BROOKE: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week, I’m Brooke Gladstone.
Last Wednesday, two brothers forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, murdering twelve people and later five more, before the brothers, and a third accomplice, were killed by authorities. Local and international news media broadcast the hostage situations and their bloody conclusion live across the world. Cellphone videos from eyewitnesses went viral.
But four days before that, on Saturday, January 3rd, another group of terrorists murdered hundreds, possibly thousands, in Nigeria’s northeastern corner. While it would have been hard to miss the attacks in Paris, the massacre in Baga, and elsewhere, by Boko Haram was a comparative blip in the news cycle. Only now, two weeks after that massacre, satellite images are emerging showing entire neighborhoods obliterated. And only now, after the world’s leaders are finished venting in Paris, are the news media that trailed them asking why they had so little to say about Baga.
NBC Brian Williams: There is another terrorist attack in the news but this one didn’t take place in Paris or on live television, and there’s been no parade of world leaders with arms locked in defiance.
CNN Anchor: Some critics are asking why is the world paying all this attention to Paris but not Nigeria?
BROOKE: Nigeria’s leadership was also quick to register outrage about the Paris attacks, but President Goodluck Jonathan waited until Thursday to get to northeastern Nigeria, which has been under Boko Haram attack for years.
Alexis Okeowo is a freelance journalist based in Lagos, who’s followed that conflict and what happened this month.
ALEXIS: According to eyewitness accounts, Boko Haram killed hundreds of people, burned hundreds of homes and buildings. People described stepping over bodies for several kilometers as they fled. And, in the days following that initial attack, Boko Haram attacked up to or even more than 16 villages and towns surrounding Baga. And it’s believed that the death toll could reach perhaps even 2,000 people. But it’s not known because currently that territory is under Boko Haram control.
BROOKE: And you’ve suggested that the number doesn’t even really matter at this point.
ALEXIS: Yeah, I don’t think it does. Because the problem is is that even if it wasn’t 2,000 people who were killed in this attack, it eventually will be because if you add up the successive attacks...You know, Boko Haram has in recent days attacked more places and will continue to do so. So, at this point it doesn’t really matter if it’s 100 or 2,000 because the number continues to grow at a horrific rate.
BROOKE: There’s been a lot of talk about how the attack in Paris got so much more attention than the attack in Baga. Were you surprised?
ALEXIS: To be honest, I wasn’t. Mainly because it’s not often that terrorist attacks happen in France. Whereas unfortunately in North Eastern Nigeria, it’s become part of the every day. And as a result, both people within Nigeria and outside have become de-sensitized to it.
BROOKE: It doesn’t feel like news anymore?
ALEXIS: Sadly, no. I mean - because this conflict has become such a part of daily life, especially for Northeasterners, it’s not as if the government is doing any sort of operation that’s bettering the war. So people have become really disillusioned.
BROOKE: It’s a dreary narrative, but it’s also a very difficult story to cover, right?
ALEXIS: It’s incredibly difficult. Now that Boko Haram has been seizing territory in recent months, and declaring these areas you know no-go zones, we have to rely on eyewitness reports. Those accounts don’t even get down to people sometimes until days later when they make it to other towns, and talk to reporters. You know, we’re not able to get images that can then be on television networks or in magazines.
BROOKE: So that’s going to put a crimp on reporting.
BROOKE: But were you at all surprised to learn that even in Nigeria the attack on Charlie Hebdo was covered substantially more?
ALEXIS: What disappointed me was that even Nigerian leaders were expressing condolences to France after the newspaper attack. And yet, not saying anything about Baga. And many Nigerians were really angry and frustrated that the president and other ministers were just silent.
BROOKE: President Goodluck Jonathan is facing an election very soon. At least 4,000 people killed by Boko Haram on his watch. The American military advisors that came in during the 'Bring Back Our Girls' campaign, they’ve gone away frustrated, partly because of the corruption in the Nigerian military. And partly because the military has also been responsible for some mass deaths of innocents in pursuit of Boko Haram. This is all true, right?
ALEXIS: Yes, it’s true. And that’s why the relationship between the US and Nigeria is so bad right now.
BROOKE: Would that also account for the government’s silence on this latest attack by Boko Haram? It reflects terribly on this government, and soon there’ll be a referendum on this government?
ALEXIS: And that, I think, also plays a role in why the military’s downplaying the number of the people who were killed. I think the quote is even, they said, only 150. And, you know, Nigeria does have brave soldiers who’ve fought and died in this war against Boko Haram, but they’re just crippled by a government that’s not giving them what they need.
BROOKE: The last time we spoke to you was during the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. Do you feel that the Western interest generated by all those hashtags was just a waste of time?
ALEXIS: I know a lot of people think it was a waste of time. But I don’t think it was. That movement really did put some pressure on the Nigerian government, if only for a little while, to be responsive to critics and to take some action. Um, the problem is now, is that the Nigeria government seems to have dropped the ball.
BROOKE: And in the mean time Boko Haram continues to maraud. Have you gotten tired covering it?
ALEXIS: To be honest, yes. I have. The story itself is incredibly dark and depressing. And it takes a toll on you. Because you’re reporting about the situation that never seems to get better. That seems to be continually ignored by people who could make it better--the Nigerian government. And so it feels really hopeless.
BROOKE: Alexis, thank you very much.
ALEXIS: Thank you.
BROOKE: Alexis Okeowo is a freelance journalist based in Lagos.