Last Wednesday, Boko Haram insurgents attacked the Nigerian town of Baga, where they had captured a key military base two weeks earlier. Hundreds were left dead in the streets, primarily women, children, and the elderly, making this their bloodiest attack in recent history.
Boko Haram is an Islamic extremist group that has been staging violent attacks in Nigeria since 2009. Roughly translated, their name is defined as “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language, with the term boko (“fake”) having come to signify Western education (BBC News). The extremists believe that the Koran forbids Muslims from taking any part in Western society, whether political, social, or cultural. Even though a Muslim president runs the country, they regard him and his government as “non-believers,” since elections are also considered haram. Their aim is to create a “truly” Islamic state.
Since the death of their founder, Boko Haram has been led by Abubakar Shekau and was branded a terrorist organization by the United States in 2010. Since then, Boko Haram has carried out attacks in northern and central Nigeria, bombing churches, schools, military barracks, and even police and UN headquarters in the nation’s capital. In May 2013, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three most heavily impacted states, Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa.
The following year, the group made waves when they kidnapped 276 girls from a boarding school in Chibok, spawning the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Although the international social media outrage has long since faded, demonstrators in the Nigerian capital of Abuja continue to protest the kidnapping. The US intervention effort that the hashtag was supposed to inspire never materialized, even though Boko Haram has become more powerful than ever before, killing a total of 2,000 people in 2014 alone. In the months since the Chibok schoolgirl kidnapping in April, over 400 people have been taken hostage in at least five separate abductions.
The most recent fighting in Baga was already raging when news broke of the attacks on the highly controversial satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo in Paris, France. Artists all over the world reacted immediately, publishing their own political cartoons in solidarity with the French artists and coining the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie. Vigils were held in more than 30 countries worldwide, and last Sunday over 3.7 million people gathered to march in anti-terrorist rallies in France, including dozens of world leaders.
The enormous upwelling of international support for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting raised a very important question for some: Why have there been so many vigils and marches for the 12 dead in Paris, yet none for the hundreds killed in Nigeria? Where are the dozens of world leaders coming to show their support in Abuja?
Social media sources are quick to jump to their own conclusions about why the world so immediately demonstrated its solidarity with a Western European nation while largely “ignoring” the attacks in Nigeria. They ask, are we so desensitized to violence on the African continent that such a massacre is unsurprising?
The answer isn’t no.
But at the same time, it’s important not to let ourselves ignore some fundamental differences between the attacks for the sake of making a point.
French President Francois Hollande responded immediately to the Paris shooting, providing national and international news media with the details of the attack. He spoke to his country only hours after the attack, defending freedom of expression, promising security, and calling for national unity.
President Jonathan, on the other hand, has still made no statement regarding the Baga massacre. His government has severely downplayed the number of casualties, releasing a statement saying that “the number… has so far not exceeded about 150,” when some estimates have put it closer to 2,000.
News of the attack trickled out slowly in the first few days, as journalists encountered refugees fleeing the town. Having just escaped a traumatic attack, they could hardly be called reliable witnesses. Even the local politicians had no idea how many had been killed. Nigerian news media have been focused on the upcoming presidential elections, and no official investigation has been made into the attack on Baga.
While it is certainly deplorable that the international community has not shown nearly the support for the victims in Nigeria as they did for those in France, it’s also important to recognize how difficult the Nigerian government has made it for the news to reach the rest of the world.
France’s prompt action when addressing the Charlie Hebdo shooting, both in sharing the news and apprehending the gunmen, unsurprisingly inspired the rest of the world to stand with this country who was already standing firm. The Nigerian response, on the other hand, was designed to hide the attack from the world’s eyes rather than garner support to stand up to the terrorist force.
What still deserves our condemnation is that there has been no great international movement in support of Nigeria in the days since the news finally managed to break.
A recent Pew survey on American news interest indicated that Americans pay far more attention to attacks that take place in other Western countries, and this case proves to be no exception. While the hashtag #IAmBaga has come into use in the manner of #JeSuisCharlie, it has only been tweeted a couple thousand times, while the latter has reached far into the millions.
Neither attack may be condoned. Both resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians. And while we find it despicable that the world has taken too little notice of the actions of Boko Haram, it is important also to acknowledge Nigeria’s own role in suppressing the news. We cannot allow ourselves to idealize one country as solely the victims of Western prejudice, because to do so trivializes the adversity faced by the Nigerian people, both from Boko Haram and from their own government.