Sure, Je Suis Charlie. But what about I Am Baga?

January 25, 2015
Sure, Je Suis Charlie. But what about I Am Baga?
Amaryllis Georges
Amaryllis Georges Terrorism & Human Rights Researcher

Let me be clear: the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the kosher supermarket are nothing short of unacceptable and tragic. The fact that the magazine increased their print run to 7 million to keep up with international demand and long queues is a testament that values like freedom of speech and freedom of press – core ethics that underpin Western democratic societies – will not be muffled by such cowardly events.

What is the root of my grievance? Two words: Baga massacre. While the Western world is ranting about why Obama was a no-show during the unity rally in Paris, and Mr and Mrs Clooney (among other celebrities) aptly did their part in advertising the Paris terrorist attacks during the Golden Globe Awards, the world has seemed to turn a blind eye on Nigeria and the slaughter purported by Boko Haram in the North-eastern town of Baga.

But why should the Western media not be preoccupied with the Paris attacks? French President Francois Hollande in a decisive act of leadership and firmness addressed the world minutes after the Paris attack. His words were met by actions of the French authorities in their timely and successful pursuit of the perpetrators. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan too, in an effort to join the international “Je Suis Charlie” bandwagon, made haste to produce an announcement condemning the Charlie Hebdo attacks, never mind it took him two weeks to issue a mere statement on Chibok. And thus far nothing on Baga, the deadliest Boko Haram attack yet.

When the 200 Chibok girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April 2014, there was not a single social media newsfeed that did not promote the recognised #BringBackOurGirls campaign. The campaign put a face to the realism of the atrocities in Nigeria, which was significant because the state of denial by the US State Department was shocking. The US government only designated Nigeria’s Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) in November 2013 and prior to that, the 17th United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Mr Johnnie Carson asserted the group had nothing to do with Islamic extremism but was rather fuelled by poverty and dissatisfaction with the government. The abduction of the Chibok school girls had to occur for the US administration to finally revoke its denial of the blatant religious persecution in Nigeria.

This time, following the bloodbath of nearly 2000 women and children in Baga, the world has turned its back in a gesture that suggests nothing short of apathy.[1] In terms of resources and technical capabilities, the Nigerian government is incapable of dealing with Boko Haram on its own. They are simply inadequate. Nigeria needs to be raised on the global priority list.

My disappointment is not with the Nigerian government, a mecca for corruption, but with the international community for not creating more pressure on Nigeria and insisting upon the enforcement of transparency. The US logic is that Boko Haram is not a direct threat to the United States and its interests and therefore does not warrant precedence. This rhetoric is unacceptable. The US ought to lead the way in regards to international security and the preservation of human rights.

The resident evil that is Boko Haram is continuously evolving and this is something that unfortunately the Nigerian forces have fallen behind on. Now that the organization has in essence decimated entire male populations of many parts of North-eastern Nigeria, it is engaging in the gender-based targeting of women. The Chibok kidnappings were but the beginning of a developing trend that continued with the use of women as suicide bombers. Suicide bombing is not a cultural norm but a new trend in Nigeria. Such tactical advancement indicates closer ties between Boko Haram and other transnational Islamist organizations such as al-Shabab in Somalia, who regularly opt for suicide bombings. Although there was speculation that Boko Haram’s use of female suicide bombers may have been attributed to an organizational deterioration, this is highly unlikely given the recent Baga events. It should be expected that further attacks nearing the February 2015 elections will also take place. The use of suicide bombers, particularly women, is not something to be underestimated as it goes to show just how versatile the group is.

Where is the humanitarian concern as entire populations are being displaced into Chad and Cameroon? Whole villages march across the borders to escape. Mass population displacement has been taking place for over a year but what we see now is a change in the rules of engagement. Where is the humanitarian concern? We are at a point where international communities must effectively respond to the terrorist threat plaguing Nigeria.

Nigerian Shortcomings

With or without regional and Western backing, there are a number measures the Nigerian government can take to defeat Boko Haram.

