Starting on Jan. 3, hundreds of Nigerians were slaughtered in an attack on the border city of Braga by the notorious Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. Shortly after, two girls blew themselves up at a market in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, killing at least 19 people. All of this came on the heels of reports last month that a 13-year-old girl was thwarted in an attempted suicide bombing in Kano, as well as Boko Haram’s widely publicized kidnappings of hundreds of schoolgirls to sell them into sex slavery and marriage.
Is it the media’s fault for not covering, or the public’s fault for not caring?
“Critics have complained that Western media have ignored or barely touched the Baga slaughter and the Kano bombing amid a 24/7 outpouring of coverage of the murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo,” the DailyKos argued. In a post for the Daily Beast, Barbie Latza Nadeau further called out the lack of media attention. Nadeau wrote, “The only thing worse than the global community’s collective amnesia about the once-viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign and the indifference to the latest bloodshed is the detachment shown by the Nigerian government.” Patheos’ Ahmed Rehab also stated the obvious about the victims’ race. “The victims are African,” Rehab reminded us. “Imagine if it were 2,000 French or American victims. Would the coverage have changed?”
These sharp observations certainly delve into part of the story—or lack thereof—when it comes to the scant coverage of the Boko Haram massacre. But something else is at work here as well, and it lies in a Western indifference to news that doesn’t directly concern it. Is it the media’s fault for not covering, or the public’s fault for not caring?
In a recent example of how Westerners fail to get riled up about serious problems outside their sphere, it wasn’t until Ebola took a single life in the United States that it became a sensation among Western media, despite killing more than 3,000 people by October 2014. “In fact, when you look at the evolution of the crisis, the international community really woke up when the disease got to America and Europe,” former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told the BBC. This level of indifference about international events can play a role in how Americans respond to crises in nations far from home.
The silence of world powers spoke to the same mindset as Nick Nolte’s character in Hotel Rwanda, who memorably said: “You’re dirt. You’re not even a n***er. You’re an African.”
There’s a more stark testimony from recent memory. “The 1994 Rwandan genocide is undeniably one of the most atrocious events in recent history,” observed Francis Plourde of the Center for Journalism Ethics. “But during the most tragic, deadly days in the small African nation in 1994, most media organizations failed to report on the events.” Although the West was at peace with the rest of the world at this time, the silence of world powers spoke to the same mindset as Nick Nolte’s character in Hotel Rwanda, who memorably said: “You’re dirt. You’re not even a n***er. You’re an African.”
This lack of political interest definitely can’t be attributed to a lack of compelling imagery and information from affected areas of Africa. In 2012, at the same time that Americans were transfixed on Syria and Iraq, Congo was in the midst of a civil war that Vava Tampa of CNN described as having claimed “nearly the same number of lives as having a 9/11 every single day for 360 days, the genocide that struck Rwanda in 1994, the ethnic cleansing that overwhelmed Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the genocide that took place in Darfur, the number of people killed in the great tsunami that struck Asia in 2004, and the number of people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all combined and then doubled.”
Similarly, the conflict in Darfur didn’t catch the media’s attention until 2004, despite reaching its nadir in 2003. “International attention to Darfur has been slow to mobilize, partly due to several factors: the remoteness of the region, the lack of access by international humanitarian agencies, journalists, and other observers, and the news blackout imposed by Khartoum,” wrote Human Rights Watch at the time. “Perhaps most critically for many governments, Darfur is considered an unhelpful distraction from the ongoing peace negotiations to settle the twenty-year conflict in southern Sudan.” In addition, of course, America was still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and focused on its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
As Ahmed Rehab put it, “This is about entrenched narratives and identity politics. Incidents that do not validate this narrative (Arab on Arab, black on black, or white Christian on white) won’t nearly be as celebrated as incidents that do (Muslim on white).” When we are in school, the history we’re taught is that of European societies and the civilizations that resulted from Europe’s expansion, such as the American continents or Australia; even non-whites who live in these parts of the world often defer to knowledge of Western history as their vantage point.
Similarly, our political and economic relationship with so-called Third World countries has usually been one of imperial and/or economic exploitation. Aside from its “exotic” aura and potential to impact Western interests, the West is not accustomed to really thinking much about the rest of the world.
90 percent of students were unable to point out Afghanistan on a map of the Middle East, despite our country’s continued involvement in the region. A shocking 53 percent didn’t know the Sudan was a country in Africa.
In other words, the problem is not only Occidentalism, our tendency to assume that the history of Western civilizations are more important than those of cultures, but also our own lack of knowledge about life outside the U.S. A 2006 survey published in National Geographic argued that young Americans are “geographically illiterate” when it comes to the rest of the world. According to the report, 90 percent were unable to point out Afghanistan on a map of the Middle East, despite our country’s continued involvement in the region. A shocking 53 percent didn’t know the Sudan was a country in Africa.
The report cited David Rutherford, who specializes in geography education at D.C.’s National Geographic Society. “Young Americans just don't seem to have much interest in the world outside of the U.S.,” Rutherford said. But while this problem starts in education, are their adult counterparts any better? Comedian Patrice O’Neal once joked that American “don’t know the name of anybody else’s president,” even though Barack Obama is one of the most widely recognized figures in the world. According to a 2011 poll from Newsweek, though, Americans didn’t even know their own politicians—29 percent couldn’t come up with the name of our current vice-president.
As the Sudan example shows, the American people particularly have little to no knowledge about Africa. When Nelson Mandela died, Twitter users widely confused him with actor Morgan Freeman. While this is partially motivated by racism, it’s also comes down to education and laziness, our inability to abandon the culturally exclusionary mentalities that have affected European civilization since the Renaissance and Reformation. While we can blame students for being unaware of African politics and life, would they be able to say the same if our education system taught them about the continent at all, outside of its slave legacy? And the Boko Haram incident might shine a light on the media’s lack of interest in Africa, but that ignorance isn’t just about Boko Haram—the media ignores Africa every day.
Americans' ignorance isn’t just about Boko Haram—the media ignores Africa every day.
While racism and expedience obviously play a big role in our media’s coverage of African humanitarian issues, the takeaway here shouldn’t be a sense of collective guilt. Instead each of us has a responsibility, as individuals, to educate ourselves about the rest of the world, including staying tuned to events that might not otherwise get covered. In today’s social media era, the Internet can play a particularly important role in self-education; as early as 2004, the Internet mobilized raised awareness about genocide in Darfur. More #BlackLivesMatter has helped start a conversation about racial injustice and police brutality, while #NAACPbombing educated the public about race-based terror attacks as the media remained silent.
Hashtag activism is a good start, but it isn’t enough. The Internet can work to mobilize a movement for change, but unless these conversations begin to take place offline—in the media, in our classrooms, and in our homes—we will continue to stay uninformed. While Charlie Hebdo taught us the dangers of violent extremism, it also reminded us of the importance of solidarity in the face of terror. Unfortunately, though, those lessons extend far beyond the borders of France. We might be Charlie, but we should also be Africa.
Photo via EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection/Flickr (CC BY-N.D. 2.0)