Let’s talk about Boko Haram

Alex Walker remarks on the lack of coverage of human rights abuses committed by groups outside Eurasia

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Illustration: Ella Baron

Today is the second anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 girls from their boarding school in Chibok by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. A video, taken in December, has just surfaced purporting to show several of the girls still alive. Those that get wind of this development might recall the initial atrocity in association with the widespread social media campaign that involved the spread of the BringBackOurGirls hashtag. What they probably will not be aware of is the findings of a Unicef report, released several days ago, which shows that one fifth of Boko Haram’s terrorist attack’s last year were conducted by children.

Whilst there were four attacks of this type in 2014, last year forty four of a total of 151 bombings were carried out by the young. It’s hard to think of much more barbaric than utilising an eight year old, beyond the usual suspicions of communities racked by war, to infiltrate and destroy what are referred to as ‘soft targets’: market places and camps for displaced people.

There are mixed explanations for these suicide bombings, often it is thought that young people are drugged whilst explosives are strapped to them and then device remotely detonated. However, a recent CNN interview with a young girl who escaped from the Boko Haram militant she was forced to marry sheds some light on what might be behind these attacks, three quarters of which are done by girls. She said that with lives of forced marriage, repeated rape and constant fleeing from Nigerian military advances suicide bombing became a potentially attractive option, apparently offering some faint glimmer of potential escape. In fact, she said that abducted girls in the hands of Boko Haram, of which around 2,000 have been taken since 2014, were eager to undertake this potential opportunity which so often ends in the deaths of hundreds.

These statistics might come as a surprise. Coverage of these quite evidently horrifying crimes has been sparse to say the least. The Times yesterday carried two small columns on this story on page thirty, the back page of its ‘World’ section. The BBC and The Daily Mail both touched on the report, but for other major UK news outlets these findings hardly registered. Essentially, unless you pay purposeful attention to the situation in West Africa then it’s likely that you will not have heard about Boko Haram’s continued campaign of extreme inhumanity.

I used to live in Nigeria. In fact, I spent the golden years of my childhood, from when I was eight until eleven, running around in the dusty heat with my friends, many of whom were Nigerian. And until I was sent a link to a BBC news article earlier today I had heard nothing, and therefore cared little about the situation there. The media silence that surrounds these atrocities is no new phenomenon.

“We are routinely shocked by reports of the acts of barbarity committed by the so-called Islamic State but the vicious inhumanity of Boko Haram is unparalleled, as well as under reported.”

Many of you may be able to recall, if not where you were when you heard about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, then at least the vivid media coverage that surrounded them. However, I doubt you remember with the same clarity any discussion of the Boko Haram massacre of 2,000 people in Baga that occurred in the same week. You may be able to recall more clearly the social media campaign surrounding the abduction of the girls from Chibok, but did you know that the violence of Boko Haram has led to the deaths of 17,000 people since 2009, that two million people have been displaced from their homes and one million are still being denied access to education because of the risk the group poses.
We are routinely shocked by reports of the acts of barbarity committed by the so-called Islamic State but the vicious inhumanity of Boko Haram is unparalleled, as well as under reported.  Christina Lamb’s recent investigation reported teenage boys forced to dig their own graves, an executioner referred to as ‘the Butcher’, and horrifying stories of sexual brutality affecting girls as young as five. A  nine to ten year old girl was found recently in the Nigerian bush so traumatised she couldn’t speak, repeating the word ‘bomb’ over and over again; no one is sure where she comes from or what had happened to her.It’s easy to say that this is because these events aren’t European news and so it would be misplaced for European news agencies to carry them as lead stories. Putting aside the moral implications of ignoring suffering this doesn’t hold water. Events in the Middle East are technically as non-European as those in West Africa, yet the actions of IS (Daesh) consistently grace the front pages of our newspapers and are a continued topic of debate and conversation. Boko Haram bare many similarities to IS, in fact they are officially associated, with Boko Haram’s leader calling the areas they control IS’s ‘West African province.’

Boko Haram is, you may be surprise to hear, considered by the Global Terrorism Index to be the deadliest terrorist organisation in the world. The thing is that whilst they are deadly in West Africa they pose little threat to Europe. Boko Haram bomb Cameroonian market places not Brussels or Paris; the women they sexually abuse to do not often flee to Europe, they regularly face further abuse in vast West African refugee camps.

A Cherwell article written last year entitled ‘Are some lives really more significant than others?’ addressed some of these issues. Its author concluded that in actuality we, the reading public, are to blame for the media’s privileging of some lives over others. The media must be attentive to what the public is interested in, and so willing to buy. I agree that it is probably true that the reading public are more interested in what affects them and I think this attention to the commercial viability of news can be employed as an excuse.

But it is an excuse that the media should be deeply ashamed of. Is there not something intrinsically important about making the world aware of extreme human suffering that transcends commercial consideration? The reading public may not currently be interested, but if they are not confronted by these atrocities then they never will be and people will continue to suffer, surrounded only by silence. The media can hide behind the public’s selfish prejudices or take a risk and try and change them.

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