Nigeria's Horror in Paris's Shadow

Why a 10-year-old suicide bomber isn't front-page news

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

As many as a million people, joined by 40 world leaders, filled the streets of Paris on Sunday in solidarity after two separate terrorist attacks claimed 17 innocent lives last week. The day before, more than 3,000 miles to the south, a girl believed to be around 10 approached the entrance to a crowded market in Maiduguri, a city of some 1 million in Nigeria's Borno State. As a security guard inspected her, the girl detonated explosives strapped to her body, killing herself and at least 19 others. Dozens more were injured.

Saturday's suicide bombing elicited little coverage compared to the events in Paris, which have dominated headlines since last Wednesday's attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper. Why the slaughter of 17 innocents in France receives more attention than the death of roughly the same number of Nigerians is the kind of question that can result in accusations of indifference, racism, and media bias. But the contrast between the attacks in Paris and the suicide bombing in Maiduguri actually reveals something far more sinister: the ravages of state failure.

Boko Haram is waging a ruthless war throughout northeast Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. On Wednesday, Boko Haram militants laid siege to Baga, a city that has resisted them, setting fire to buildings and killing residents indiscriminately. Hundreds of people fled into Lake Chad and attempted to swim to a nearby island. Many drowned along the way. Those who didn't are now marooned without food and shelter and have no defense against the island's swarm of malarial mosquitos. The death toll in Baga reportedly exceeds 2,000. Some 20,000 others are now displaced.

The New York Times story on this deadly siege appeared on page A6 of Saturday's print edition, while the paper's story of the suicide bombing landed on page A8.

How did the attacks in France so thoroughly bury the atrocities in Nigeria?

One explanation is the difficulty of covering dangerous, remote parts of the world, such as Nigeria's northeastern Borno State, where Boko Haram holds sway over much of the territory. A similar dynamic exists in Syria, where a civil war has claimed nearly 200,000 lives since erupting in 2011, and where relatively few journalists are there to witness it. In addition, it's likely that the Paris attack's focus on a publication touched a nerve with members of the media worldwide.

But it's not that the media doesn't cover Nigeria, or that Westerners don't care about Africans. After all, when Boko Haram fighters kidnapped nearly 200 girls from a school in Chibok in April of last year, a public campaign to bring them back attracted widespread publicity, with even First Lady Michelle Obama contributing a photograph. Two years before that, a video from the now-defunct NGO Invisible Children that highlighted Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord who leads the Lord's Resistance Army, was viewed over 100 million times in its first six days. These campaigns, whatever their shortcomings, did at least show that people in the West aren't totally indifferent to African suffering.

The main difference between France and Nigeria isn't that the public and the media care about one and not the other. It is, rather, that one country has an effective government and the other does not. The French may not be too fond of President Francois Hollande—his approval ratings last November had plunged to 12 percent—but he responded to his country's twin terror attacks with decisiveness. Not so Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan. Since assuming the presidency in 2010, Jonathan has done little to contain Boko Haram. The group emerged in 2002 and has consolidated control over an area larger than West Virginia. And it's gaining ground. Perversely, the seemingly routine nature of Nigeria's violence may have diminished the perception of its newsworthiness.

Jonathan's failure to confront Boko Haram, of course, is nothing new. Nigeria has long been cursed with a corrupt, ineffective government, one perennially unable to translate the country's vast oil wealth into broad-based prosperity. During his campaign for re-election—Nigerians go to the polls on February 14—Jonathan has vowed to tackle his country's problem with graft. At a campaign rally on Thursday, the president exhorted his followers to support him.

"You must vote for your liberation, you must vote for your development, you must vote to take Nigeria to the moon," he said.

"You cannot vote to take Nigeria backward."

Boko Haram wasn't mentioned once.