As is well known, on Wednesday, January 7, a horrific attack took place in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo magazine office, leaving twelve people dead. The world's attention was immediately consumed.
On Wednesday, January 7, an estimated 2000 people in Nigeria were also murdered. By contrast, not many noticed.
This is not about which atrocity was worse or about comparing numbers and circumstances. This is about the fact that two massacres occurred in two different parts of the globe. One gained the attention of the world while the other was overlooked.
The response to the Hebdo attack was shock and grief. This was not simply murder--a country, a city, and global values were under fire. People took to social media to express their anger using #JeSuisCharlie, a hashtag which according to the Daily Telegraph was "tweeted at a rate of 6,500 times at its height following the Paris massacre."
This trending hashtag and the delayed emergence of news regarding the Boko Haram attack reminded me of another Twitter movement which gained much popularity last year: #BringBackOurGirls.
On April 14, 2014 over two hundred girls in Chibok, Northern Nigeria were abducted by Boko Haram. In the first few days following this atrocity, very little was said about it in the international media. To be sure, there were a handful of publications that reported the story. But during that time much of the media was too busy speculating about the Kim Kardashian and Kanye West nuptials, and placing bets on how much longer David Moyes would remain at Manchester United.
#BringBackOurGirls was first mentioned in a tweet on April 23 by Nigerian lawyer Ibrahim Abdullahi who had heard it said on TV by Obiageli Ezekwesili. Soon it took on a life of its own.
Suddenly the international media and world leaders were all speaking out about this huge atrocity and calling for action to get the girls back. There was news of international governments assisting Nigeria in the search, protests taking place in cities worldwide, and of course, there were the celebrities! Alexa Chung released an image of her reflection in a mirror on which the words are written in lipstick. Model Irinia Shayk, seemingly topless, held up the sign while displaying her perfect pout. A solemn looking Michelle Obama also released a photo in support of the cause.
For a while it seemed as if the world cared about these young girls and their families but as time went on, interest waned and though Nigerians continue to keep the campaign alive, people moved on. Since the girls were taken in Chibok, Boko Haram has kept up the momentum, continuing to cause havoc and destruction but where did the world go? Where were the celebrities when in June 2014 hundreds were killed in a Boko Haram raid? Where were the hashtags in July 2014 when sources say 15,000 fled their homes when the group carried out an attack in Damboa? Where was social media when they kidnapped forty boys and young men in Malari as recently as New Years Eve ?
Like floral prints, metallic affects, and full-length skirts, Boko Haram attacks and their victims have become so 2014.
Boko Haram has existed since 2002. Over time, however, the group’s attacks have become more sophisticated, deadly and destructive. In fact, in recent years they have been on one long killing spree with countless dead and approximately 1.5 million displaced. Yet until the kidnapping of the girls in Chibok, coverage of these massacres was scant.
Why the abduction of the girls finally woke the world up is anybody’s guess. In my opinion, this sudden coverage came from it becoming a cause "en vogue."
These were young women caught in the hands of oppressive Muslim men, a narrative which tugged at the heart strings. The story was presented and experienced by many as being about the rights of women under threat from that traditional Western enemy—the male extremist.
If one looks at French attacks as they are presented in the West, freedom of the media is at stake. Coverage has been a mish-mash of rhetoric suggesting "East vs. West" or "Islam vs. Everything Else. But when a village is raided and people are left for dead in a part of Africa where we don’t go on safari? Not so important.
Black lives, black bodies, remote places.
Current media reports being circulated suggest that on January 3, Boko Haram fighters arrived in the town of Baga and days later went on a mass murder mission, killing everyone in sight. Reports estimate that 2,000 people have been left for dead and though this number has not been confirmed (and may never be), an escapee from the attacks told The Guardian that as he walked for 3 miles, he "kept stepping on dead bodies" until he arrived in a neighboring village which was also "deserted and burnt."
7,300 Nigerian refugees have fled to Chad in the last ten days. It is evident that the Nigerian media and government have failed the country by neglecting their duties in protecting and speaking out, but one must ask, where did the big media houses and world leaders disappear when this attack occurred? Even now when the story has emerged and is in the mainstream, it is being treated as a mere headline.
Martin Plaut, a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies tweeted: "Silly to compare attacks in France and Nigeria. France--rare event. Boko Haram atrocities for nearly six years. Both tragic. Only one news." Not so silly; the real question is why six years worth of attacks have not been news.
One reason put forward is the failing of the Nigerian government to give the situation the importance it deserves. The Nigerian President paid tribute to the victims of the French attack and failed to acknowledge Baga. The newspapers had Paris on the front cover and Baga at the bottom of the page. If the Nigerians don't care, why should we?
Perhaps the real reason for the indifference to the Boko Haram deaths is rooted in colonial histories of representation. As South African author Don Mattera observed, colonialism and white supremacy result in a "battle where white might was right and black lives expendable.” Colonialism framed colonized people as being savages. Writer Waibinte Wariboko notes that "Europeans had occupied Africa in part because they were on a 'civilizing mission' to rescue Africans from savagery and barbarism." Throughout history the depiction of the African continent has been skewed. The "Sponsor a Child" TV advertisements and Hollywood reproduce stereotypes linking all disease, war, brutality to "Africa." Black people killing each other is part of that savagery and lack of civilization, it is why genocide in Rwanda was ignored for as long as it was since Africans killing Africans has been made out to be mundane.
The people of Northern Nigeria join an array of world tragedies and lives which have been discarded. Another set of disposable causes. We rarely see daily discussions about the seemingly never ending consequences of the Western invasion of Iraq, the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar or the struggles of Gaza as it tries to rebuild after Israel’s unacceptable onslaught last year. Silence surrounds the observation by activists that 76,000 people were killed in Syria last year, 17,790 of these being civilians including 3,501 children. Has much been reported about the United Nations Commission of inquiry stating that between 3,000-6,000 are dead as a result of vicious fighting in the Central African Republic?
As I write this, thousands of people in Northern Nigeria are living in fear that in the lead up to elections, their village will be next on Boko Haram’s list. Yet very little mainstream coverage is being given to any of these issues and their presence on social media is also overshadowed by an array of other matters. Perhaps reports that Boko Haram are strapping bombs onto ten year old girls and sending them into public places will prove to be a catalyst. Young girls who probably do not even understand what they are being told to do.
Twelve people died a horrific death in France on Wednesday.
Countless people died a horrific death in Nigeria on Wednesday.
How many of the dead Nigerians can we name?
Samira Sawlani is a writer, journalist and analyst specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She is a holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Follow her on Twitter at @samirasawlani