International reaction to the attacks on the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and the Hebrew shop in Paris, in which seventeen people lost their lives, is not comparable to the attention for the Boko Haram massacre of an estimated two thousand people in Baga, North Eastern, Nigeria, earlier that same week. While international leaders and media fixated on the killings in Paris, sending messages of support and sympathy to the French people and authorities, the massacre in Nigeria was largely ignored even though the devastation was on a much broader scale and intensity. Asides from the killings, thousands of people were displaced and there was immense destruction of property. More carnage occurred a few days later when three young female suicide bombers were used to carry out attacks in crowded markets. Yet, there was a dearth of press coverage on the Nigerian tragical events. How this disproportion can be explained?
The attacks on Charlie generated such an outpouring of support from international leaders and press because they could relate with it. When gunmen forced their way into the premises of “Charlie Hebdo” and killed people in vengeance for the publication of cartoons mocking their religion, it was considered an attack on press freedom as well on the Western democratic value of liberty of speech. This was an issue that Western governments, the international press, as well as democratic societies, matured and are fledging, could identify with and, ergo, mobilize to defend. Even the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, denounced the attacks in France while disregarding the carnage in his own country.
Moreover, the attacks in France could be interpreted as a rude wake-up call to the domestic impacts of combating radical Islamism abroad. As France tightened security and launched a pursuit of the perpetrators, other Western countries also revised their security measures and took preventative actions against terrorist activities in their own countries. The attacks on France were not considered to be a purely French affair but a Western one and indeed a global one. Forty world leaders from Europe including Nigeria’s neighbors, Mali, Niger and Benin, who did not exhibit the same level of concern regarding Boko Haram’s activities, participated in the unity march in Paris.
On the whole, Nigeria’s neighbors have regarded the armed insurgency and violence in the North East of Nigeria as a domestic affair arising from political disputes. Besides, Nigeria, with its established reputation of Big Brother in regional peacekeeping operations, should be able to quell the domestic insurgency on its own. Neighboring countries have been more concerned with stemming the tide of refugees. However, recent attacks targeting Cameroon and the site of the Multinational Joint Task Force that was supposed to be composed of Nigerian and regional armed forces in Doro Gowon, a town near Baga, appeared to have shaken regional countries from their apathy. They are now more interested in preventing an expansion of Boko Haram’s range in their territories.
The geostrategic significance of the location of the attacks cannot be ignored. The attacks in France took place in Paris, the political and economic capital of the country and one of the most visited cities in the world. The perpetrators of the attacks were French citizens with passports allowing them preferential access to a good number of Western and non-Western countries, if they were not on a no-fly list. Given the inherent borderless privileges conferred by a Western passport, terrorism in one Western country enhances the vulnerability of similar countries and societies. Jihadism in France therefore constitutes a more critical threat to Western countries than armed insurgency in Nigeria where the immediate mobility of Boko Haram’s members is limited to Nigeria and surrounding countries.
Boko Haram’s theatre of operations is North East Nigeria, a region long ignored and neglected by successive Nigerian governments. Not being an oil-producing area or a major commercial and industrial center, the region holds little interest for a political system highly dependent on oil revenues. Since the colonial era, governments have relied on local religious and traditional leaders to keep the people in check. This strategy has proven deficient in dealing with the current Islamic insurgency which is also a rebellion against established local authorities. It has equally hampered attempts to control the situation as there has previously been little need for the armed forces to familiarize themselves with the terrain.
Apparent international apathy to the recent attack in Nigeria cannot be dissociated from the lethargy of the Nigerian government on the issue. Less than two hours after the attacks on “Charlie Hebdo”, the French president, François Hollande, was already addressing the press near the premises of the magazine. His handling of the crisis boosted his own popularity, which had previously been on the decline according to the opinion polls. Conversely, it took the Nigerian government three weeks and the spotlight cast on it from an international social media campaign to publicly comment on the sect’s abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok, a town in North Eastern Nigeria, in 2014. The Nigerian government, through its engagement with the services of the American public relations firm Levick, revealed that it was more preoccupied with its international image rather than the domestic situation.
It would be presumptuous to expect the international community to continue mobilizing for an issue that has been consistently minimized domestically, especially if it is not affected directly.
Furthermore, while opinion polls might be used to gauge public assessment of government performance in Nigeria, they do not necessarily determine electoral outcomes for an incumbent president. It is therefore not surprising that the country’s leadership has remained silent on the Baga massacre as well as on several equally brutal attacks carried by Boko Haram militias.
Rather, the government and the domestic press have chosen to focus on the forthcoming February 14 general elections, considered to be the first real electoral contest since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1999, as well as on economic pressures resulting from declining oil revenues. Notwithstanding the thousands of lives that have been lost to and affected by Boko Haram’s attacks, the president visited the region only last week. It was his first visit in almost two years and it was campaign related.
Asides from the lack of will, there is also a demonstrated lack of capacity to respond effectively to the insurgency. In spite of the high budgetary allocations to defense over the past decade, the military remains gravely underequipped and lacks morale as well as an adequate knowledge of the region. It would be preposterous to expect a deeper involvement of the international community when there is so little to show for increased domestic expenditure on defense.
The difference in international solidarity with regards to Charlie attacks and Baga massacre should not, however, take away from the fact that they are comparable at least in one aspect. These attacks are the result of radical Islamism which is fuelled by a combination of several factors including political and socio-economic marginalization. From this perspective, these attacks have the objective of rendering central the marginal. As a result, paying scant attention to the ongoing armed insurgency in Nigeria, while focusing above all on the attacks in Western societies, will only lead to more brutal aggressions in the quest to claim the spotlight.