To the annals of such botched public-relations jobs as the introduction of the new Coke and the marketing of Milli Vanilli, one may now have to add Michael Jackson in Africa.
The pop superstar on Wednesday cut short a five-nation tour of the continent--skipping Kenya and Egypt--to head home after stopovers in Gabon, Ivory Coast and Tanzania generated entirely the wrong kind of excitement. His fans were attacked by police in Ivory Coast, one of his “nervous twitches” was interpreted as an offensive slur, and he was accused of an official snub that apparently never happened.
Jackson leaves behind him some confusion about why he came to Africa in the first place. African press reports from the day of his arrival in Gabon on Feb. 11 said he had come to shoot scenes for a forthcoming “Return to Africa” video, although he would do no singing on location.
Jackson’s publicists, however, say there is no such video. The singer was in Africa strictly as a tourist, they say, and any filming was in the nature of home movies.
“He wanted to visit Africa,” said Lee Solters, Jackson’s public relations man in Los Angeles, who added that the tour had been originally scheduled for last year but was postponed because of the Persian Gulf War. “He documented the visit in film just like any other tourist. (The film is) not for commercial use, not for a feature, not for a video.”
As for reports that the tour was “organized” by Ali Bongo, the son of Gabon President Omar Bongo who was traveling with Jackson’s 40-member retinue, Solters said, “I’ve never heard the name.”
Jackson’s visit began to turn sour on its third day, when he arrived in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, to a tumultuous public welcome.
Police set on the crowd with batons and tear gas as Jackson arrived at his hotel. The attack was apparently unprovoked, but may have been a spillover from widespread unrest that has afflicted the city for a week, as riot police clashed with students protesting the government’s refusal to prosecute army officers responsible for a violent attack on university dormitories in 1990.
Meanwhile, the press disclosed that on debarking from his private plane in Abidjan, the star had rushed into an air-conditioned limousine holding his hand to his nose.
“The American sacred beast took it upon himself to remind us we are underdeveloped, impure,” complained the evening newspaper Ivoir’soir. “Our air is polluted, infested with germs. And it’s not this mutant genius, this voluntary mutant, this recreated being, bleached, neither white nor black, neither man nor woman, so delicate, so frail, who will inhale it.”
A Jackson spokesman, Bob Jones, who was traveling with the singer, denied that the gesture was meant to be offensive. He called it a “nervous twitch” and added: “Under no circumstances would we be here if we thought your country smelled. You are our roots. He loves Africa, and believes the air here is as fresh as anywhere else.”
When he arrived Monday in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, there was another publicity glitch. The BBC reported on its “Network Africa” radio program, beamed around the continent, that in his haste to get into a waiting car, Jackson ran right past Tanzanian Foreign Minister Ahmed Diria, who was forced to trot after the car to introduce himself.
But nothing like that happened, according to other witnesses. He was in fact greeted by Diria and two other Cabinet ministers and presented flowers by Diria’s two daughters, according to Kenneth Scott, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy, which had a staff member on hand. Diria then escorted Jackson to his car.
“He did hold his nose,” Scott said, “but his manager had already explained that by saying it was a nervous habit.”
On Tuesday, Jackson met privately with Tanzanian President Ali Hassan Mwinyi and was quoted as telling him that he wants to help save Africa’s elephants by establishing an environmental fund. Most African countries have proven so unable to protect their herds from ivory-hunting poachers that they have pressed for a ban on the international ivory trade.