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Boko Haram, the Paris attacks and the difference in world reaction

Nigeria’s Boko Haram escalated its deadly campaign to a new level of brutality, and it hardly made the headlines

Millions of people flooded the streets of Paris on Saturday, waving pens, flags, signs and repeating the message "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie).

While France was in the middle of its crisis last week after the killing of 17 innocent people by homegrown extremists, Nigeria watched as a long-known internal threat went on a far more deadly rampage. 

Countless refugees from the town of Baga fled for their lives when the armed group Boko Haram burned down homes and indiscriminately killed an unconfirmed — but reportedly huge — number of people there. 

On Saturday a girl said to be about 10 years old walked into a crowded marketplace in the city of Maiduguri with an explosive vest. She detonated her device, and shortly after that, as people rushed to help the injured, another girl set off her explosives. In all, some 20 people were killed.

More than ten thousand people were killed last year in the ongoing violence in Nigeria.

Why is the world not paying more attention to the increasing power and brutality of Boko Haram?

What should Nigeria's government and its allies do to stop the group?

What are Boko Haram's goals?

We asked our on-air panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Inside Story: Is Boko Haram becoming a quasi-state within Nigeria?

I. William Zartman: I am not aware of a pretension to have a state structure as yet. You may have information on this that I do not know. The Khmer Rouge functioned as a state. Da’esh [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] claims to be a state and functions as one. By that, I mean not only disruptive but services as a state and an institutional structure. It seems to me they are operating on the assumptions of the LRA [Lord's Resistance Army] in Central Africa. Their scale and type of operations is essentially the same. Do we have evidence that they setting up a state structure that they have based on aid from Al-Qaeda or Islamic State, groups with which they associate? That is a question.

I would add another thing. It is an interesting question as to whether they are a state, but Boko Haram is bad enough, enough of a challenge to state incapacity to handle them that it needs to be discussed and handled at that level.

The Nigerian government does not seem to have made this a major focus. President Goodluck Jonathan is not even really campaigning on it. What are we to make of that?

I think they are overwhelmed. They cannot conceive of the magnitude of this kind of thing. It sounds strange to say because it is growing on our attention here. It is either overwhelmed or ignorant, not paying attention to it or collusion. I do not think we have evidence of collusion. There may be local collusion. Corruption is rampant in Nigeria, but I do not believe it is the case at the central government level. The implications of collusion are so out of this world, I cannot imagine they would treat their collaborators gently.

Does the latest massacre signal a new turn of brutality and military conquest for Boko Haram?

Aminu Gamawa: This is not the first time that atrocities have been committed by Boko Haram. One of the sad things about it is that it has been underreported because the areas affected are no-go areas for journalists. We do not know what is happening there. There has been denial on the side of the government and no energy on the side of civil society to investigate the atrocities. This is a continuation of what has occurred in the last three years.

This [Baga] attack is distinct based on skill and scale of casualties. This same time last year there was a massacre in the same town. It happened again because there was no accountability. This is not only a attack but an attack with a view to subdue the population of the area.

You alluded to it, but why have the media have paid so little attention to this?

My take on that is simple. If the government does not pay attention to it, it is hard for the media to pay attention to it. The media rely on the government for information on what happens there. They are either downplaying, denying or playing politics with the local situation.

People have become desensitized to the daily violence in the northeast. And another problem is that these terrorists are killing Muslims. Some Nigerians say, "This is Muslims killing Muslims, so it is not a big deal." That is why even the local Nigerian media is not paying attention. Unless there is a campaign around an issue, it does not receive the attention it deserves. The Paris attack sucked the attention of the Western media toward Paris.

Why has the Nigerian government not devoted more energy to defeating Boko Haram?

Nii Akuetteh: This is quite a controversial issue. Most people disagree with me. The implication of your question is that Goodluck Jonathan is feckless and not trying. I do not see him as that bad. I think the Boko Haram problem, like the [ISIL] problem, is very difficult to contain. He is trying quite a lot.

It is not just people in Washington who disagree with me but many Nigerians. They are very critical of Goodluck Jonathan. There are times when those who are critical are the only ones being heard.

I am a little more sympathetic to Jonathan. He is among the few Nigerian leaders who does not have a military background, so he is quieter and more soft-spoken, but I think he is trying, whether he is doing a good job or not. Next month’s elections will be crucial to tell us what Nigerian people think. 

What needs to be done by the government and by Nigeria’s Western and regional allies to help Nigeria out of this?

A lot of people see Boko Haram as a reaction to lack of development in northern Nigeria. I disagree with that idea. There are a lot of radical Islamist groups, and people do not give them the same pass. In Nigeria there is poverty all over the country, not just in the north. I tend to focus more on the fact that Boko Haram is a group of violent extremists with a political agenda. The northeastern Nigerian elite has winked at them and may have funded them.

Nigeria must take a regional approach. Boko Haram is taking on the Cameroonians and taking on Southern Chad. So those countries must be engaged.

My concern is that the international [community] has not taken the issue seriously or helped the Nigerians sufficiently. They are blocked by this view of the need for assessing the grievances of northeastern Nigeria. I do not believe this is about poverty. Yes, these things need to be done, but it is not a prerequisite to wiping [Boko Haram] out.

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