Honor every death: Paying attention to terror in Baga, Nigeria as well as Paris

This has been an ugly week.

On Wednesday, two Islamic extremists assassinated 12 people in the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The next day, a police officer was killed by a pair of gunmen in another corner of Paris in an apparently related incident. Today, French authorities faced hostage crises at a kosher supermarket in the city, and at a printing plant outside the city. By the end of the week, the death toll was up to twenty – 17 victims and 3 perpetrators – in an tragic week people are starting to call France’s 9/11.

The violence in Paris demands – and has received – widespread media attention. But it has overshadowed some of the other events of an ugly, dispiriting week.

On Tuesday morning, a homemade explosive blew up outside the Colorado Springs office of the NAACP, one of the US’s leading civil rights organizations. The bombing – which the FBI has declared deliberateevoked memories of the darkest days of the civil rights struggle, where activists were the victims of bomb attacks. The NAACP bombing received little mainstream media attention, leading to a twitter campaign demanding coverage of the attack, and sparking discussion about a media tendency to dismiss white terrorists as disturbed, lone-wolf individuals, while seeing other terrorists as representing their race or religion.

Sally Kohn’s tweet from December 21, 2014 is as appropriate now as it was then.

It’s understandable that the tragedy in Paris overshadowed coverage of the NAACP bombing. But it’s harder to explain the scant media attention to another horrific act of terrorism: Boko Haram’s attack on the town of Baga.

Baga is on the border between Nigeria and Chad and has been a key battleground between Boko Haram and Nigerian forces over the few years. In April 2013, the Nigerian army, pursuing Boko Haram killed almost two hundred civilians and burned a substantial portion of the town, leading villagers to flee into the bush. On Saturday, January 3, 2015, Boko Haram seized a military base in Baga, and began launching attacks on townspeople. At least 7,000 refugees have fled into Chad and Niger.

It will likely be weeks until there’s a confirmed death toll from Baga, but Amnesty International’s Nigeria expert believes there may be as many as two thousand dead. The town has apparently been razed to the ground, as Boko Haram forces looted, then burned, houses. Since 2011, Boko Haram has killed 16,000 Nigerians, 11,000 in the past year.

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 8.03.32 PM

If you haven’t heard about the Baga massacre, that’s not surprising. Most major media outlets have barely covered the story. In the graph above, the orange line is the phrase “Charlie Hebdo”, and the blue is “Baga”. On January 4th, the day after the Nigerian army base fell, the top 25 US mainstream media ran twenty sentences that mentioned Baga. Yesterday, the same news outlets ran 1,100 sentences mentioning Charlie Hebdo. (Today’s count will likely be higher, but Media Cloud is still collecting today’s data, and there’s still four hours in the day.)

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 8.09.55 PM

My Nigerian friends have commented that the Baga story is not getting much play in Nigerian media either, and the statistics bear that claim out. Orange represents “Charlie Hebdo”, blue represents “Baga” as above, but now we’re looking at a collection of Nigerian newspapers, radio, television and social media. Baga peaks two days after the military base fell, and coverage of the Paris massacre has been stronger the past three days than coverage of the larger domestic tragedy.

Some commentators note that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has expressed his sympathies to the French government, but not to the people of Borno State killed by Boko Haram. Facing re-election in five weeks, Jonathan is understandably wary of discussing Boko Haram, as it reminds voters that the conflict has erupted under his management and that his government has been unable to subdue the terror group. Jonathan has claimed that a multinational force was combatting Boko Haram, but military sources claim that Nigerois, Chadian and Cameroonian troops have deserted the cause.

I was struck by how little attention the Baga massacre was receiving and tweeted about it earlier today. People have offered helpful speculation on why this is the case. Some theories my correspondents have suggested:

– The victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre were journalists, and journalists take special care to cover journalist deaths. (I wish this were true. But the alarmingly common killing of journalists in the Philippines suggests that some journalist deaths are more newsworthy than others.)

