from Africa in Transition

The BBC and Nigerian Islamist Terror

March 21, 2013

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Northern Nigeria is a dangerous place. Even President Goodluck Jonathan waited to make his first visit to Yobe and Borno states until earlier this month, almost two years into his presidential term. Western journalists rarely visit there, and diplomatic travel by Western embassies appears to be limited. Information about the Islamist insurrection—labeled “Boko Haram”—largely comes from Nigerian commentators. There may also be the temptation among Americans who follow Africa to become fatigued over the violence.

Hence, BBC News has performed a service by broadcasting a report on March 13 on what life has become in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno. It profiles the frightful human cost of the insurrection and the government’s often brutal response: widows, orphans, an economy largely destroyed, and schools closed. And the traditional social safety nets are under siege or destroyed.

But, in some ways, the most frightening aspect of the BBC’s reportage is how embedded in the population Boko Haram has become: “As it is, you can’t even tell if your neighbor is a member and you dare not talk about them in public,” one Maiduguri resident told the BBC. The Nigerian government continues to insist that Boko Haram is a manifestation of international Islamist terrorism, and it utterly rejects the nearly ubiquitous reports of brutality by government forces. And, indeed, with the emergence of apparent splinter groups such as Ansaru, the movement is acquiring an international dimension that it has hitherto lacked. But the BBC report gives credibility to the essentially domestic origins of the insurrection.