Wednesday, January 21, 2015

ONGWEN, BOKO HARAM, CHARLIE AND THE VALUE OF LIFE



Last week while the world was gripped by the horror of the attack on a French media house, Nigerian rebels Boko Haram killed hundreds as it laid waste to a whole village and Uganda rebel commander Dominic Ongwen was captured in Central Africa Republic.

It was quite a week for Terror Inc.

In Paris gunmen walked into the offices of French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and opened fire killing at least 12 people in the process. Within minutes of the attack the news and images had been zapped around the world and the outrage was instant, palpable and universal.

Over the weekend several heads of state flew to Paris to show solidarity by joining in a march that attracted hundreds of thousands on the streets of the French capital.

Days before the Charlie attack, Boko Haram started an operation in Baga village in north eastern Nigeria which lasted several days and accounted for about 2,000 people. In a recently released report by Amnesty International 3,700 structures were damaged in the most affected villages of Baga and Doron Baga. Another 16 surrounding settlements were razed to the ground displacing at least 20,000 people.

This has got to be the deadliest attack by the northern Nigerian insurgents since they began operations in 2009.


"Compared to the amount of press generated by either event the killing of a dozen people in Paris, four days after the massacres started in north eastern Nigeria, the handiwork of Boko Haram was a whisper in comparison...


And of course the perennial questions of the relative value of life and the alleged racism of the international media reared their ugly heads.

Being a member of the media I was unsurprised that the attack of Charlie Hebdo got more play than the Baga killings and not for the usual knee jerk reaction reasons.

The reason why goes back to journalism 101, what makes news? Among other qualifiers is the proximity and relevance of the events to the markets the media are targeting.

But then subsequently, what makes news go viral? This is a function of the actual event but even more importantly the network that is used to relay the information.

So for example the death of local businessman would in the outer reaches of Uganda would generate less press than a rich man’s death in Kampala.

In Kabong for instance the local radio stations may carry the news in the local language but because of the limitations of the signal’s reach and the number of people who understand the language its effect will be severely limited.

However his local equivalent in Kampala will have the length and breadth of the national papers to relay his story.

The major news media of the world with their targets being mostly Europeans and North and South Americans would see the Charlie Hebdo attack as more relevant and closer to home, never mind the higher fatalities in Nigeria.

It’s not a palatable reality but true never the less.

Overlay this analysis on the Charlie Hebdo versus Baga village killings and it becomes clear why the Paris attack had disproportionate impact on our lives given the number of people who died.

In addition to that there was the power of social media and particularly the pervasiveness of the mobile phone and devices.

It is estimated that the every seven in ten people in Paris has a mobile phone one need not be a rocket scientist to see how this can be leveraged to have the news sent out faster.

But given that rate of mobile phone uptakes is fastest in Africa than anywhere else in the world maybe there is hope for African news being bumped up the ladder. Just maybe.

Which brings us finally to our very own Dominic Ongwen, regarded by some as the third highest ranking official of the LRA. When he was going about his murderous business in northern Uganda more than a decade ago media was thin and even mobile phone penetration in northern Uganda was even thinner.


"The scale of Boko Haram’s exploits are being relayed faster and more accurately – everyone can now shoot video, than was happening at the height of LRA’s rampage through the north. One shudders to think that the LRA may have been just as murderous as the Boko Haram...


One wonders too whether Nigeria may have to face up to the hard reality that to starve Boko Haram of targets and potential  they may have to herd the northern population into Internally Displaced Camps too.