American journalists have duty to report on tragedies in Africa.

By Isha Sesay

There are few impenetrable corners left in the world. Today, thanks to globalization, innovations in technology, and the rise of social media, the world feels small, and those living in distant places are increasingly relatable. Unless, of course, we are talking about Africa.

As an African who grew up in Sierra Leone and who has now lived in the US for more than a decade, I struggle to understand why my home remains a dark, unfathomable place to so many Americans. I struggle to grasp why significant occurrences on the continent, like the current turmoil in Sudan — where, according to the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, on a single day, at least 118 pro-democracy activists lost their lives at the hands of the military — rarely gain and hold the attention of the American public. Is Africa’s “otherness” to blame, leading to a fundamental disinterest among Americans in what happens to its people? Or is American disinterest simply the byproduct of the US media’s sporadic and often half-hearted coverage of the continent? 

Media coverage of Chibok haphazard

I first came face to face with these questions on April 14, 2014, when news broke that more than 200 schoolgirls had been kidnapped from a town called Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. Members of the terrorist group Boko Haram had stormed the girls’ boarding school and disappeared with them into the night. Within days, this story had captured international attention — the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls was splashed across social media and celebrities including Alicia Keys and Angelina Jolie, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, joined with world leaders to declare their outrage. The story dominated newspapers and TV and “the girls” were on everyone’s lips and minds.

Until they weren’t. Just as suddenly, public interest and media coverage evaporated, leaving the families of the missing girls feeling abandoned, not just by the Nigerian government of Goodluck Jonathan, but by the world.

When the first of the Chibok girls reappeared in May 2016, the US media paid scant attention, and the reaction was similarly muted when 21 others were released in October 2016, followed by a group of 82 in May of the following year. To date, only 107 of the girls are back, while the whereabouts of their 112 schoolmates remain unknown. It is an outrage that so many in this country and around the world have so readily moved on, leaving an increasingly small group of people to call on the Nigerian government to bring back the rest of the girls. I covered this story extensively for CNN when it first broke, and five years later, I believe that we still have a duty to care about these girls. Their story matters and has implications for us all.

A Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014 is reunited with her family on May 20, 2017. (Photo: Olamikan Gbemiga/AP)

Nigeria deserves attention 

First, and most importantly, in the wake of the mass abduction, the Chibok community remains shattered, as 112 grieving families endure life without their children. In a region with one of the highest out-of-school populations in the world, these families had struggled to educate their daughters, sending them away to school with the expectation that they’d be safe. Meanwhile, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari hides behind claims of “no firm intelligence” to explain the fact more than 100 girls remain lost. This is an outrage and the global community cannot simply sit back and look on in silence.

If the suffering of these girls and their parents is not enough to make us pay attention to what has happened in Chibok, there is something else to consider: the threat to global security. The fate of these girls is in many ways a reflection of the Nigerian federal government’s longstanding inability to maintain peace and stability in the northeast of the country. Americans should see the disappearance of the Chibok girls as a flare, illuminating the existence of an “ungoverned space” that is fertile ground for a powerful terrorist group. The case was similar in Afghanistan, where Osama Bin Laden was able to take refuge and rise to power, resulting in a murderous plot that would claim the lives of nearly 3000 Americans. It was also amid the rubble of Yemen’s failed state that in 2009 Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) radicalized and trained 23-year-old Nigerian student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to try to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 bound for Detroit.

Attention to tragedy prevents tragedy  

It is a mistake to think that the threat posed by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria has ended because it never makes U.S. headlines. The conflict is still very much alive. In June of this year, suspected Boko Haram militants launched a triple suicide bomb attack killing at least 30 in the region. According to an April 2019 Human Rights Watch Report, children in the northeast remain “vulnerable to attacks and abductions.” And the fact that one faction of the now-splintered Boko Haram remains aligned with ISISshould keep this story on the radar of all Americans. Whether we’re talking about the situation in Chibok or in Sudan today, it is foolish to think that instability in a far-off continent is of no concern for those of us living in the U.S.

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It is high time for the US media to snap out of its obsession with the current gaffe-prone presidency and to take a more global view, doing a better, more consistent job of telling stories of crises beyond U.S. borders. If journalists refuse to shine a light on what is happening in places like Chibok and Sudan, there is no way for ordinary Americans to learn the truth. If stories like that of the Chibok girls are not kept alive, history is doomed to repeat itself, and we might as well lay to rest our ambitions for a fairer world. Because there can be no pursuit of justice without memory. 

Isha Sesay is a British journalist of Sierra Leonean descent. From 2005 to 2018, she worked as an anchor and correspondent for CNN International. Follow her on Twitter: @IamIshaSesay.

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