A Western Blind Spot?


Boko Haram’s deadly attack on a Nigerian village has received a fraction of the attention paid to the attacks in France. Caroline Bankoff acknowledges that relative disinterest among white Western audiences is surely a factor, but she notes it’s also important to realize how hard it is to report from, or even travel to, any part of Nigeria under Boko Haram control:

The insurgents have destroyed much of the area’s telecommunications infrastructure, making it almost impossible to quickly transmit the photos, videos, and first-person accounts that news-watchers have grown accustomed to. “In Nigeria, you still have to contend with actually trying to ascertain what exactly went on,” said professor and African development expert Muna Ndulo. “To some extent, that does affect the way people look at things.”

When reporting on the Baga killings, journalists [also] had to rely on sometimes unreliable information from terrorized survivors and local officials, which is why we still don’t really know how many casualties there were (estimates range from Amnesty International’s figure of 2,000 to “hundreds” to, as the New York Times cautiously reported, “dozens“). Meanwhile, the Nigerian government isn’t exactly eager to facilitate the spread of news from Baga. President Goodluck Jonathan, who is up for reelection in February, has yet to publicly mention the massacre, though he did send a condolence message to France in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings.

Ethan Zuckerman puts into context the divide in overall coverage:

A study we conducted in April 2014 suggests that media outlets publish three to ten times as many stories about France than about Nigeria. This disparity is striking as Nigeria’s population (estimated at 173 million) is almost three times the size of France’s population (66 million). There’s [also] bad news for those hoping online media will change existing patterns of media attention:

while broadcast news outlets ran 3.2 times as many stories about France as about Nigeria, online media outlets published more than ten times as many French as Nigerian stories (10.4 to be precise). We tend to read about countries like Nigeria only when they are in crisis, from terrorist attack or epidemics like Ebola. Despite the shocking magnitude of the attacks in Baga, the story can feel predictable, as the news we get from Nigeria is generally bad news. …

Attacks like the one on Paris are shocking, visible and rare, while attacks on Baga are common (though the scale of the Baga attack is unprecedented.) When we understand extremist violence as attacks on urban, developed, symbolic targets, we’re missing a much broader, messier picture, where religious extremism blends with political struggles and where the victims are usually anonymous, uncelebrated and forgotten. We miss the point that Islamic extremists are at war with other Muslims, that the source of terror is not a religion of 1.6 billion people, but a perverse, political interpretation held by a disenchanted few.

Along those lines, Hilary Matfess has a reality check for those who attempt to write off Boko Haram as just another Muslim extremist group like al Qaeda or ISIS:

[L]umping these organizations together ignores the local conditions that give rise to their specific characteristics. Attempting to understand Boko Haram from a transnational perspective yields very little; in more than a decade, the organization has only engaged in one attack on an “international target,” bombing the United Nations building in Abuja in 2011. For all of the rhetoric and symbolic overtures to internationalization that Pham and others point to, the operational characteristics of the Boko Haram insurgency are overwhelmingly focused on Nigeria.

The changes in the insurgency’s tactics in Nigeria are likely a reaction to the policies of the Nigerian government and the resources available to the insurgency than a response to global jihadist currents. It’s critical to note that Boko Haram began as a largely non-violent (though anti-system) Muslim reform movement, targeting local imams and politicians that were unsympathetic to their strict interpretation of sharia law. The movement only became radicalized following the Nigerian government’s 2009 offensive, in which an estimated 700 people, including Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf, were killed by members of the Nigerian security sector, while members of the Joint Task Force engaged in egregious human rights abuses and violations of the rule of law. While Abubaker Shekau may include in his sermons international jihadist rhetoric, much of Boko Haram’s ideology and mobilization centers on the specific abuses of the government.

Ryan Cummings suggests reporters and NGOs be more careful with their death tolls as well:

By punting uncorroborated and likely inflated casualty figures, we run the credible risk of quantifying human suffering in a manner which could discourage much-needed international awareness of the Boko Haram conflict. Death tolls which do not tally into the thousands may no longer draw headlines.  Nor will such reports likely evoke the condemnation which accompanied initial reports of Baga and its dead. Instead, Nigerians will continue to die by the scores awaiting help from a world which will only care when they are dying by the thousands.

(Photo: A man holds a placard that reads “Je suis Charlie, n’oublions pas les victimes de Boko Haram” (“I am Charlie, let’s not forget the victims of Boko Haram”) as people gather outside the French embassy in Abidjan, on January 11, 2015, in tribute to the 17 victims of the three-day killing spree in Paris last week. By Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)