On January 7, two gunmen – later identified as Islamist activists of Algerian descent – stormed the editorial headquarters of “Charlie Hebdo,” an irreverent, anti-religious weekly publication. In an attack that seemed to be over in a flash, the gunmen executed 12 people, including editor Stephane Charbonnier, several other editorial staff and two police officers.
The gunmen were on a mission of “holy” vengeance, out to deal devastating blows on an institution that gleefully lampoons religious figures and desecrates faith.
Their attack provoked outrage, in France and elsewhere. Moments after the attack, President Francois Hollande described it as “a terrorist attack of the most extreme barbarity.” Other European leaders followed suit, with statements that expressed horror, repudiation and a determination not to be chilled into silence.
Money poured in for “Charlie Hebdo,” from the French government, which gave approximately one million euros, and several foundations. Before the attack, the weekly newspaper had a middling circulation, usually fewer than 50,000. Its first issue after the attack sold out a print-run of three million copies. The paper had to print an additional two million copies to meet readers’ demands.
A few days after the attack, Mr. Hollande, numerous French leaders and major European figures marched in Paris – along with a huge crowd – to take a stand for freedom of self-expression and against those who would kill in God’s name. Thanks to social media, reactions to the deadly siege on “Charlie Hebdo” became global. On Facebook, twitter and other forums, sympathisers adopted and proclaimed the phrase, “Je suis Charlie” (French for, “I am Charlie.”).
Not everybody was impressed. Whilst warning against the use of violence to make any point, Pope Francis prudently cautioned against the mockery of icons of faith or believers. In Niger, next door to Nigeria, anti-Charlie Muslims torched six churches and killed several people.
On social media, many also announced that they were anything but Charlie. The bloodshed irrigated vigorous debates, on the Internet and a variety of other forums. Some sought to interrogate the whole question of freedom of expression. Many made the point that there were always limits to any rights, including that of expression.
For me, one of the most fascinating responses to the killings in Paris came from Nigerians – or their foreign friends and sympathisers. Just before the daring raid on “Charlie Hebdo,” there were reports in Nigerian and foreign newspapers about Boko Haram’s gruesome attack on Baga, a community in Borno State. Some reports stated that the Islamist insurgents had killed close to – or more than – 2, 000 people. The fortunate survivors of the horrendous massacre described a mini-apocalyptic scene, streets littered with corpses, a landscape of burnt homes.
In the wake of the global proclamation of support for “Charlie Hebdo,” some Nigerians began to wonder about the relative indifference to the plight of the people of Baga – a town whose blood-soaked suffering now stands as a metaphor for the larger tragedy of Nigeria’s northeast. In sheer scale, the slaughter in Baga dwarfed the killings at the offices of the French newspaper. Even if one accepted the Nigerian government’s revisionist insistence that Boko Haram insurgents killed 150 people in Baga, Nigeria still lost 138 more people than the French.
Why, Nigerians wondered, didn’t anybody think to proclaim, “I am Baga”? Why weren’t there protests in Paris and elsewhere to abhor the Baga killings?
In a sense, some Nigerians have developed a “Charlie Hebdo” envy. We want the world to love us as the world has loved “Charlie Hebdo.” We wish that the French and their coalition of sympathisers in Europe and elsewhere would recognise that, beneath our dark skins, we bleed the same blood as the victims at “Charlie Hebdo.” If only the world would realise that each of the 2, 000 corpses in Baga was a complex human, her or his life filled with magnificent hopes and dreams, driven by a quest for fulfillment.
Some Nigerians were irked that President Goodluck Jonathan, who never lets any massacre in his country get in the way of his partying, found some eloquent words to console the French people. But Mr. Jonathan, as far as I recall, never addressed Nigerians on Baga. In effect, Mr. Jonathan wants Nigerians to grant him another four years of frolicking while his country burns.
Nigerians have a “Charlie Hebdo” fantasy, but we don’t show any inclination to demand that we are dignified human beings, and must be treated as such. Our willingness to make excuses – in the name of ethnic or religious affinity – for those who steal our country blind is evidence that we don’t take our shared humanity seriously. Our readiness to bestow chieftaincies, knighthoods and national “honours” on knaves, idiots and fools exposes the erosion, if not absence, of ethical light in our lives.
Here’s what French President Hollande did not do as soon as he became aware of the slayings at “Charlie Hebdo.” He did not take off to dance at a party. He did not take a vacation to the paradisiacal country of Nigeria, “totally transformed” by a man so gifted in the art of leadership they named him Goodluck at birth. No, Mr. Hollande and his cabinet stayed on the case, monitoring the efforts of French law enforcement agents to find the assailants. Then he was out on the streets, with other French citizens, in a march calculated to serve notice that each and every French life matters.
By contrast, let’s look at Mr. Jonathan’s modus operandi. Last April, within hours of bomb explosions at a busy bus station that claimed more than a hundred lives, and the abduction of more than 300 schoolgirls, the Nigerian president flew to the city of Kano for a campaign junket. There, he danced on stage to the lyrics of a live band. Two weeks passed before President Jonathan’s speech writers could write him a script – altogether nondescript – to read about the abductions. Ten months later, most of the abducted girls remain in captivity but Mr. Jonathan has moved on to more serious matters: Pursuit of a second (partying) term!
Two years ago, residents of Amansea awoke to the horrific sight of nineteen corpses, floating on the Ezu River. The Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) claimed that the bodies were of their members, arrested by the police and extra-judicially murdered. Several “investigations” were launched but no word about the identities of the corpses or who caused their death. Nigerians had the opportunity to raise hell, to demand answers from the police and their political authorities. Instead, we settled down to drinking our beers, savouring our pepper soups.
A few months ago, a mob gathered at Oshodi to jeer at a woman, who groaned in agony, her skin hideously sheared. According to the mindless voyeurs, the woman was a witch who, flying to a blood-sucking mission, had accidentally thudded against an electric pole and crashed to the ground. With police supervising the macabre drama, the frenzied spectators snapped pictures of the woman and heckled her till she died. Nobody in the crowd had sense enough to recognise that, before them, was a fellow human being in the throes of deadly suffering. She was no “Charlie Hebdo.”
Nigeria’s so-called leaders treat the rest of us, their hapless led, as if we were a bunch of animals, bereft of dignity and unworthy of respect. What’s worse, too many of us, the led, are zealous enablers of these traitorous, treacherous “leaders.” Too many of us defend the right of our big men and women at the top to view and treat us as dispensable, subhuman beings. We hardly ever rise to resist their implicit categorisation of us as animals, or deplore their concomitant indifference.
The world will not treat Nigerians as “Charlie Hebdo” until Nigerians themselves take themselves seriously as humans. That means holding our “leaders” to account when their rapaciousness discounts our lives. That means reckoning that the lives we discount, or allow our “leaders” to degrade, are our own lives. Unless we serve notice that our lives count, and that we no longer are prepared to accept the fate of animals – or worse – the world will continue to yawn at news that thousands of us perished at the hands of Boko Haram or other man-made disasters, or from the occasional natural disaster.
By Okey Ndibe
Follow the writer on Twitter: @okeyndibe