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France versus Nigeria: Why African lives matter less

The police in Hollywood action films are notorious for arriving on the scene after the big fight has gone down, their wailing sirens signifying little more than clean-up operations.

I was reminded of this popular film trope in the wake of last week’s massacre of scores of Nigerians by Boko Haram.

As Amnesty International announced that as many as 2 000 people had been killed by the terrorist group and tens of thousands more displaced, the international media sat up and rightfully blushed.

Boko Haram entered the village of Baga in northeastern Nigeria. From Wednesday they gunned down hundreds of men, women and children while the world was fixated on the streets of Paris.

On the same day, two brothers linked to al-Qaeda walked into the offices of satirical cartoon publication Charlie Hebdo in Paris and started a shooting spree that would see 17 people killed across the city.

The world went wild. It took us a while to hear about what was happening in our own continent – even here in South Africa. Local Facebook feeds and Twitter accounts were dominated by thoughts and outrage about the Paris incident. Across the world, and locally, people expressed their solidarity with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, or #IamCharlie.

When the news started filtering through about the reign of terror in Nigeria we sat up and paid attention, and the world media started asking questions and tried to understand their own reaction to 2 000 dead Nigerians and their obsession with 17 European lives.

There were four standard responses to the double standard:

1. The radically different responses from each country’s leaders. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, in the run-up to a re-election no less, expressed his sympathies to France but failed to mention the massacre on his doorstep.

2. We rely on media reports to guide our understanding, and media access to Paris and Baga was vastly different. The area in Nigeria was unsafe and isolated and residents were unable to take to the net and share their experiences.

3. Editors across the world were more likely to identify with the attacks on freedom of expression.

4. This was the worst terrorist attack in France’s history, and is being called their 9/11.

Some of the explanations are valid and other points are open to criticism. But beyond the obvious there is something fundamentally more sinister about the double standard that has dogged our response to these attacks.

The Paris attack fitted neatly into a narrative that has been told hundreds of times: it is a now archetypal story of the backward Arab attacking the enlightened European. It is a story that is less about religion than it is about ethnicity: the swarthy Arabs replacing Russians as the bad guys in Hollywood movies soon after the Cold War. It is a narrative we have been trained to understand and respond to.

So black-on-black violence becomes a murky area we shy away from. Why are Nigerians attacking other Nigerians? Or Muslims attacking other Muslims? It does not fit into the neat polarisation of a clash of civilisations.

Indeed, the overshadowing of the Baga killings by the Paris deaths recalls a similar incident, on a much larger scale, 21 years ago.

As South Africa celebrated its first democratic election in April 1994 and our so-called miracle transition, the world’s media was obsessed with the southern tip of our continent, neglecting the genocide in Rwanda.

In the 100 or so days between April and July 1994 as many as a million Rwandans were killed – including 70% of the Tutsi population.

Different reasons were put forward in the aftermath and apologies were made: the world needed a good-news story from Africa and South Africa was it.

But again the narrative of neat binaries reared its head. South Africa’s story could be neatly put into a literal white versus black package for audiences. Rwanda’s people, all the same colour, turning against each other, was more difficult to sell.

So the massacre in Baga went unnoticed and it wasn’t the first time. Indeed, the Nigerian military has played a frightening role in terrorising the residents of the area, as Vox points out. 

In April 2013, Nigeria’s military killed 200 people in Baga in a bizarre and contradictory response to Boko Haram ambushing their troops near the village. A year later they reacted to a tip-off from Baga locals that Boko Haram was again active near the village. 

The military did nothing at first and then bombed Baga, after Boko Haram had left, instead killing the very people who were trying to combat the terrorist group.

We haven’t heard about these stories often enough because it is too commonplace and, more specifically, too bewildering. These are not stories that seem primed for a movie script.

Whiteness is comprised of so much nuance as to be invisible: every ethnicity is a nationality, every culture and subculture uniquely understood from New York Jewish people and their quirks to the passion of Italians. But blackness is amorphous.

The differences between Africans are sublimated in broader brush strokes that tell Western narratives but obscure local understandings. We hear about Africa insofar as it fits into a larger story with a Western actor in a lead role, but not on our own terms. So we are opaque to the world, devoid of difference. Africa as a country.

“Do African lives matter less?” we asked ourselves in the aftermath of last week. It would appear they do, and for reasons that are far more entrenched than we realise.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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