Nigeria’s Disaster Porn

There’s no doubt you’ve heard about the shocking kidnap of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the moronic rebel group Boko Haram. This is one of those rare catastrophes that captures Western public attention. In part, this illustrates a positive trend: a mere generation ago, few people cared what happened in far away lands. But nothing is far away any more. Everything is within the reach of live satellite broadcast and the Internet reaches ever further. The empathy we once reserved for our close neighbours is now extended globally. Humans are becoming more caring.

But this doesn’t explain the focus on this particular incident. The kidnap and enslavement of the girls is doubtless horrific. The likelihood that they are being sexually and physically abused makes the episode even more sickening. But kidnaps in Nigeria are daily events: over 25,000 have been recorded in the past couple of decades.

My own Facebook news-feed has been filled with outrage of various kinds. Friends of mine who never normally protest have gathered in solidarity at the Nigerian embassy. Moronic rumours have been spread. From some black friends, the insinuation that the world isn’t paying enough attention because the girls are black. I’ve even seen the suggestion that Boko Haram are part of a CIA plot – thus neatly reviving the afrocentric meme that everything bad that takes place in Africa is somehow the fault of foreigners. Meanwhile, at least three of my white friends have taken to spreading far-right anti-Muslim propaganda, focusing on the fact that Boko Haram is an extremist Islamic group (but not the fact that most northern Nigerians, and many of the kidnapped girls, are Muslim, or that such episodes frequently happen in Christian regions too).

Of course, to Western eyes, this incident is a big deal. But everything is relative, and by the standards of much of what takes place in Africa, this is a minor thing. For years, the Democratic Republic of Congo has experienced warfare and terror. Six million people are said to have died there, and mass kidnaps and rapes are commonplace. Not so long ago, 48 women per hour were estimated to have been raped (and many men also have been raped). Yet this failed to catch public attention. Of my own Facebook friends, only one regularly posted about this, and she is of Congolese background.

Genocide has been raging across Sudan for years, and since the country split into two, South Sudan is now undergoing a new wave of genocide. Women and girls are kidnapped, raped and murdered in far greater numbers than in Nigeria. Yet this has failed to capture public interest.

It’s not just Africa: Sri Lanka just five years ago, an estimated 40,000 civilians were slaughtered, and hundreds of thousands rounded up into camps, where many still remain. Rape and summary execution has been recorded on a huge scale.

But not, apparently, on a big enough scale to warrant a hashtag.

So why is this event different from the others? In the case of my own Facebook feed, there are a couple of obvious reasons. I have a number of British-Nigerian friends, and it seems obvious that they will be interested in this. Also, given the dominance of Nigerians in today’s black British culture, many of my other black friends also feel close to the issue. Meanwhile, Sudanese people play little, if any, part in black British culture, so few people here are aware or interested in the South Sudan events.

But the fascination with this kidnap is global. Michelle Obama has expressed her outrage (though cynics have been quick to point out that her own husband’s foreign policy has slaughtered far more children than Boko Haram ever could). The British and Israeli governments have offered military support. And of course, both Britain and Israel have long records of providing international humanitarian support without asking for anything in return*.

The politically-correct and the far-right are united in presenting this as an unusual situation; the former are terrified to generalise about African human rights abuses; the latter are determined to blame this on Islamism, and add to the growing demonisation of Muslims around the world.

But the plain fact is that this is one of a long string of similar incidents in Africa, both in Muslim and Christian regions. African conflicts from Biafra to Congo to Sierra Leone to Sudan to Uganda are routinely characterised by mass abductions, child soldiers, industrial-scale rape and slavery.

Given the incompetence and corruption of Nigeria’s military and government, there is a strong argument for Western intervention to help find and free the girls, but we should not try to pretend that such interventions are primarily motivated by the fate of a couple of hundred girls. So why this place and this time?

To say “oil” would miss the point. Nigerian oil is already flowing freely to the West, and many billions of dollars of revenue are flowing into Nigeria… much of which then finds its way into Swiss bank accounts (this fact alone provides a far better explanation for Nigerian instability than the “Islamism did it” theory). The true explanation for the West’s sudden interest in African human rights is even simpler.

