Boko Haram: Why did Nigeria ignore Boko Haram attacks? *
– 15 January 2015.
A week after the terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe, the world is slowly starting to realize that there were other acts of terrorism happening that we should have paid attention to: the slaughtering of hundreds of innocent people in Baga, Nigeria and other suicide bomb attacks by Boko Haram in the same week. Though there is no basis to say these killings were worse than those in France – every life that’s being taken is an act to condemn – we cannot deny that on a scale the attack on Baga, and Boko Haram attacks in general, are of more impact to society: more people lost their loved ones and yet another Nigerian town was captured. Yet, Paris became the center of grieve, mourning and activism. World leaders marched alongside millions of Europeans sympathizing with the victims of the attack on Charlie Hébdo and the hostage situations that followed. Millions of tweets and Facebook updates were sent out to the world under #jesuischarlie. Newspapers and broadcasters analyzed the terrorist attack and wrote about (un)limited freedom of speech.
A week later the same newspapers wonder why the world ignored what happened in Nigeria. The media reflects on their own inability to report on a terrorist attack that has been labelled by some as ‘the most severe since 9/11’. But critics who are blaming the west for ignoring this news based on the fact that African lives would be of less importance to the world are only partially right. Yes, I believe that indeed people didn’t hear of Baga because of the fact that Nigeria is in Africa and most victims were themselves Muslim. The people of Baga didn’t have a voice, like the people of Charlie did, whatever one might think of that voice. They didn’t have a voice in this world, but sadly so, they also didn’t have a voice in Nigeria. The media are now picking up on the fact that Nigerians also didn’t really care about the attack in Baga, and that Nigerian media didn’t report on the issue, but I believe it’s more complicated than that. To understand Nigerians’ ‘indifference’, one has to see beyond the current events.
No space for Baga
It’s true that Nigerian media didn’t report on Baga as much as they should have and people here were not informed about what had happened in their own country days before the Paris attacks. I have to admit that even I, being in Nigeria and following social media trends and news for my research, did not find out about Baga until some days after it had happened. After many of my Facebook friends in The Netherlands had become Charlie. Now we shouldn’t be too surprised about that. The northeast of Nigeria has become a dangerous region to travel to. A large part of the northeast is no longer under control of the Nigerian government, but rather in the hands of Boko Haram terrorists. Journalists and NGO’s thus have very limited access to the area, which makes reporting difficult. And one can wonder whether all the information that was available has been published. In light of the current presidential campaigns for the elections next month, information on the worst attack by Boko Haram ever could damage the already fragile image of Jonathan, who’s contesting for another four years in power. Fact is that much information wasn’t (made) available and so what happened in Baga remained and still remain vague.
It’s not only that little information was (made) available that caused Nigerians not to pick up on the news. The current public discussion is focused on something more urgent to the people here: the elections. Because where the northeast is directly affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, the rest of the country suffers under a regime that doesn’t provide them with basic necessities like water, electricity and jobs. In as much as people are concerned about their brothers and sisters the north of the country, their own struggle is more urgent and not less important to them. The current political campaigns for the upcoming elections in February therefore dominate the newspapers and other media, as well as day-to-day discourse. The presidential elections take up most discussion online and offline: discussions about who should be the next president – Jonathan or Buhari – and why, many of them drenched in a thick layer of humour and satire. One can’t really say that the campaigns or the interpersonal discussions are about political content. The presidential candidates do not come with any political agenda for the coming four years, but rather throw with abusive irrelevant one liners (‘Buhari can’t remember his phone number’), which is reflected in many of the online discussions among Nigerian citizens on the social media. In that politically saturated environment, there was not much space for Baga.
