“Timbuktu,” the Oscar-nominated film about the 2012-13 takeover of the Malian city by Islamic fundamentalists, will be shown April 4 at the Walker Art Center. Director Abderrahmane Sissako, whom the Walker calls “Africa’s visual poet,” will participate in a post-screening dialogue.

Moderator Charles Sugnet, a University of Minnesota associate professor of English, and African cinema expert, has numerous questions for Sissako, among them: “Can a film be too beautiful to fulfill its purpose?”

It’s an apt ask, considering the film’s stunning cinematography. But the ugly extremism is not eclipsed, and may even be highlighted against the film’s vivid colors and characters. Its “purpose,” Sugnet suggests, was Sissako’s desire to rapidly reflect the effect of extremism. It was “almost an emergency project,” Sugnet said.

It is not known whether the well-received movie will change public perceptions about U.S. policy toward Africa, the subject of this month’s Minnesota International Center’s Great Decisions dialogue. For many, the continent’s conflicts and cultures are like the metaphorical Timbuktu — remote. “Timbuktu” has had limited impact in Africa, not because it isn’t a compelling representation of what societies face under fundamentalism, but because “Africans are the last to see African films,” said Sugnet.

But other avenues such as news reports and social media have had an immediate effect on perceptions of extremism’s impact.

Some stories even have local ties, like the recent New York Times story, “From Minneapolis to ISIS: An American’s Path to Jihad,” which chronicled Abdi Nur’s “chilling progression from the basketball courts of south Minneapolis to the battlefields of Syria.”

More globally, social media has played a role in the rise of and response to Boko Haram, the nihilist Nigerian group that infamously kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls nearly a year ago. This atrocity pierced public consciousness worldwide and spurred First Lady Michelle Obama and scores more to tweet #bringbackourgirls. But Boko Haram didn’t; just this week the Washington Post reported that the terrorists took 506 young women and children to use as soldiers, wives, bargaining chips and even suicide bombers.

A less noted social media dynamic occurred in January, according to J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. Around that time, Boko Haram’s social media sophistication spiked. The reason? The influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), to which Boko Haram pledged allegiance this month.

Boko Haram’s brutality (and a “criminally incompetent” Nigerian military, according to Pham) has created such security issues that the conflict has crossed into neighboring nations Chad and Cameroon. In Nigeria, it was a factor in postponing the Feb. 14 presidential election, now set for Saturday. Nigerians will choose between Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s feckless president, and Muhammadu Buhari, whose coup against a democratically elected government in 1983 made him Nigeria’s military ruler for two years.

Not exactly Jeffersonian democracy. As for our elected leaders, Pham said U.S. policymakers were slow to recognize the threat posed by Boko Haram. No longer — and for good reason, said Pham. As yet it is not a direct threat to the U.S. homeland or U.S. interests or persons; “nevertheless, given its geographic location — the soft underbelly of Europe — the importance of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and the largest economy and the engine of a large part of the continent,” he says, so that “all of our other efforts, whether it be on the security side, the economic development side, the trade and investment side, are endangered.”

Other dangers lurk, according to a report released Thursday, “States of Fragility 2015.” The analysis, from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, used metrics for levels of violence, justice, institutions, economic foundations and resilience. Of the nine nations considered most fragile, seven are in Africa.

This alone should make Africa more of a foreign policy focus. But intermittent interest, and action, seems too dependent on gripping images of groups like Boko Haram, wars between and within nations, and other scourges like Ebola, famine or man-made and natural catastrophes. The complex continent is also rich in economic and diplomatic potential, however — a fact that U.S. allies and adversaries alike have not ignored.

“Our attention to Africa is episodically driven by the news story of the day — schoolgirls, pirates, whatever — rather than strategic [reasons], so as a country, we tend to miss the bigger picture,” Pham said. “Granted, when you have 54 very diverse countries, there isn’t one Africa. But Africa as a whole, if you look at the broad trends, is really the continent of tomorrow.”


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.


The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.