by Samantha Asumadu Follow @honestlyAbroad
I’ve been following the murderous exploits of Boko Haram alongside Somalia’s Al-Shabaab for a number of years. I once tried to weigh them up, comparing and contrasting these two entities causing havoc throughout the regions in which they operate. Initially, bear with me here, I could comprehend the root causes of why Al-Shabaab began even having been in Kampala in 2010 when they bombed it killing 74 people (I covered it for CNN). Though completely distorted now, Al-Shabaab was forged from the ruins of the Islamic Courts Union, a structure which had installed a relative amount of peace and stability in the country through their governance and by resisting practices by Western countries such as the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters.
However, I could fathom no rhyme or reason for Boko Haram, at least in their present day incarnation. What has now become Boko Haram was created in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, a radical cleric based in Borno State. Under British colonial rule Northern Nigeria resisted Western education and the influence of missionaries which was rife in the Southern part of the country. This trend continued through the years so when North and South were merged to create Nigeria at independence, they told two very different stories. In the early 1970s a radical preacher known as Maitatsine gained a large following in the North, by being opposed to anything Western. He also spoke out against the avariciousness of the ruling political class, something that resonated with the poor. He and his followers began carrying out organised attacks and riots which ultimately ended in his death.
The Boko Haram movement holds many similarities to this; operating in the same region with a dislike of all things Western but with actions rooted in bigger issues. Initially the group was not as brutal as it is now. However, after the death of its founder, which the group branded an extra-judicial killing by the Government, Boko Haram’s strategy changed; they went from gunmen on motorbikes shooting their critics to mass murderers.
Source: Mic News
Boko Haram seem to hold no value for life, specifically Nigerian lives, whether they be Christian or Muslim. And I don’t buy the argument about the sentiments expressed in the disputed translation of their name, ‘Western religion/non-Islamic education is a sin’. What it is, is a convenient rallying cry for them as they kidnap and massacre school kids. They may want to impose a ‘caliphate’ and say they have succeeded in some parts of the north-east and indeed now control land about the size of Belgium, but religious ideology did not forge them, rather they were forged by a corrupt and ineffective Nigerian government. Wars (and terrorist campaigns) are fought over land and power. Religion is a useful excuse and a terrifying spectre for those who report on it and us as apathetic bystanders, but it doesn’t hold the complexity of why people murder their fellow countrymen with impunity. In 2013 Wole Soyinka, in an article for the Daily Beast, said that there was a culture of impunity surrounding Boko Haram which was allowed to breed by the political elite, who had needed votes from the north. Last year in a speech at The Royal African society he also spoke about how Boko Haram ‘is the product of decades old political tactics’.
Though ostensibly Boko Haram are at war with Christians and the government, what is not clear in the narrative that the mainstream media feeds us (when they actually report on their many atrocities) is that Boko Haram targets and kills just as many Muslims as they do Christians, as many boys and men as they do girls and women. It’s impossible to predict their next move because they move with mayhem. Much like the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) (supposedly Christians) in Uganda, who I wrote about here, they have some fantastical religious reasons, which as any discerning consumer of news you should try to parse. Like the LRA, their concern has been to create and to sustain their own fiefdom — think Mafia. That fiefdom is a wide expanse of land; we’ll call it northern Nigeria. The oil rich states in the south thought they could be contained. That became demonstrably untrue when they started bombing the capital.
Boko Haram have bombed churches, markets, massacred whole villages, kidnapped girls, killed a school full of boys and yesterday strapped a bomb onto a 10 year old girl, sent her to a busy market where it was remotely detonated and killed 20 people. All under the eye of the media. A couple of the journalists I knew when I lived in Uganda moved to Nigeria, but in the four years intervening they’ve all left. Nigeria has an ongoing set of humanitarian crises; yes, I mean oil, the distribution of its profits or the lack thereof, the kidnappings that occur because of the latter, the callous, corrupt and incompetent government and Boko Haram, who last year Soyinka told the BBC were ‘now a major threat.’
