Presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers from over 50 nations marched Sunday arm in arm in the streets of Paris in solidarity with the 17 French citizens and police officers killed in the wave of terror that hit the country last week.
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Under the slogan: #Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie)," which blossomed spontaneously on Twitter after the attack on offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine last Wednesday, and became one of the most popular hash tags in the history of the social network – an estimated 3.7 million people went out to demonstrate in France, as well as in many other cities around the world.
At about the same time, two girls blew themselves up in the market in Potiskum, a city of some 200,000 in northeast Nigeria, killing at least five people. And not a single world leader published a response or condemnation.
These girls – like another one, 10 years old, who detonated an explosive belt two days ago and killed at least 19 people in the same region, as well as other girls and women who have also blown themselves up in a similar way in recent months in the northern part of Nigeria ־ were sent to their deaths by the Boko Haram terror organization, which kidnapped them from their homes.
For a short time, last April and May, the entire world turned its attention to the fate of similarly abducted girls: Indeed, after Boko Haram kidnapped 274 girls from a school in the town of Chibok in Nigeria, the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag was tweeted over a million times within a short period.
However, in what can serve as an example of the gap between the virtual world and reality, even the enlistment of famous people from all over the globe in that campaign, including U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, did not help bring the girls back to their parents.
Moreover, even the increased U.S. military aid that Washington started transferring to the Nigerian authorities as a result of the outrage about the fate of the Chibok girls has shrunk in recent months after the Obama administration became sick of the corruption, human rights violations and other problems plaguing the Nigerian security forces.
The security vacuum and the renewed global apathy have been exploited in recent months by the fighters of Boko Haram, whose unofficial name can be loosely translated as “non-Islamic education is forbidden,” to expand the area under their power – what they call “the Islamic State in Africa." Today the organization controls an estimated 50,000 square kilometers of territory – about the size of Belgium – which are inhabited by 1.7 million people.
Most of the massacres and conquests by Boko Haram are perpetrated without drawing any attention from the world. Sometimes, when the group’s fighters achieve some sort of exceptional military victory or are responsible for an especially horrifying mass slaughter, the news manages to trickle down into the world’s awareness.
Last Thursday, when the entire world was hypnotized by the drama in France, the first survivors of the slaughter in Baga, Nigeria started reaching the area still under the control of government forces, and told of the unprecedented mass killings – “more bodies than what you can count.” Estimates range from a few hundred to over 2,000 dead.
The next day the Amnesty International human rights organization released a statement calling it the worst atrocity Boko Haram has ever committed, and that caused events in Nigeria to receive a certain amount of publicity, even at the height of the drama in France.
Without trying to diminish the importance of the murder of hundreds of people or the sending of 10-year-old girls to blow themselves up, it is important to note that last year over 10,000 people were killed by Boko Haram. The girl involved in the terror attack last week may have been the youngest ever killed in such a manner in Nigeria. Yet it is worth emphasizing that the repeated dispatch of 16- and 17-year-old women to blow themselves up in the middle of marketplaces filled with people has been met with no small measure of apathy in the past few months.
The slogan “Je suis Charlie” may be able to help bring about a change in French society, but the failed attempt of the Bring Our Girls Back campaign shows that a passing wave of international shock stemming from specific atrocities in Nigeria will certainly not make a practical contribution to the lives of the inhabitants of that country.
To bring about a real change there is a need for an international and regional effort to stop Boko Haram, and for an in-depth solution to the social problems of the region. This effort must be accompanied by international interest in the “small” atrocities in Nigeria, too, such as those in which “only” 20 people are killed or “only” 30 girls are kidnapped.
Furthermore, on Sunday it was reported that one of the Paris terrorists had met in Yemen the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the “Underwear Bomber,” who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009. That is a reminder that the calls of the millions who marched in Paris will end in nothing if the gap between the attitudes toward Western victims of terror and toward their African counterparts is not narrowed – the first stage in understanding that the struggle against Islamic terror in Europe also demands dealing with distress in the Middle East and Africa.