“Terrorists killed 2,000 people in Nigeria. So why didn’t the world care?”
“Boko Haram may have just murdered 2,000 people — so why aren’t we talking about it?”
In the past few days or so, I’ve seen a deluge of headlines very similar to the above. As someone who is both a journalist and a person with direct roots on the African continent, I understand the sentiment behind the headlines. Western media have a long and torrid history of treating Africa as a diseased, dirty and violent place in stories about the continent. Let’s be honest: Sometimes Western journalists manage the spectacular feat of erasing African people from stories about Africa. Remember when “60 Minutes” went to Liberia to report on Ebola efforts and failed to interview a single Liberian on camera? Its report was prime example of what journalist Howard French calls “Africa without Africans”.
So this is not to absolve any journalist in the West reporting or writing on the continent of their duty to tell balanced and accurate stories. That said, in the wake of the Baga massacre, my current anger isn’t toward ABC or CNN. My frustration is directed squarely at Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. We should all be infinitely more incensed by the Nigerian leadership’s lack of political will to come up with a comprehensive solution to Boko Haram’s murderous assault on Nigerian citizens than about whether a major U.S network has temporarily helicoptered its crew into the country.
The Western media’s hand-wringing over their role in this particular atrocity is, for one, selective. (The Central African Republic has been sliding into chaos, yet there are few stories about that.) Furthermore, these simplistic headlines risk eliding over the very real power that Nigeria should have in dealing with Boko Haram.
Nigeria is neither a small nor weak nation. The oil-producing country has the largest population in Africa — which means that at 173 million people, about one in every five Africans is a Nigerian. As of last year, Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, with a GDP of $510 billion. Lagos is home to tech entrepreneurs and innovators. (This is not to say that the wealth is distributed equally by any stretch of the imagination, especially between the north and the south.) On the security side, $5.8 billion goes to national security. Nigeria’s army was a key player in critical peacekeeping operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s.
Remember #BringBackOurGirls after more than 200 girls were kidnapped from northeastern Nigeria? The hashtag began as a powerful, organic expression of masses of Nigerians infuriated by the kidnappings, and it arguably prevented President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration from glossing over the kidnapping. #BringBackOurGirls helped pave the way for the world to be talking about Baga today. For some to imply that the world doesn’t care about Baga’s devastation because a globally viral hashtag like #JeSuisCharlie hasn’t emerged ignores the hard work of Nigerians on the ground who have been pressuring the government to act for months.
The hard truth is that #BringBackOurGirls did not compel the government to return the girls any more than #JeSuisCharlie has compelled French society to protect all forms of speech. Instead, in the span of the now 277 days since the girls were abducted, the Nigerian government managed to falsely claim the kidnapped girls were released, arrest protest leaders and simply refuse help to find the girls. Jonathan managed to accuse the angry families and their supporters of engaging in “psychological terrorism” after they canceled a public relations meeting with him. In a rather fantastic flourish of incompetence, the military in October claimed to have negotiated a cease-fire with Boko Haram and the imminent release of the girls; Boko Haram’s leader instead released a video calling the claims a “lie” and said that the girls had already been married off. In December, reports indicated that Nigeria’s government canceled the U.S. training of a battalion to combat Boko Haram, after the United States declined to give the corruption-stricken military (that has had trouble avoiding human rights abuses) attack helicopters. Simply put, the Nigerian government and leadership squandered the many positive opportunities that could have arisen after #BringBackOurGirls.
Now Jonathan, despite publicly condemning the attacks in Paris, waited about a week to speak publicly about the Baga massacre. In fact, several days after the massacre, he was busy speaking at an election campaign rally (Jonathan never mentioned the words Boko Haram) and uploading photos of his niece’s wedding on Facebook. And you want me to be angry at Western media? It is Nigeria’s government that ultimately is responsible for the life and security of all Nigerian citizens. And in this basic duty, it has failed. It is Nigeria’s military that is responsible for protecting the territorial integrity of the country — despite its massive budget, it has failed.
In Africa’s largest democracy, Nigerians have an opportunity next month that is more powerful than any social media hashtag or fleeting international attention — they have the power of the vote. Will they hold their leaders accountable for their failures on Boko Haram through the ballot box? We will have to wait and see.
Karen Attiah is the Washington Post’s Opinions Deputy Digital Editor. She previously reported for Associated Press while based in Curaçao.