When terrorists murdered 17 people in Paris in January, President Obama was harshly criticized for not traveling to the memorial ceremony. When ISIS in Iraq and Syria beheaded three Americans, the U.S. responded immediately, launching air strikes and coordinating Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian resistance to the terrorist menace. The horrors received wall-to-wall 24/7 press coverage.
Yet, when Boko Haram terrorists slaughtered 2,000 people in Baga, in the northeastern state of Borno in Nigeria this January, far less attention was paid. This is in part because the Boko Haram leadership chooses to operate largely below the global news glare. It is in part because Nigerian officials do not like to advertise the scope of the threat. But in large part, it is because Nigeria is in Africa, not Europe or the Middle East.
In this new world, there are no more foreigners. Communications are dwarfed by speed and time. Yet, few reporters are on the Africa beat; Americans are less interested; the terrorists, however violent, don’t seem to be a threat to the U.S. The deaths somehow don’t matter as much.
Remember, bin Laden and al-Qaida first hit Kenya and Tanzania, then New York. The price we pay for ignoring Africa is costly.
We must pay attention. Nigeria has the largest population of any country in Africa. It is a major oil-producing nation. It is an ethnic melange with over 350 ethnic groups and 250 languages. Seventy percent of its population lives on $1.25 a day. In the Muslim north, nearly three in four live in poverty. In the Christian South, that is one in four.
Ethnic tensions, inequality and corruption have bred a violent response. Boko Haram, founded in 2002, began in 2009 to build an Islamic state, similar to the ISIS project. The name itself, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, is loosely translated as “Western education is a sin.”
Like ISIS, its forces also rely on terrorizing the population, kidnapping children and slaughtering civilians. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that it has killed over 11,000 in Nigeria, and displaced 1.5 million, making it as savage as ISIS, if not worse. Intelligence reports suggest that it has ties to al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb.
The Nigerian government is reeling from the assault. Seventy percent of its budget comes from oil sales. With the price of oil plummeting, the government has been hit hard. Its beleaguered military already suffers from spotty pay, poor equipment and frequent mutinies. Its defense budget is under $2 billion a year.
Boko Haram threatens to destabilize Nigeria and threatens Chad, Niger and Cameroon also. It is linked to al-Qaida networks, openly anti-Western and criminally vicious.
President Obama pledged to the UN General Assembly in 2013, “Even when America’s core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights.”
America can’t police the world. But the U.S. and its allies have a real stake in keeping Boko Haram from using terrorist violence to consolidate a quasi-state in much of Nigeria.
This year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has backed the African Union proposal to build a regional force to counter Boko Haram.
The U.S. would be well-advised to help facilitate that process and backstop it with the necessary aid and intelligence.
Terrorist slaughter of innocents is as objectionable when the victims are African as when they are French or American. The threat posed by terrorists seeking to consolidate warlord states in oil-producing countries is as real in Africa as in the Middle East. It is long past time for the West to turn attention — humanitarian, media, multinational — to the horrors now building in Nigeria.