Sometimes, it is inevitable that writing should come from a place of anger and despair. This piece of writing has been inspired by such feelings. From 3rd to 7th January 2015, scores of people were killed and others displaced in what Amnesty International describes as Boko Haram’s “deadliest massacre to date”. The militants destroyed buildings, hid in trees and shot at fleeing residents, leaving a bloody trail of death and destruction in their wake. The District Head of Baga is quoted as saying that most victims were children, women and elderly people who could not flee fast enough when the insurgents drove into the town of Baga, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles. Until now, there has been varying information coming from government and media sources as to the number of fatalities, with figures ranging from 150 to 2000.
Now ordinarily, there would have been nothing short of outrage over such a high death toll. At the very least, this violent incident deserved a mention in between the excess of stories on ‘Je suis Charlie’, the Paris march and weekly Ebola updates. Initially, there were just a few isolated tweets and a generally silent international media. Then, probably based on the assumption that the world had had enough of the unrelenting coverage of the happenings in Paris, we got snippets of what had happened in Baga. It is ironic that in this digital era, an event of this magnitude went largely unnoticed. It is almost as if those African lives that were lost in Baga were not newsworthy, as if those lives were not valuable and the victims did not matter. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn.
Top Nigerian officials condemned the attacks in Paris but said nothing about the attacks in their own country. It can only be assumed that they did not want to be accused of failing in their duties due to their lethargic response to the massacre, or that they did not want to taint their images, especially in light of elections in February. Contrary to the Nigerian government’s inaction, the French government carried out the symbolic gesture of the march to reiterate that their values would not be compromised and rallied the country together in a time of tragedy. In the midst of all the marching, there was an underlying assurance to the public that the situation was under control. It is important that we step back and ask ourselves, when did the slaughter of such a large number of people become a back-page story to the media? Why did world leaders march for Paris and not for Baga?
If African lives really mattered, then the lives of the people shot down and slaughtered by Boko Haram would matter as much as of those who were killed in Paris. The lack of coverage was a sad confirmation that solidarity is seemingly confined to some spaces and that concern for humanity does not transcend borders. This is not demonization of those who stood with ‘Charlie’ but we have quickly forgotten our commitment to each other. After Rwanda, we collectively vowed ‘never again’ yet we have normalized the conflict in northern Nigeria and essentially removed it from news headlines across the globe. There are children in that region growing up with the sense that life is nothing more than violence and conflict; this should never be seen as normal or natural. While normalization of conflict is, by extension, acceptance of the violations and atrocities that occur there-in, it also means that leaders can easily lack political vision or a strategy to end a conflict because there is no pressure being mounted on them to do so.
It is not the time for pointing fingers and laying blame but it must be highlighted that the misconception that conflicts are ingrained in African society is a dangerous way to think because it fosters inaction. Based on this assumption, the international community ignored genocide in Rwanda on the supposition that Africans were just being Africans. In reviewing fundamental aspects of core international relations models between Africa and the west, it is very apparent that Africa is only viewed as being useful for resource competition and generating sensational tales of humanitarian catastrophes. These assumptions might also explain why the media chose to treat the killings in Baga as a peripheral concern: Africa’s own media institutions did not do any justice to the reporting on Baga and western media lacked the same enthusiasm that they had for the Charlie Hebdo murders.
It merits further mention that both western and African media publications relegated the story to back pages, if there was any mention of it at all. This means that now, more than ever, the media needs to realize that they have an overwhelming influence in deciding which issues get discussed by people and subsequently, governments. The media must act responsibly and practice objective reporting, i.e. to report and analyse news from all over the world and not just pick stories which demonize those living in other world regions.
It is not my place to start casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the Nigerian government but in a country that has a functioning government, how is it possible that some people have been left to fall victim to paramilitary organisations? Those living under any government are parties to a social contract and thus the government must enforce the basic rules of social living. We cannot have a political class that thinks that people’s lives only matter when it is politically beneficial for them and who refuse to condemn events like this in case it hurts their chances in upcoming elections. African lives are not chess pieces for power games. One of the main purposes of the state is to provide security for its citizens and if citizens begin to normalize insecurity, then the state has failed them. Strictly speaking, no state is allowed to propagate the idea that security issues are unimportant or remain ambivalent to pursuing peace, and Nigerians should demand nothing short of that.
Africa cannot, and must not, stand by and watch as swathes of regions are rendered ungovernable by marauding militants. In fact, Africans must let go of the mentality that Africa only exists within the space in which it interacts with the international community. We urgently need an alternative global vision and African solutions to African problems. We have been very good at fooling ourselves into believing that Africa is rising and that we have crossed the rubicon of progress yet in truth, we are still shrouded in discord and constantly teetering on the brink of disunity. I have heard it said that, as a continent we owe it to ourselves to be collectively involved in the affairs of conflict countries, if this continent is to see total liberation. Those words have never been truer or more urgent. Unity of purpose and mutual support is needed to govern our progress as a continent. The problem of Boko Haram is no longer a Nigerian problem: the kidnappings have spilled over into Cameroon, and neighbouring Chad has also seen a rapid escalation in the number of refugees into their country. African countries must arise and help in quashing the menace that the insurgent group has become.
I am not the first and I will not be the last to write about Africa’s challenges in attaining equal integration in the world system. The sad fact is that our collective normalization of conflicts on the continent has made the kidnapping and killing of certain individuals a trivial issue- unworthy of breaking news even. Even in the absence of trending hash tags, we acknowledge and mourn the deaths of those who died in anonymity in the bushes of Baga. African lives matter. Humanity must not forget.
Written by N. Wayua and published on 03-February-2015