Monday, January 26, 2015

The Dead We Did Not Mourn

Why does the world ignore the killings in Nigeria by Boko Haram?
Some deaths are mourned by thousands, even millions; others go unmourned, unnoticed. This is the tragedy of our modern times. So even as more than a million people turned out on the streets of Paris in January to mourn the deaths of the 17 people killed during and after the attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the death of around 2,000 people at the hands of the Boko Haram in northern Nigeria went virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world.
Why, we need to ask, do we not get as stirred up with the relentless killings witnessed by people living in the three north-eastern provinces of Nigeria – Borno, Yobe andAdamawa – as we do by other deaths, such as the ones in Paris? Is it because Africa remains, in the consciousness of many, still the “dark” continent, and largely under-reported in the world media? Or is it, as a cynical commentator pointed out, that in Nigeria it is Muslims who are killing their fellowMuslims and therefore there is nothing to trigger outrage in the non-Muslim world? Whatever the reasons, it is time we woke up and took note of what is happening in Nigeria and attempt to understand the genesis of the crisis a part of the country faces.
To begin with, we have to understand Boko Haram, how it rose and grew and what it hopes to achieve. The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, which means, “People committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s teachings and jihad”. Headquartered in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri in Borno province, the group was founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf who focused on the poverty and deprivations faced by the largely Muslim population in the area. Despite its oil wealth, Nigeria is one of the poorest countries in Africa and also highly unequal. Levels of poverty range from 75% in the north to 27% in the south.Lagos, the capital, is in the south where policy is made. Maiduguri is in the north, where the poor live. As Nigerian analyst Chris Ngwodo put it, “The group (Boko Haram) itself is an effect not a cause; it is a symptom of decades of failed government and elite delinquency finally ripening into social chaos.”
Ethnic violence in a country with 350 ethnic groups speaking 250 languages, and almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims, is nothing new. Yet, while some of these differences have been negotiated in the past, the challenge thrown up by Boko Haram appears to have gone beyond that. Part of the blame for the escalation must lie with the way the Nigeriangovernment dealt with its leader Mohammed Yusuf and his public execution in 2009. That event pushed the group into greater militancy and led it to expand its activities to neighbouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Yet, Boko Haram defies a neat definition. Is it an Islamist terror group with wider connections with other such groups? Or is it a secessionist group using violence to achieve its end of setting up an Islamic state in the northern part of Nigeria?
Since 2009, international human rights groups estimate that around 13,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram and almost 1.5 million people displaced by the violence. The world community did note some of its more egregious crimes, such as the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls last year. Nothing is known about them except Boko Haram’s claim that they had been married off to their fighters. Despite the worldwide campaign to have them freed, nothing of the kind has happened. Since then, the killings and kidnappings have continued, the latest being the massacre of an estimated 2,000 people in Baga, an area under Boko Haram control that was attacked by the Chadian army. The Nigerian government insists that only 150 people died. This is one part of the problem. Areas controlled by Boko Haram are virtually no-go areas for the press. The international media depends on the local press and the government for information and what comes through is usually partial and not always reliable. We also have no knowledge of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nigerian army in the name of fighting Boko Haram.
Although the US government has declared Boko Haram a terrorist group, its links with other Islamist groups have yet to be established. What is known is that many people living in northern and eastern Nigeria, even if they do not support Boko Haram, do hold a grudge against the leadership ofNigeria’s Christian President Goodluck Jonathan. Instead of accepting that the North and the East’s social and economic grievances need addressing, the Nigerian government prefers a military solution to the challenge posed by Boko Haram. As in similar situations around the world, this strategy could be counterproductive, triggering even greater violence, the price for which will continue to be paid by the ordinary people in that region, who have been at the receiving end of not just this form of terror but the continuing horror of living in unrelenting poverty.

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