But having said that, it’s not only that little information was (made) available to Nigerians by local media that caused Nigerians not to pick up on the news. In my research I look at how Nigerians inform themselves about insecurity in the country, whether it is Boko Haram, political tension, failing policies, ebola, etc. Observations in the field and first results from a survey on information flows in Enugu (southeast Nigeria), show that most youths inform themselves on national issues through social media (Facebook, Twitter) and international broadcasters (CNN, Al Jazeera, etc.) as they claim to trust the international media more than local media. Both of these ‘were Charlie’ at around the time information of the attack in Baga started to come up. There was no space for Baga on these platforms. Knowing that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the hashtag #jesuischarlie was equally picked up by Nigerians, rather than a hashtag that covered the news about the atrocities in Baga, as is the case now all over the social media, with hashtags like #IamBaga, #TogetherBaga and #Baga. The ‘indifference’ of Nigerians concerning Baga can then be understood as an outcome of where they get their information from rather than of what they inform themselves on.
Following international flows
This pattern of Nigerians following international flows of information rather than local flows is something I’ve observed over the last year during several moments of ‘crisis’. When the school girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok last year April it was a topic hardly discussed by Nigerians, on the streets and online. But as soon as CNN picked up on the small scale activism and started reporting on it, Nigerians woke up to the news and started following it. The hashtag #bringbackourgirls went viral and so did the activism, for as long as the international media reported on it. Interest in Nigeria died off soon after international attention faded. During the short lived ebola outbreak in Nigeria, people informed themselves through the major international broadcasters, rather than through local initiatives (although it has to be said that these local initiatives clearly had an impact in eradicating the disease from the country so quickly). A final example is the ALS bucket challenge that went viral on the internet a few months ago. The online action to donate money for ALS research included people emptying a bucket of ice water on themselves. Nigerians, in particular popular musical artists, took up the challenge and soon the hashtag #ALSbucketchallenge also went viral here. With lots of complaints afterwards. Because why would anyone in Nigeria waste water, when most people in the country don’t have (regular) access to it?
So what we see happening now is nothing new. The world is wondering why they themselves haven’t picked up on what happened in Baga and is surprised to see that Nigerians were also indifferent about it. But a major reason for this is that Nigerians follow the world they’re part of through international news. Information about crisis in the country reaches citizens through CNN, BBC or the social media. On the internet we’re all netizens, we are all part of the same global trends. Charlie was a global trend. Now the world is reflecting on their ignorance regarding the Boko Haram attacks of last week, Nigerians also wake up. #Baga is now all over the net and it has become to lunch hour conversation, also in Nigeria.
A final aspect in understanding the complexity of Nigeria’s ‘indifference’ towards what has happened last week in the North is the fact that to a large extent Boko Haram’s violence has become ‘normalized’ in society. There is hardly a day that people in Nigeria don’t hear about killing sprees, bomb attacks and suicide bombers of Boko Haram killing innocent citizens. Where Paris was a shocking event in Europe and the western world, terrorist attacks have become almost daily events in Nigeria. The parts of the country that are not directly affected by Boko Haram, including the southeast where I am currently doing my fieldwork, face problems that are much more urgent to them than the threat of Boko Haram which is something of hundreds of kilometers away. This doesn’t mean that Nigerians don’t care. Most people I speak with here in Enugu are incredibly sad about the events and express words of compassion and prayer when speaking about lives lost during any attack of Boko Haram. And incredibly angry that the government doesn’t have grip on the situation. But Boko Haram is not the only problem in Nigeria and definitely not the most harmful in the southeast. Issues of corruption, insecurity and lack of infrastructure are the hardships of the everyday here and people are on their own in pursuing ‘the Nigerian dream’. ‘Indifference’ of Nigerians towards the Baga attacks should therefore also be seen in the light of a complexity of insecurities/uncertainties in the country that go beyond Boko Haram.
In our research project, Connecting in Times of Duress, we try to understand what it does to people when hardship and crisis have become part of the everyday. In some regions in West and Central Africa, we argue that hardship and crisis have become so much part of the everyday experience of people that (un)consciously they shape their lives and make choices that are, to a large extent, based on their interaction with hardship. How do they communicate, connect and cope under this duress? In the case of Nigeria, I hypothesize, people respond to duress in what seems to be indifference, but what is actually much more complex as I’ve tried to touch upon in the above, and of which the expression can be definitely found in other forms of communication, like religion and humour/satire.
*Title based on the The Guardian article of 12 January 2014: Why did the world ignore Boko Haram’s Baga attacks?
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