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3rd December 2015

In this global war Africa must not be forgotten

With an ever-increasing focus on the Middle East, we must not forget the related conflicts that rage across Africa

A girl steps out of the bus and into the search point for the city of Maiduguri, Cameroon. We can only make guesses about the thoughts and fears she was enduring in that moment. She presses the button—killing herself and seven people surrounding her. Her act, the five other people killed on the weekend of November 21st, and allegedly a total of around 20,000 deaths since 2009, are all blamed on Boko Haram.

Yet, the world largely turns a blind eye to the most deadly terrorist organisation in the world.

Oil was first discovered in the Niger Delta, in the South of Nigeria, in 1956. With the assistance of a corrupt and oppressive Nigerian government, the world’s biggest transnational corporations moved in to take advantage. In the 1990s, Shell was providing around 50 per cent of the government’s income, helping to maintain itself, the power of the military, and the elite that surround it.

The conditions the Nigerian people have been put through are extraordinary. Since 1956, relative to inflation, average incomes have halved. This figure fails to account for widespread health problems—such as respiratory problems caused by the burning of excess gas. The loss of identity, too, has been important, as farming and fishing incomes were reduced due to environmental pollution.

There is a history of militancy in the north, from the pre-British Sokoto Caliphate to the Maitatsine Sect of the 1980s. However, this is not merely a continuation of history. Like the Maitatsine Sect, Boko Haram feeds off chaotic social and political relations, oil money, and desperate poverty. In northern Nigeria 70 per cent of people live on under $1 a day. Recruits for the group often come from the drilled area in the south.

The role of the Nigerian state in controlling the group has been minimal until fairly recently. The government is now raiding camps and bases in northern Nigeria. But the degree to which the group controls the north makes it extremely difficult to infiltrate. The United States has provided some assistance, with extra funding being sent to 2015’s President Muhammadu Buhari. However, they are reluctant to increase funding too much, or provide surveillance drones because of the Nigerian military’s reputation for brutality, and because of priorities in the Middle East.

The locations of Boko Haram and the oppressed ethnic minorities in the Niger Delta are rather a convenience. Although there is some militancy in the Delta, Boko Haram are not located too near the majority of oil reserves, whilst the conditions of the ethnic minorities are swept aside. This all helps to secure the $59bn export market (as of 2010).

Nigeria is not a major member of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Although it has high reserves and output, it is not near the Middle Eastern power centre. This has meant that over the years, the US and her allies have not paid nearly as much attention to the state then they have to the Middle East. It will be interesting to see how Nigeria fares in the midst of changing oil geo-politics. Whilst the release of Iranian oil may alleviate pressure, the increasing pressure on Western governments to disassociate from Saudi Arabia, as well as increasing violence in the wider region, may have implications that stretch to Nigeria.

China is new big player that has interests in the region. Their spread of economic influence throughout Africa has come to the continent’s third largest economy. Nigeria’s population is set to overtake that of the US by 2050, and with militancy still continuing, international investors have an interest in reducing conflict. These are the reasons behind the $12 billion Chinese investment in 871-mile railway system in the country, as well as job-providing infrastructure projects. So far, Chinese efforts seem positive. We should, however, remain sceptical, in order to scrutinise what many regard as the new scramble for Africa.

But aside from the Chinese efforts, the tale of Nigeria is a depressing one. Indeed, the tale of central Africa is a depressing one. After the Paris attacks, there was many attempts to unify attention across other issues such as the Beirut bombing and Japan’s earthquake. Even with this kind of movement, in comparison to the scale of Boko Haram and others’ atrocities, Central Africa does not nearly receive the almost running commentary of events in the Middle East.

When both China and America—for better or for worse—are increasing their economic and military presence in Africa, we need to be aware. It must not become the world’s forgotten continent. Nigeria and Boko Haram is a case-in-point.

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