On Easter Sunday, April 21, coordinated jihadist suicide bombers blasted three Sri Lankan churches and three hotels, killing more than 250 people and injuring more than 500. Within 24 hours, most world leaders condemned the attacks and sent condolences to those who lost their loved ones.
Such terrorist attacks and threats need to be reported, but there is something amiss with the global media coverage and response in other parts of the world, like Africa.
Many recent cases of ethnic and religious violence in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria, peppered with attacks by the Islamic terror group, Boko Haram and another group, the Fulani herdsmen, have continued to plague Africa’s most populous nation and economic powerhouse. ISIS supports some sects of Boko Haram and claimed responsibility for the attacks in Sri Lanka, carried out by a previously little-known local jihadist group.
And yet, no one seems to be paying thorough attention to how ISIS and Boko Haram are attacking Nigerians, not even the presidency, which despite sending condolences to Sri Lanka hasn’t commented on many episodes of violence against Nigerians.
Although Nigeria’s government declared that it defeated Boko Haram in 2015 (similar to how President Trump declared the end of ISIS earlier this year), there are still consistent reports of bombings and indiscriminate killings in northern Nigeria.
In the week leading up to Easter, more than 40 Christians were killed, according to Christian persecution organization Open Doors, but the attacks were largely unreported. Last week, gunmen in Benue, northern Nigeria ambushed a group of worshippers leaving a Good Friday service. Eleven people reportedly died, with about 40 others still missing.
On the same day in another state, Kaduna, a group of tourists were attacked while visiting Kajuru castle, a luxury resort, though the motives are unknown and likely just kidnappings for ransom. Gunmen killed two people and abducted several others, many still missing. The state government took seven days after the incident to place a curfew on the state, despite a truckload of communal conflicts that had already claimed dozens of lives in Kaduna. On Easter in 2012, a car bomb suspected from Boko Haram killed 41 people outside a church in Kaduna. On Easter Sunday this year, two security officers in Gombe, northeastern Nigeria drove their car into a crowd of Christian youth they had a disagreement with, killing 10 people and injuring 30.
The instability of the region is not purely about religion. Often, tussles are about something else, but religious identity separates the communities. The ethnic group, Fulani herdsmen, who were essential in reviving Islam in Nigeria in the 19th century, often clash violently with farmers about access to land and water for their livestock. Access to other resources like mines is also spurring violence. About 30 people are killed every day in Zamfara, northwestern Nigeria, by bandits linked to an illicit gold mining industry in the state.
Security officials have been deployed to Zamfara, but Nigerian troops seem ill-equipped. For example, Boko Haram fighters reportedly raided an army outpost in Borno the Friday before Easter, using stolen army trucks to break into the premises and haul off the soldiers’ weapons.
These are just a few cases that highlight how not just the president of the country, but many other government officials are far from proactive to protect Nigerians caught in religious and communal conflict.
According to Mark Amaza, one of the writers at the forefront of reporting policy and developmental issues in Nigeria, there seems to be a belief among government officials that commenting on Nigeria’s political crises or security breaches is an admission of failure.
“This is why they rather pretend like it never happened,” he said. “Casual observation shows that they often respond after international media has taken up the issue.
When Boko Haram kidnapped 276 school girls from Borno in 2014, the Nigerian presidency responded to the crisis only after international media picked up the stories and the Bring Back Our Girls movement spread. More than 100 of those girls are still missing.
Sri Lanka’s prime minister Ranil Wickremsinghe apologized Saturday for failing to protect the victims when foreign intelligence had sent detailed warnings about the planned attacks, including the intended targets and methods. He promised action against officials who neglected their duties.
World leaders, including church and political leaders, have rallied to support the government. Sri Lankan troops have remained at the blast scenes and have been guarding churches and mosques for days. The entire country has been in mourning and various activities have been postponed till all investigations are conclusive.
Nigeria has received plenty of international support to fight against terrorism, but the money doesn’t necessarily reach its intended end. In 2016, there were reports suggesting that the Buhari-led administration used UK Aid to prosecute opposition politicians instead of fighting Boko Haram. Britain had given Nigeria £860 million in foreign aid to support the country’s efforts to end Boko Haram’s reign of terror within and outside the country.
There has also been a lot of speculation that fake news is fueling the crisis in Nigeria’s northern region. But while there is still no empirical evidence, it is very possible that fake news spread on social media has been a contributor to the breaking down in relations between diverse religious and ethnic communities which breaks out now and then in violence.
The role of fake news in fueling conflict
In Nigeria, the spread of fake news and rumours is prominent in the political scene and is often targeted at spurring ethnoreligious division, a prime factor in gaining ground among voters. Politicians in Nigeria use similar tactics to those used in India, and often with similarly devastating results. The more prominent culprit in Nigeria’s case is Whatsapp’s parent company Facebook. Fake news on Nigeria’s Facebook has become progressively notorious, with the Nigerian police and even the Nigerian Army calling for more effort to curb the trend.
While Facebook has responded to the criticisms with 24-hour fact checking partners, there are controversially only 4 permanent fact checkers serving in the country, against approximately 24 million users. Taking efforts into their own hands, the Nigerian Army resorted to debunking fake news on Facebook via radio, aired in hot zones where the spread of false information had turned deadly. One such incident, occurring in Jos, the Plateau State capital emerged after a series of images were spread depicting the mutilation of a child, with the post claiming the act was perpetrated by Fulani Muslims in the area.
Going viral among the youth in Jos, this fake message spurred reprisal attacks all along the major highways, resulting in the mutilation and burning of at least 11 men on the night of 24th June 2018. Ethnic violence in places like Jos preceded the rise of Facebook, Whatsapp and social media, but what is evident is the way in which these new technologies can be used to incite these deadly sentiments, a tactic that has been added to the political arsenal of many.
Rumour and speculation about a plan to Islamize Nigeria, and the advancement of ISIS in the country, spread like wildfire prior to and during the elections. What was meant to be a contest of whit and economic preparedness became a clash of ethnoreligious sympathies. Nigerians today are of a strong opinion the two major religions are fighting an unspoken war for dominance and survival, and measures to dissuade this notion continues to be undone by new fake news events.
Even Trump asked Buhari to stop the attacks
After many attacks on churches, mosques and rural settlements, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has repeatedly organized national protests demanding the government to stop the killings and prosecute the perpetrators, who largely roam free.
“We are deeply concerned by religious violence in Nigeria including the burning of churches and the killing and persecution of Christians. It’s a horrible story,” Trump said in a joint press conference last year.
But international media attention and pressure has again waned, and coverage of the attacks are relegated to fringe media outlets or reduced to fights over resources that ignore religious tensions and the government’s challenges to protect religious freedom and fight deeply-embedded terrorist networks.
At the moment, the Nigerian government doesn’t seem motivated enough or able to fight terrorism and end conflicts. That’s opening the door for more powerful groups like ISIS to carry out a revenge attack like in Sri Lanka, which was reportedly in response to the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand.
This article is co-published with Religion Unplugged. Additional reporting by Meagan Clark.