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Yvonne Abraham

Forgetting about the victims in Nigeria

Nigerians crammed into a bus and fled the town of Mubi following attacks last month in northeast Nigeria.EPA

Do all lives matter?

Only at the level of philosophy, it seems. It’s as if everywhere at once, innocents are cannon fodder for ideology and power.

Do our lives matter? For local Nigerian immigrants, that more brutally personal question is especially pressing lately.

After the horrific terrorist attacks in France, all eyes turned to Paris. At least a million gathered to mourn the 17 lives lost in last week’s mayhem and to make a stand for the freedoms Islamic extremists long to eradicate.

Nigerians mourn those senseless deaths, too. Like everyone, they’re inspired by the immense solidarity, and the unshakable determination, that massive march represented. And they long to see the same international outrage marshaled against the extremists destroying their own country.


“You see the whole world gather to protest what happened in France,” said a father of three who stopped Wednesday morning at Jamakex, a store in Hyde Park where Nigerian immigrants send money back to their families. “What about Nigeria?”

The man’s daughter lost part of her leg in a bombing at an Abuja bus terminal last April. He didn’t want his name used because he is critical of the Nigerian government and fears repercussions for family members still there.

“Our leaders are not doing anything,” he said, his eyes welling.

Every week, there is another horrific strike, as the brutality of Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group, escalates. Just before the Paris attacks, details emerged of the Nigerian terrorists’ massacre of hundreds (some estimates say 2,000) of mostly women, children, and elderly people who could not flee when Boko Haram overran Baga, a town on the border with Chad. Elsewhere in Nigeria’s north, a bomb strapped to a child perhaps as young as 10 detonated at a market on Saturday, killing 20. The kidnappings of school girls continue.

The horrors seem unstoppable. And for immigrants thousands of miles away in Boston — sending money home at Jamakex, buying provisions next door at the Blessing of God Market — they are excruciating to watch.


And the world’s silence is hard to comprehend.

“The people I speak to back home feel hopeless and helpless,” said Aminu Gamawa, an international lawyer and activist who is working on a doctorate at Harvard Law School. “They feel abandoned, first by our government, second by the media, and third by the international community.”

Gamawa is frustrated that “people are discussing Paris over dinner and breakfast, but only a few talk about Boko Haram. . . . It is painful to see the double standard.”

This selective seeing and feeling is partly about race, and region: We summon outrage more easily when victims look and live more like us, or die in places where such attacks are rare. A suicide bombing in Baghdad, or in Rawalpindi, barely registers. An attack in Paris, on satirists practicing the ultimate in free expression, is shocking because it attacks liberties we hold dear.

But Gamawa and others see more than solipsism or numbness here: Northeastern Nigeria is so dangerous for journalists that it is hard to get reliable information out on Boko Haram’s atrocities. And Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who faces an election next month, downplays the brutalities to make himself seem more in control. Jonathan did not hesitate to condemn the attacks in France, issuing a strong statement the day after the killings. Nigerians here are still waiting for his public outrage over Baga.


They are not the only immigrants hurting, of course. The city is home to many from places riven by war and terrorism, smarting to see their adopted country focused so firmly on some outrages, but not all — even though we know compassion should have no borders.

“If we really care about our common humanity,” Gamawa said, “we shouldn’t be selective.”

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at