Why Boko Haram Doesn't Matter

 /  Feb. 19, 2015, 12:06 a.m.


On January 7 two gunmen with connections to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) opened fire in the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris.  Seventeen victims died. Five days earlier, Boko Haram had overtaken a small fishing village in Nigeria called Baga. Amnesty International estimated the number of dead at two thousand. The media was saturated with news of the Paris attacks, but there was barely any mention of Baga. Two million people marched in the streets of Paris, led by more than forty world leaders. Hardly anyone noticed Boko Haram’s atrocities in Baga.

Why do the attacks in Paris matter more to the international community than those of Baga?

Nigerians and the international community remained silent about the events in Baga for different reasons. Many Nigerians are unaware of the severity of the attack in Baga due to the country’s inadequate communications infrastructure and political tensions surrounding the upcoming presidential election. The international community knows the attack occurred, but it was under-reported in international news media because Nigeria’s status on the world stage has declined along with its oil exports, the country’s primary source of wealth and international influence.

The greatest hindrance to proper reporting and information flow in Nigeria is the government. Nigeria is holding a presidential election originally scheduled for February 14, but which has now been postponed until March 28. Problems around election time are often said to be fabricated by the opposition party to embarrass the government. Members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have sought to redirect blame and discredit sources that are reporting on the attack in Baga. Nigeria’s national security adviser has publicly blamed the attack on the cowardice of the soldiers to direct responsibility for the massacre away from the government. Furthermore, official reports from the Defense Ministry put the death toll from the Baga attack at only 150, compared to Amnesty International’s two thousand. Nigeria’s finance minister tweeted his condolences to the victims in Paris, but has yet to acknowledge the events in Baga. Similarly, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan sent his condolences to French President Francois Hollande immediately following the attack in Paris, but has yet to explicitly comment on Baga.

President Goodluck Jonathan, who assumed office in 2010, has been waging an unsuccessful war against Boko Haram for years. His promise to his country, and to the world, that he would “ensure that terrorism is brought under control” has been a failure. A few weeks after the Baga attacks he visited Maiduguri, a city very close to Baga, as a stop on his campaign tour. He made no real reference to Baga, stating only that “areas under Boko Haram control will soon be recaptured.”  On February 2, two weeks after his visit, Boko Haram surrounded and attempted to capture Maiduguri. Nigerian military forces successfully fought off Boko Haram’s attack, the second attempt in a week to take the city. While in this case the military managed to keep Boko Haram at bay, it does not yet appear to be in a position to reclaim territory as President Jonathan has claimed. The combination of silence and false reassurance from the government is one reason why many Nigerians do not know the severity of the attacks in Baga. Reporting is extremely dangerous around Boko Haram’s territories. The group has been known to execute journalists in the past. Nigeria is also plagued by serious problems with its communications infrastructure.  It is difficult for people in Nigeria to send and receive videos and messages. The situation is getting worse as Boko Haram continues to gain territory and destroy more of the country’s communication infrastructure. This prevents those on the ground from effectively communicating the events that have occurred.

In spite of the problems preventing Nigerians from receiving information about the attack in Baga and its surrounding villages, news spread outside Nigeria. However, it did not gain very much attention. According to the media, the attacks in Paris were significant because they were a direct attack on Western values by AQAP, a group whose stated mission is to destroy the West. If this is truly what gives a massacre significance then by every count the attacks in Baga should have been as important to the international community as the attacks in Paris. Boko Haram has a very similar mission to many other terrorist organizations. Like AQAP, Boko Haram is directly and vocally opposed to Western values. The name of the organization itself loosely translates to “Western education is a sin.” In addition, Boko Haram declared allegiance to the Islamic State. The group is gaining territory across Nigeria and, like IS, is trying to establish a formal state. Boko Haram holds many of the same values and goals as IS and AQAP, two of the most discussed terrorist organizations in the world, but it attracts little to no attention in international media. The massacre in Baga should have been more alarming than AQAP’s attack in Paris based on the death toll and strategic gains from the attack.

The real reason Paris garnered more attention than Baga is because France matters on the international stage and Nigeria does not. The reason that Al Qaeda and the Islamic State get more media attention than Boko Haram is because they are acting in the Middle East, a region that supplies a critical global resource, and in the West. Boko Haram has so far only acted in Nigeria and some towns in neighboring Chad. Nigeria does not have as many important global resources as the Middle East, nor is it as politically or economically significant as France. Nigeria is the biggest economy in Africa, an OPEC member nation and, until this past summer, was a significant supplier of oil to the world. A recent increase in the production of oil from shale has deprived Nigeria of the only resource that gave it international relevance. While many OPEC members have seen sales drop in the past few months due to increases in US shale production, Nigeria has suffered the most. In 2010, Nigeria was one of the top five oil exporters to the United States. It is now officially the first country to stop oil sales to the US entirely. Nigerian exports to Europe and Asia are also dropping rapidly. The country’s crumbling economy has allowed Boko Haram’s power to increase and has caused the Nigerian government to grow more anxious and frayed. Unlike Nigeria, France continues to offer political and economic resources that still matter very much on the international stage. Unlike Boko Haram, AQAP and the Islamic State are destabilizing a region from which the world still imports much of its oil. The attacks in Paris are not significant because they threatened Western values, but because they threatened an internationally significant nation. Paris matters more than Baga because the importance of a massacre is measured by the implications of the attack globally. Without big oil exports, and with little political and economic power, what happens to Nigeria no longer has much significance internationally. Unlike France, Nigeria’s relevance has already been played out.

Christina Peck