as a darling and are still feeling grateful for this new, free, high-quality newspaper. We do have a direct line with our readers—they have a phone number at which to text us—but we don’t get a lot of negative feedback from them, especially on this particular issue. It is a matter of us living here: we are in the same online ecosystem with the people. We have contributors across the continent, and we meet occasionally with African editors at events and conferences. That’s how we know: ear-to-the-ground more than anything, the ground being the online conversations that are happening. Hopefully, as we go older, people love this will be more critical and more pointed in their comments on our coverage when they don’t like it. But that’s not really the case right now.

JIA: In conversation with other editors across Africa, are those relationships primarily with national newspapers in Johannesburg or Nairobi or Lagos, or is the dialogue more with external English-language coverage from the BBC or the New York Times or even an outlet like Al Jazeera?

LN: It’s mostly national newspapers. Again, this is because we don’t see ourselves as part of the foreign correspondent ecosystem, even if you’re in Zimbabwe filing your stories to an editor in in Uganda. We don’t see that as foreign correspondence, because we are covering this for the audience of Africans who just want to understand what’s going on around them in similar countries. We are in conversation mostly with good national editors and national reporters in the countries.

JIA: How do those interactions with national editors and reporters help shape the coverage, either by identifying gaps or by providing new ideas or opportunities for further investigation or coverage? 

LN: I wouldn’t want to overstate the extent to which we are in conversation with others: really, this is just at professional events, conferences such as the African Media Festival and, before that, in December when I was at a small meeting with other editors. So, mostly it’s conversation that happens in the same media space: we’re not talking to each other every other week, but we are reading each other for sure.

For some publications, especially if they’re smaller, we have a phone number. They will send us their coverage, maybe so that we will feature it and plug it to our readers in our Brief section. In terms of how we cover, for us it can be affirming to be different. If you look towards the BBC or The Guardian, you see that they are doing it differently. You might then have some insecurities about going a different road if you considered The Guardian or the BBC as your peer. But having peers who are also making really careful and slow decisions about how to cover what they see as major events, I think, can be affirming to our approach. It’s alongside peers who are as sure of their positions as any other international publication.

Taking a step back, The Continent releases issues directly to readers. There is no separation from the content and the editing, as well as the context, which is much more intimate. I think it has been affirming of our own editorial approach. On this particular topic, I think those national editors are talking the same, except the tabloid ones—the example here are the ones who are treating it as if it were the Third World War that is going to defeat the West for us. Instead, we are attempting to be as substantive as possible and as locally relevant as possible.

JIA: For many of these stories, perhaps institutionally, The Continent doesn’t take an editorial position. At the same time, the newspaper maintains a very particular tone that is mostly unified. How do you think about maintaining that balance between not taking an editorial position and maintaining that particular perspective when soliciting, editing, and producing an issue?

LN: I would hope that we do, in fact, have a tone, and that tone is Africa first and Africa-centric. In all things, for us, it is Africa’s interest in the world. We feel comfortable doing this because Africa is underprivileged compared to other places, and we’re shooting power on a lot of tables, so we do hope that our tone is that we are about Africa: its voice in the world and the stories of its people in the world—amongst themselves. I wouldn’t say that we have no editorial position on most things that we cover. We have a very real external position on climate change, and that is what is going on Africa, what Africa needs in terms of support, and what Africans are demanding from the rest of the world. In the context of this crisis, it’s ongoing and likely isn’t going to change the suffering from climate change.

We don’t, perhaps, have an editorial position on Russia and Ukraine, because it’s hard to pin down what that would be. There’s no consensus in Africa, even though it seems to people from the outside that Africa is definitely for Russia. I think if you’re looking at South Africa—and even in South Africa you’d have to be looking at the ruling party today, the African National Congress or ANC[i]—it is still very much an evolving situation. For very identifiable external issues that we document, we ask, What’s Africa’s interest in this? What kind of resolution is in Africa’s best interest? The end of the war is in Africa’s best interest, but I don’t think there’s any consensus on how the war should end, in order for that to be in the best interest of Africa. That is why we don’t necessarily have an editorial position on this particular issue.

JIA: Over the last year and a few months, how was coverage on the war shifted, either the direct consequences of the war or some of these indirect, downstream effects such as cost of living?

LN: As time goes on, we have more information to work with, and I think we have become a lot more confident in setting the agenda, because there’s more information to back those statements. There’s more evidence to back a position. I do think, as the conflict goes on, and as documentation of what’s actually happening in the conflict improves, that we will have more information to drag coverage of the conflict away from the initial narrative war to events that have actually happened and evidence. Having more information means we have more to talk about to reward actual evidence, as opposed to these countries saying things.

I think we will eventually have to turn around on this as we have on climate change. As you have more evidence and its impacts to go on, as well as solutions that are tried and fail, it will give us more information to work with, and therefore more confidence in, what we can or cannot state about the war and Russia-African relations. But I also think that the war has made Ukraine and other remote places less introverted in terms of reaching out to Africans and explaining themselves, making connections between what they are going through and what Africans have come through and are still going through.

It has opened up more information about the situation. Maybe we will have a position, because I think if you read our paper now, it is best for us to not take sides, especially on what South Africa is doing here with this. With more information, we will be more definitive about what we think is going on.

JIA: Any concluding thoughts?

LN: I do understand people’s frustrations with not taking sides or speaking more about justice, but it’s complicated. Also, I think part of that frustration is coming from a bit of a paternalistic view of Africa, which is that we exist to affirm the interests of countries that support us, and we have no inherent interests of our own. But we do have inherent interests, which shape our own positions. It’s just not accurate to claim otherwise.

Now, African countries, as much as any other country, all have complexities that shape what positions each takes. That’s also true of African communities: all of the complexities in terms of how you make decisions apply here. It’s quite possible that people don’t quite understand the particular complexities that go into our positioning.

[i] Two months after this interview was conducted, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa led a delegation of three other African heads of state to visit both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2023. Ramaphosa in particular was criticized within South Africa for eschewing domestic political issues in order to lead this unsuccessful attempt at brokering a peace deal. See, for example, Crystal Orderson, “Africa’s Russia, Ukraine peace mission criticised in South Africa,” Al Jazeera, June 22, 2023, ego-trip-african-peace-mission-criticised-in-south-africa.