– Baga is hard to get to, while Paris is a global media city. Easier access equals more coverage. (Certainly true, and certainly important, but given the death toll in Baga, you might expect at least one global news crew to try to reach the scene. AP’s dateline is from Yola, almost 600km away. Reuters is reporting from Bauchi, a similar distance away.)

– Racism. We care more about the white people killed in France than about black people killed in Nigeria. Or, phrased differently, “a hierarchy of death“, in which some deaths always merit more attention than others.

I think this last theory is on the right track, but I think it’s more complex than just racism (though I believe race plays a significant factor.) When I teach “agenda setting” and “news values” (the ways in which some events become news and some don’t), I turn to a 50 year old paper by Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge, “The Structure of Foreign News”. Galtung and Ruge propose a set of twelve principals that they use to explain how events are seen as newsworthy. Four of their rules help me understand the disparities in coverage between the attacks in Paris and in Baga.

Meaningfulness: The central metaphor of Galtung and Ruge’s paper is a shortwave radio – of all the signals we tune into on the radio dial, we are most likely to tune into those that have meaning for us, say a human voice speaking in a language we understand. Meaningfulness includes cultural proximity: we are more likely to pay attention to events that affect people who live lives similar to our own. It’s hard for most of us to imagine living in a fishing village on the shores of Lake Chad and being forced to flee a rebel army. It’s easier to imagine masked gunmen entering our workplace (especially for Americans, where workplace shootings have become tragically common.) Once we’ve placed ourselves in the shoes of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, the police protecting them, or the grocery shoppers, the story becomes personally relevant.

Consonance: While news is usually a surprise – a natural disaster, an unanticipated death – Galtung and Ruge argue that we like our surprises to be consonant with narratives we already know and understand. The attack on a major city by violent extremists is a tragically familiar one over the past decade, a story that feels like a continuation of attacks on New York, London, Madrid and Boston.

Unambiguity: We like stories that are easy to understand and interpret – nuanced and complex events are harder to cover than unambiguous ones. A brutal attack by a group opposed to western education and most traces of modernity seems unambiguous, until one reads about the abuses the Nigerian army has committed in combatting Boko Haram. There have been two massacres in Baga in the past two years – the 2013 Baga massacre occurred when Nigerian soldiers burned the village, seeking revenge for military officers killed by Boko Haram, killing almost 200 civilians. Were residents of Baga providing support and shelter for Boko Haram in 2013? Why did those same residents become targets for Boko Haram in 2015? These sorts of questions make the massacre in Baga a hard story to understand and a harder one to tell.

Stories about people: Stories need heroes and villains. Coverage of the Paris attacks has focused on Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier and his willingness to “die standing than live on my knees”, and the long histories of the radicalization of Cherif and Said Kouachi. In Baga, we know neither the names or the stories of the victims or the attackers – it is possible that the attack was led by Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau, but no one has confirmed, and stories tend to focus on Boko Haram as a mass, rather than on the individual leaders of the movement.

The one campaign that has successfully called international attention to Boko Haram’s abuses is the Chibok Girls campaign, which demanded international attention for 200 girls abducted from a school in Chibok, in southern Borno state. The parents of the abducted girls have made countless media appearances, reminding Nigerian and global audiences of their absence.

If Galtung and Ruge’s principles hold, we shouldn’t expect attention to the Baga massacre to increase in the next few days. It’s too distant, physically and culturally, too complex and devoid of the personal narratives journalists use to draw audiences to complex stories. But it’s critically important that we understand what happened in Baga, not just to understand the challenges Nigeria faces from Boko Haram, but to understand who religious extremism affects.

Retweeted for illustrative purposes. Fuck Rupert Murdoch.

The brutal attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s staff reinforce a “clash of civilizations” narrative, in which Western secular values (freedom of expression, humor, critique) are inexorably threatened by fundamentalist religious values. (Teju Cole provocatively notes that the secular West has rarely been as skeptical and rational as it congratulates itself for being.) The implications of this clash of civilizations narrative are predictable and dire: commenters demand that moderate Muslims explicitly dissociate themselves from horrific criminal acts, implying that those who don’t endorse terrorism; right wing politicians suggest closing borders and deporting Muslims; Muslims face revenge attacks.

