As so many have pointed out on social media, the massacre at Charlie Hebdo wasn’t the only such horror to take place in recent days. This week reports began to reach the outside world of atrocities in Borno State in northern Nigeria, committed by the Islamist group Boko Haram. It appears that after overrunning a military base in the town of Baga, the militants went on a rampage of burning and killing. Despite what some reports on social media have said, it’s still unknown how many were killed, with guesses ranging from 150 to 2000. So why do we know so little about what’s going on? And why is the Nigerian government doing so little?
For a brief overview of who Boko Haram are and their conflict with Nigeria, see here.
The first reason no one knows how many were killed is that Borno has become increasingly isolated as the militants gain control. Mobile phone connections are down, and freedom of movement limited. The first real details we had of the attack was when one of the survivors made it to safe territory. He told a horrific story of total destruction in Baga. Residents were hunted down and killed, and the town itself was looted and then burned. Tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring Chad, which is in no state to look after so many refugees.
The second reason that we know so little is more worrying. The Nigerian government has said almost nothing about the fall of Baga. Few officials have spoken to the media, and the town’s fate was almost offhandedly confirmed by a military chief. President Goodluck Jonathan has not mentioned Baga, despite finding the time to express his sympathy with the victims in Paris. One journalist has made the comparison to those events, where President Hollande immediately went to the scene of the massacre, giving assurances and leading the response.
This silent response fits with the government’s general attitude to the conflict, which seems to be to pretend nothing is happening. Boko Haram controls an area the size of Belgium, and instead of leading, the politicians are focussed on next month’s presidential election. Nigeria’s frontline troops have been left in the wind, fighting fanatics while suffering a lack of basic equipment, arms and even food. In such dire straits, it’s hardly surprising that they are accused of numerous human rights abuses in the fight against Boko Haram. Their morale is rock bottom, and it mustn’t help them to know that Nigeria spends 20% of its budget on the military. Somewhere between the top brass and the frontline, billions of dollars are going missing.
This makes it hard to see how the conflict can move in a positive direction. Boko Haram is only growing in strength, and the upcoming election could lead to more violence. Both the incumbent and his opponent are backed by powerful ethnic and religious groups, and a fight over the result will leave the Islamists free to take even more territory. While some in Nigeria now accuse the West of not stepping up to help, it is hard to see what Western militaries could or should do. How can foreigners defend a government that won’t allow the army to defend itself? With yesterday bringing three suicide attacks, one carried out by a 10 year old girl, it is all too clear that this situation can’t continue.