Originally published January 16th, 2015 at Sweet Talk
Some have been expressing shock at how little coverage the recent Boko Haram massacre has received in the global media. Many are surprised that a national government which responded so decisively to ebola would present such a relatively tepid response to a violent insurrection situated within its own borders. I suspect those people are underestimating the distances—geographical, political, and psychological—involved.
[Note that this will not be an analysis of the conflict itself, nor of possible solutions, but is rather a hypothesis that partially explains domestic and international inaction and the implications of that inaction. For something more conflict-specific, I recommend starting with this, this, or this.]
First, geographic. I grew up in Kuwait, and while not present for the first Gulf War, my family was there during the invasion of Iraq. Basra is a two-hour drive from Kuwait City, give or take. 30 minutes from the northern border. In traffic I couldn’t drive across Minneapolis, or Calgary, or Sydney in that time. Nevertheless, the running joke was that “first years and Americans got out”, and after the initial exodus, the remaining expats and locals settled back into their routines of school, work, and everyday life. Occasionally these routines would be interrupted by an unimpeded missile, but even then the pseudo-normality remained. Anthony Loyd describes a similar phenomena in My War Gone By, I Miss It So, about the daily living in Sarajevo during the Yugoslav conflict, and the need to dart across alleys and dodge snipers when going about everyday errands.
These are extreme examples, but when you look at a map of the affected areas in Nigeria, Google Maps has it pegged as a 20-hour drive. That’s equivalent to a north-south trip from Minnesota to Louisiana. For Americans living several states away from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, just how much did that shake up your everyday life? Whereas a potential ebola epidemic in the heart of Lagos? That’s a clear and present danger.
Political distance is about access to power, a group’s capacity to affect power relations. If you’re part of a small Republican minority in a “Democratic” state (or vice versa), it’s unlikely any national politicians, or even many state-level politicians, are soliciting your input; whereas a key demographic in a swing state? They hang on your every word. Why can Saudi Arabia and Bahrain effectively ignore their Shi’ia populations, or China, except in the breach, its Uyghur population? The exceptions prove the rule: until the groups can pose a meaningful threat to political stability, it is costly without benefit to respond to those populations. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith systematized this perspective in their recent book, The Dictator’s Handbook, which I highly recommend.
The combination often get mixed with a potent third, which is psychological distance. This is a completely independent variable, and the maps get redrawn often as the relative weights of kin, shared faith, politics, ethnicity or other dimensions shift in relation to one another. The term, the “Other” is a marker of this distance, an admission of the empathic chasm that lies between two people, or two populations.
Cumulatively, the effects of these three dimensions of removal means that, in the absence of the conflict in question burning itself out, the lack of priority and political will condemns the situation to that of an endemic infection. Wars don’t demand an end by themselves. Americans have talked in stunned terms about the longevity of the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, but consider the Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka that maintained itself for decades before finally ending a few years ago; the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, which is no longer as prevalent in the north of Uganda as it had been, but has endured by ignoring the borders of its neighbours. The Naxalite resistance in India and Nepal has roots going back to the 70s, and is anything but resolved.
Bruno Latour, in his paper Turning Around Politics, touched on the heart of the issue when he wrote: “Here is a Copernican Revolution of radical proportions: to finally make publics turn around topics that generate a public around them instead of trying to define politics in the absence of any issue.” The dimensions of distance impede the formation of an effectual public, and what that means at least in the short term is that the system settles into an equilibria of violence. For comparison, you may consider how a state like Wisconsin fails to see any immediate cause for concern in the tens of thousands who have died as a result of clashes between cartels and government forces in Mexico in the last decade. That distance is geographical, political, and psychological, and unless some group arises that is capable of closing the gaps, and barring any significant systems disruption, there is no reason for the violence to disappear. Wole Soyinka, reflecting on the genocide in Rwanda, vows “never again”, but in the absence of a public those words are mere aspiration, sentimentalist and ineffectual.