Violence from Islamic extremism is a real and frightening problem. So, for that matter, is extremist violence associated with other religions. (See Myanmar for evidence that Buddhists can be violent extremists, or review the 2002 riots in Gujarat for an introduction to Hindu extremism. Or consider Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose Christian fundamentalism is as foreign and offensive to most Christians as Al Qaeda’s theology is to most Muslims.) But the majority of the victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslims. According to a 2011 report from the US National Counter Terrorism Center “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.” In other words, attacks like the one in Baga, where extremists killed their co-religionists are far more common than attacks like the ones in Paris, where extremists targeted people of other faiths.

Following the “clash of civilization” narrative leads to demonization of 1.6 billion people, 23% of the world’s population. Understanding that terror disproportionately impacts Muslims makes it clear that terrorism is a tactic, a political and military strategy, not a feature of Islam or any other religion. By mourning the dead both in Paris and Baga, we take a step towards understanding that the enemy is extremism, not Islam.

This entry was posted in Africa, Developing world, Human Rights, ideas, Media. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Honor every death: Paying attention to terror in Baga, Nigeria as well as Paris

  1. S.C. Pienaar says:

    Good article…but…what is the catalyst of extremism? Unfortunately, life’s worth has NEVER increased…albeit academically.

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  3. Ed says:

    Your attempt to draw moral equivalence between global jihad and Burma and the Lord Resitance Army is pathetic. The Lord resistance army is not ostentiably Christian and fight for political reasons. They’re not fighting to establish a radical version of Christianity in the Congo for example.

    The true test of Muslim tolerance is how they treat minorities in majority Muslim countries. On that score their record is abysmal from Indonesia to Pakistan to Iraq. Ironically the only majority Muslim country where minorities can live their lives with a modicum of decency is Iraq.

    Rupert is more or less right and folks ignore and belittle his statements at their own peril.

  4. Ethan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ed. You know that the conflict in Burma involves a Buddhist majority attacking a Muslim minority, right? The point of my “pathetic” argument is that extremists are viewed as anathema by the majority of people of a particular faith – your understandable revulsion to the Lord’s Resistance Army is exactly the point I’m trying to make.

  5. Richard says:

    I’m sorry to have to put it this way, but I have to say that Ed’s rebuttal is as poorly thought out as it is hastily written.

    He claims that the Lord’s Resistance Army is not “ostentiably” Christian, but provides no evidence to his argument other than his own personal (and frankly childish) contempt. His claim that their motivations are political, not religious, is quite naive and ironic–considering it is in fact the very same argument that many prominent Muslims make about political Islam.

    Furthermore, his claim that drawing a “moral equivalence” between Islamic extremist violence and extremist violence perpetrated by radicals of other religions is “pathetic” due to the latter’s supposed lack of a desire to create a fundamentalist state is meaningless. The correct term would be political equivalence, as his only potentially successful argument is merely that they do not have the same political aims (which is actually a debatable issue in each case). Unless he views violence perpetuated by Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, atheist (see Sri Lanka) and any other extremists as somehow being less amoral (a truly pathetic and cowardly argument from even the most basic human rights perspective), his statement fails to make any sense at all.

    The more logical argument would be that they do not pose the same strategic threat to the “West,” not that their murderous rampages are less amoral. However, this argument too is a failure, given that the context of the post Ed is responding to is one of global human rights awareness, and is not merely another alarmist nationalist outlet for utilizing human rights as a political wedge issue against one’s opponents.

    The “true test of Muslim tolerance” may very well be–from the simplistic perspective of the court of casual (poorly informed, largely disinterested) public opinion–how Muslim-led governments–besieged by violent Islamist militants, their populist political counterparts and endemic political corruption–treat the minority populations they are supposed to represent, and it is undoubtedly vital that their failings on human rights be documented and reported widely. However, it is also true that the ultimate test of not only the tolerance, but, I would argue, more importantly, the competence, of global news organizations is how well (this means inclusion as well as accuracy) they cover global events and how well they are able to guide that information toward creating accurate, meaningful and representative debate.

