Tallying Boko Haram’s dreadful toll

January 21, 2015

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama spoke out strongly against terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Paris and lauded America’s part in air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Nigeria and the ruthless militants of Boko Haram, though, earned no mention in the official text version of his speech. As this Reuters graphic shows, in the last four years, Boko Haram’s steady and increasingly bloody attacks have left astounding carnage in their wake. The Islamist group is said to control roughly 11,500 square miles of territory—equal to the size of Belgium—in northeast Nigeria, and in that area 10,000 people died as the result of Boko Haram-related violence in the last year alone, according to figures from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Why do all these killings not rate more attention? Yesterday, Quartz reprinted a piece by MIT Center for Civic Media director Ethan Zuckerman under the headline “This is why the internet cares more about 17 French people than 2000 Nigerians” (The Nigerian government reported 150 deaths as the result of the attacks in Baga; other estimates were much higher, providing the figure of 2000 in the headline.) In the piece Zuckerman writes:

The details of the Baga attacks, where civilians fled a marauding army into the swamps of Lake Chad, where they faced attacks from hippos, are almost impossible for audiences in developed nations to empathize with.

By contrast it’s tragically easy for most North Americans and Europeans to imagine terrorists striking in their cities.

The net effect: the attacks in Baga and Maiduguri seem impossibly distant, while the attacks in Paris seem local, relevant and pressing even to people equidistant from the two situations.

In part, it’s hard to imagine events in Nigeria because we encounter so little African news in general.

Zuckerman adds: “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).” The world community mustered attention during the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign that spawned after Boko Haram kidnapped 270 schoolgirls in April of last year, but that concern rather quickly went out of vogue, and 219 remain missing.

The familiar refrain that the U.S. can only muster a self-serving concern for oil-rich countries doesn’t apply; Nigeria is the continent’s top oil producer and has been a member of OPEC for more than 40 years. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama promised to “continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks.”  The topic of U.S. military intervention is fraught given the nation’s long involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Summoning attention to the slaughter of thousands of innocents shouldn’t be as difficult.

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