It is ill advisable for the Nigerian government and security services to fight brutality with more brutality by engaging in numerous abuses that infringe upon international human rights law and may also be deemed as crimes against humanity. Such draconian tactics are counterproductive and rely upon extrajudicial execution which does little with respect to countering the unrest but does a substantial amount in providing Boko Haram with the fuel it needs to develop. Not only does the army battle immense corruption within its ranks, it has also been ill-equipped to fight such a threat and is lacking weapons, ammunition, uniforms, communication equipment, and above all else morale. Shortcomings such as Nigerian soldiers having to purchase their own uniforms and the army’s indifference when it comes to paying for drugs for its soldiers following injuries caused by the terrorist group, are but a few examples. Boko Haram are proving themselves to be irrepressible and deadly and have developed to be tactically superior to the security forces on ground, with among other things far more sophisticated armaments than those allotted to the Nigerian army. This is disappointing given the once capable Nigerian military’s standing in the region as well the country’s defence budget, alluding to the belief that the military’s poor performance in the North-east ought to be attributed to national prioritization. The Nigerian government should do its best to boost the morale of the army and weed out occurrences of corruption within the military while abandoning heavy-handed approaches and aiming to uphold international human rights.

The issue can be understood further if one turns to the deep-rooted power politics plaguing the country. Nigeria has avoided civil war with an understood treaty between the North (majority Muslim) and the South (mainly Christian) which entails alternating turns in holding presidential office. The implication is that there is widespread belief amongst the Northerners that Goodluck Jonathan, a Southerner, reneged the agreement by assuming office following the death of his forerunner and then progressed to run and win another term in the elections of 2011, which, as a result, increased the bifurcation of the nation on regional and religious boundaries. Sceptics argue that the indifference shown by Goodluck’s government can be traced to a regionalist preconception. Such strains will surely intensify with the decreasing turnout of voters in the North-east as a result of the large population shift.

Aside from the continuous power struggle, the North also falls short in economic competition, a toil it has fought for the last 20 years. Such income and power voids are crucial factors in understanding divisions in the country and by extent the government’s inability and disinterest to deal with the problem in the North. The delay of President Goodluck’s government to decisively and publicly respond to the Chibok kidnappings but particularly to the recent monstrous Baga attacks convey the complacency of the administration and the North-east’s low-standing in the eyes of Abuja. Extremist ideologies depend upon ineffective breathing grounds endemic with government dissatisfaction, inequality and corruption.

US and International Community Shortcomings

Humanitarian assistance to those who do not flee and are being re-victimized will help mollify tensions and this is something that the international community should be looking at aggressively.

The US State Department would do well to stop waffling over the main theological base of this group. Boko Haram is not an economic rebel movement driven by widespread poverty. Such hesitancy to properly designate the group as an FTO placed significant misallocated pressure on the Nigerian government. This has been counterproductive. These are jihadists and when you set this in the correct framework then you can have a suitable reaction. To date there is no cure for extreme fanatic Islamists and so containment, not pacification, is the answer. A paradigm shift from which this threat is viewed must take place. The situation in Nigeria ought to be viewed from a lens of global jihad and religious persecution and be thusly met with tactical intelligence assistance.

When you have a country like Nigeria that is 50% Muslim and 50% Christian and the latter are being pushed to the wall, something will give under the pressure and that is the doomsday scenario the international community will dread. There has been an unprecedented reservoir of dignity and decency in enduring it but this accumulation is not limitless and when the levees no longer hold a country of 177 million people will make Bosnia look like a drop in the bucket.

[1] The killing of women, children and the elderly was prohibited by Boko Haram until recently. The killing of Christians, Jews and Muslim apostates are all fair game. However, they alter the goal posts of those they do not kill (i.e. women and children in the Baga massacre and the use of women and children as suicide bombers). The onslaught of women is now part of a systematic agenda for Boko Haram as most of the men have either been killed or fled the country.