    That the global media would largely ignore the events in Baga, Nigeria and focus so obsessively over the events in Paris does in fact suggest a clash of civilizations–however, it isn’t between Christians and Muslims. Rather, it is between the so-called West (who, not so long ago, frequently referred to themselves as the “First World”) and… well, everybody else… including their allies in the non-“West” (formerly referred by the West as “Second” and “Third World” nations).

    Another equally, if not more compelling, narrative than the standard Muslims-all-guitly-by-association-so-why-not-apologize (NOT to be confused with narratives following the treatment of civilians in Muslim nations by their governments) then becomes the test of the global media itself to inform the global public on current events in a manner that is conducive to accurately representing the struggle of humanity to achieve and maintain human rights on a global scale (it sounds redundant to use “global” that many times, yes, but it emphasizes how grand the feat that these corporate media organizations often rather casually suggest they are capable of performing).

    Mr. Murdoch is no Ahmed Merabet, nor is he certainly, as the saying now goes, Charlie. But he is an elite media figure, and, despite his genuinely poor reputation for sophisticated thought, we should and do still expect and demand better from him.

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  7. Some friends and I are having a facebook convo about this very issue, and your article, and it struck me that there is another aspect to this.

    It’s that Global North/Global South split, and the fact that the worlds media is global north white male owned and places like Nigeria are former colonial black global south…

    It is almost as if there is a sort of neo-colonialism. Whether consciously or sub-consciously the ingrained colonialist stance is just another way to segregate/disenfranchise/diminish importance of those in the global south. In the past the white males controlled the global south via colonialism and slavery, now it’s via media and trade deals.

  8. Katie Wand says:

    Spot on Ethan!

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  13. Paul Hindes says:

    Thank you for this article. As a non-MSM news junkie, I’m ashamed I was able to be distracted from the Boko Haram-centered atrocities.

    I think it has become clear that war profiteering motivates much of the corrupting influence on the U.S. government, which then abides by spending to perpetuate American/Muslim violence.

    I understand from your article how and why the attacks in Paris overshadowed the NAACP bombing in Colorado and, perhaps, Boko Harams’s recent massacre in Baga.

    Do you have insight into Boko Haram’s funding? Or Goodluck Jonathan’s weak response to the Chibok kidnapping and his silence on the most recent Baga massacre? Might following the money help reveal more about why we don’t know what’s actually happening?

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  15. Colin McCormick says:

    Great post, Ethan. Two comments: First, while most Americans probably haven’t heard about the Baga massacres, the French have. Despite being preoccupied with full coverage of the Paris attacks, Le Monde has also provided good coverage of the events in Nigeria. Maybe they’re just better at multi-tasking?

    Second, in addition to Galtung and Ruge’s insightful four rules, I’d add “rhetorical resonance”. Charb’s use of the phrase rather “die standing than live on my knees” is one example of this. The more obvious one is “Je suis Charlie”, which strikes a clear note in the western ear, and gives internauts an immediate way to rhetorically link themselves to the story by using the hashtag. No such phrase exists (yet?) for Baga; maybe if it did, there would be greater US media attention.

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  17. Cornet Stephane says:

    @Colin: as the “Bring back our girls” campaign actually did, for the reasons exposed above.

    Nevertheless the symbolic weight and echo of assasinations in Charlie Hebdo’s offices has a high emotional charge and a storytelling potential, leading to an universalization of the fight for free speech and freedom of the press (even if press gravediggers took part in the public-spririted anti-terror rally in Paris…). Moreover, from a Western-oriented worldview, France definitely represents the cradle of freedom in the populaire imagination.

    All media know the proximity law. In French it is called “la loi du mort au kilomètre”, meaning one death nearby is more moving than one thousand people killed in a far away land. Sad but true.

    (Sorry for my english…)

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