The amount of stories you could cover in Nigeria as a journalist are unlimited and that fact is bittersweet, because there’s lots of positives to cover, as novelist Teju Cole has espoused, but there’s also the aforementioned crises. So why the hell then are we getting barely any coverage of Boko Haram’s atrocities and an accompanying global outcry?
There are an estimated 2000 people dead, bodies, mainly women, children and the elderly strewn on the ground. Baga, a town near Nigeria’s border with Chad and the surrounding villages were targeted with a coordinated attack that began on the 3rd January. Amnesty says it is the ‘deadliest massacre’ in the groups history and the biggest massacre in recent times if the body count is true. Somebody once said to me, one death matters, you can tell a story but hundreds of thousands dead, they become less real, we become desensitised. Well sure, hardly a day goes by when an either natural or more likely unnatural tragedy happens, but why do we find so little meaning, or seemingly interest in the deaths of these particular people? Boko Haram are a terror group right? We in the West are still waging a War on Terror right? We must be, as we’ve used that as justification to ‘Precision’ bomb (note: there is no precision in bombing) places like Pakistan and Yemen to the point that half the population have developed PTSD. We’ve even set up army barracks in places such as Central African Republic and Ethiopia to stem the ‘jihadist’ threat supposedly.
Why does this terror group not deserve attention? Not matter? Well they do to me, and not just because they are from the same West African region that I come from. Every Christmas for the last 3 years, I have waited to hear of what atrocity Boko Haram have committed, which church they have bombed, which school they have ransacked. I was relieved not to hear anything on Christmas Day 2014. But then again they also like to attack in January, and June, actually every and any month, they deal in mayhem, remember. They took a day off this Christmas; maybe they didn’t get enough attention last year. So they delayed their massacre, presumably for most effect and media coverage. They saved their most horrific attack to date for the first week in 2015; they didn’t contend with other murderous fanatics using the guise of religion to kill 12 people in Paris. The coverage of the deaths of those 12 people has been disproportionate compared to those 2000 Nigerians who were living and breathing only a few days ago. Those 2000 people held no power in life, while even in death the victims of the Paris massacre do.
After seeing this tweet following a string of tweets about Paris by editor of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger (one day after he had pledged 100 thousand pounds to keep satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in production) I was compelled to write this piece. It is his prerogative as a human and an editor to prioritise, but it’s my prerogative to think it lousy. However as Africa is A Country’s Twitter feed noted, this is a wider trend.
Even the Nigerian press are barely covering this massacre. In a series of tweets which I’ll sum up, Nigerian author El Nathan John wrote that ‘international media is not the problem in the north-east, why, he asks, should others in the West cry more than the bereaved? It’s cheap to say the world is not talking about our dead, what are the Nigerian president and his communications people doing?’ Sure, in one way John is right; Nigerians have to lead the charge and they are, but their President is not. He took the time to make a statement about the Paris massacre of 12 people but so far nowt of the massacre on his home turf. His ministers are similarly oblivious. Why you may ask? Well, what is his impetus? There’s probably been less in the press about the murders in his own country for the whole of the last five years than the Parisian cartoonists in five days. Say what you like about Uganda’s President Museveni, though he may have done little in 2005, in 2015 if two thousand people had been murdered in the north of Uganda, he’d have made a statement by now and you’d be hearing the whir of helicopters and rumble of trucks filled with soldiers approaching Gulu.
Back to Rusbridger. Let’s be generous and judge it as bad phrasing on his part, and not indicative of how the world’s media treats the deaths of Black Africans. It was us who weren’t watching whilst 13,000 Nigerians were killed in the course of 5 years and over 1.6 million people displaced. Maybe those numbers will mean more to all of us one day.
‘Nigerian casualties are now running more than double those in Afghanistan, and substantially higher than in Iraq just a few years ago. An estimated 3,120 civilian and military casualties were recorded in Afghanistan last year. In Iraq, 4,207 fatalities were estimated in 2011 in the wake of the surge. The worsening conflict in northern Nigeria already has suffered more casualties this year than the world’s most publicized contemporary wars.’ Nathaniel Allen, Peter M. Lewis and Hilary Matfess, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies – Washington Post
I’ve outlined what I think we can do as individuals to try and help this situation in this string of tweets.
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