It’s The Economy Stupid

Last month, Nigeria’s GDP suddenly grew by 89%, catapulting the country ahead of South Africa to become the continent’s wealthiest, as the result of a long-overdue recalculation. Nigeria’s economy is now more than a fifth the size of the UK’s and is growing much faster. The West, long used to dismissing Africa as an economic irrelevance, and captivated by Asian and Brazilian growth, has only just woken up to a key fact: Africa is finally joining the big boys. By mid-century, Nigeria’s population will be bigger than America’s and (all being well) its economy will outstrip many Western ones.

Investors around the world want a piece of the action; but the instability of the country, and its neighbours, adds serious risk to any investment. If Nigeria wants to secure its place at the table of leading nations, it will need to play by global rules. It will need to ensure that taxes are collected, and that they’re spent on public services and infrastructure. It will need to accept that global economies don’t have most of their citizens living on less than $2 per day, and start distributing the nation’s wealth more fairly. It will need to adopt global human rights standards. Western liberals will need to swallow their dislike of “cultural imperialism”, if it means an end to child soldiers and slavery.

The kidnap of the schoolgirls is nothing new, but it might be the last straw. To focus on this one incident alone might be hypocritical, but if it is the catalyst that brings about African progress, it’s worth it.

*Sarcasm alert

10 thoughts on “Nigeria’s Disaster Porn”

  1. All well and good in terms of attention but 59 children were murdered by Boko Haram in Feb. No hashtag over the dead bodies, so is it the number? The fact they are alive or the fact they are girls that is causing the outpouring of “support”? On a personal level a marine team and a SAS team are much more useful than a hashtag to solve issues.

  2. Motivation for intervening / helping when someones in trouble is as good a descriptor of a nations cultural ethos as you can get …. industrialsts being nervous at the chaos in emerging African nations is central to any continent wide change …. it’s a shame for the ‘human spirit’ that we rarely mobilise and rally for fairness there (or anywhere) …… and almost never without capitalists in the west leading us….

  3. One point you don’t make here is that Boko Haram itself is very good at using the web to propagate its message (hence the video), and make itself look bigger and more important than it actually is. BH is really just an extortion racket using extreme Islam as a veneer, and the Nigerian government’s “laissez faire” attitude towards provinces that don’t vote for it (see report on last night’s BBC News) doesn’t help.

    The points you make about the Nigerian economy are basically right (and the same applies to the mineral wealth in the ridiculously named Democratic Republic of Congo, among many other places – the lack of a middle class, generally a sign of a developed economy, was mentioned to me on a trip to Marrakesh recently).

    I’m not sure I’d use “genocide” to describe what’s happening in South Sudan (we’ve discussed this previously), but it is a particularly moronic, as well as vicious, war (a political squabble between former allies). As a side issue, (at least on your definition), is what is happening in Bahrain (“a haven of peace and tolerance” according to Andrew Windsor in a no doubt pre-written speech) a form of “religious genocide”? This:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/prince-andrew-praises-bahrain-island-of-torture-9349625.html

    1. Thanks for the added detail.

      I wouldn’t compare Nigeria to DRC though. DRC has mineral wealth but no surrounding economy or middle class. Nigeria has a genuine, diverse economy beyond selling oil (such as film-making) and a fast-growing middle class. But that middle class is concentrated around Lagos and the coastal areas.

      I’ve met a number of Nigerian Londoners who flit between London and Lagos on business and for pleasure.

      1. Just a wild guess, but could DRC’s lack of any other economy be due to the elite siphoning off all the mineral wealth into Swiss bank accounts? That was the parallel I had in mind.

        1. Doubtless plenty goes missing, but (I just checked) the key difference is DRC’s GDP is tiny, $18 billion. So the minerals industry must be small compared to Nigeria’s oil and other industries. Also I think a lot of the skilled extraction work is done by Chinese workers, so doesn’t foster a local economy.

          1. Fair points (though the GDP according to Wikipedia is higher than your figure, and you are, I think, best off looking at GDP per capita, and DRC is still much lower than Nigeria). This is partly due to massive corruption under previous regimes (such as Mobutu’s) and destructive civil wars.

            The point about skilled extraction, though, should be addressed by education and training to help the local economy move forward.

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