One day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks Paris, Boko Haram went on a rampage in Baga, northern Nigeria, and killed around a thousand people. For days and weeks afterwards, international social and ‘formal’ media were abuzz with a ‘black lives matter’ hashtag. Why had ‘the world’, that had come out so strongly to condemn the Paris attack, said nothing about ‘Baga’? Was this because, to most people in ‘the West’, black lives really didn’t matter so much?
In a way, all the attention that this discussion did receive in ‘the West’ proves the opposite. Thousands of human rights-minded individuals on Facebook and Twitter did seem to care a great deal about the black lives of Baga. They certainly cared a lot more that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan did. The first citizen of the country where a thousand innocent black people were slaughtered ‘like goats’, as survivors put it, never uttered a word about ‘Baga’. But he did issue a press statement condemning the murders in Paris. After which he went on the campaign trail to get re-elected.
One of his electioneering slogans, earlier on in his campaign, did playfully refer to Boko Haram. ‘Bring Back Jonathan’, it said, above a smiling portrait of the Goodluck President, in a parody of the petition to ‘bring back our girls’, the two hundred abducted schoolgirls who now live, forcibly married, in Boko Haram camps. Jonathan may not have brought back a single girl to her family, but he certainly knows how to develop an edgy elevator pitch.
Can the outside world can really be blamed for a lack of attention to a country’s plight, when that country’s own leaders don’t seem to care about it at all?
A recent picture of Goodluck Jonathan shows him happily walking on a red carpet perched on a wooden structure over a muddy stretch of land in a town where he has come to ask for votes. The towns in his country don’t have proper roads. Children can’t get to school, farmers can’t get to markets. But give him a red carpet and he smiles and waves.
There are many Goodlucks. The President of Gambia does very little but eating, thinking he can cure Aids and presiding over a personality cult. Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, who heads what is arguably the biggest kleptocracy on earth, wouldn’t mind a third term. Museveni in Uganda blames gays and ‘The West’ for every single problem in his country. We could go on.
The local movements against these tin-pot leaders are growing though. Protests by citizens in the Democratic Republic of Congo have prevented constitutional changes that would have given Kabila a third term. Burkina Faso has kicked out old man Blaise Compaore. The Goodluck government is under immense pressure from the entire country to address the problems in the north. Gays in Uganda stand their ground.
This is where the ‘outside world’ could play a role. It could listen to what the protestors against these elites have to say. What do they propose, is there room for support from ‘outside’? How are international institutions and foreign diplomats handling their relations with these countries? International solidarity and multilateral pressure helped local activists and justice structures to fight off the worst of Museveni’s anti-gay crusade. Seeking to provide such support to just struggles seems more useful than Western self-flagellation about not caring enough.