Boko Haram Rages in Nigeria, but the World’s Eyes Are Elsewhere

Workers provided food for residents at a camp for displaced people in Maiduguri, Nigeria. With villagers from the countryside pouring in, the entire city has become a sprawling refugee camp. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — The crisis spawned by Boko Haram has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to a relatively little-known city in Nigeria that has finally become safe enough for them to wait out an end to the awful, deadly war.

With villagers from the countryside pouring in, it is almost as though the entire city, Maiduguri, has become a sprawling refugee camp.

Tented government encampments dot the exurbs where people wait for bags of food to arrive. Once-quaint neighborhoods overflow with cardboard hovels filled with young children who are lucky to eat three meals a day.

Squatters live in old university buildings or crammed inside homes with relatives or kind strangers. Old men sit along busy streets asking for money. At the massive Monday Market, women sell handfuls of fruit or jewelry, hoping to earn enough to pay for a meal.

And those are the fortunate ones.

Other people are far from the city’s center — and from help — in remote areas of Borno State that have only recently been wrested from Boko Haram control. The news from these areas is grim: Aid workers say many residents could die of starvation.

The Boko Haram crisis still rages, but it has not managed to sustain the level of global outrage that spiked when nearly 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped in 2014 in the village of Chibok, in Borno State’s south.

The seven-year-old conflict has produced nonstop new and horrible chapters. Burned villages. Beheadings. Rapes of women and young girls. Military corruption and killings of innocents. Child suicide bombers. Rescued victims, even infants, who are jailed by the military for weeks or months. And now a widespread food and malnutrition crisis.

A Nigerian soldier at the ruins of the school in Chibok where Boko Haram militants kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in 2014. Credit Stefan Heunis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


The horrors have been reported by The New York Times and other news outlets. Humanitarian assistance is on the ground, but the United Nations cannot raise even a quarter of the amount of money it says it needs to help combat the problems.

Despite the continuing tragedy, the world appears to have moved on to other terrible events. Television cameras capture emergency room doctors treating bloodied Syrian children wounded in bombings, and American mothers who have lost sons in shootings by police officers.

For the West, Boko Haram’s victims are easy to overlook. The militants target some of the poorest people on the planet. In rural Borno State, proper emergency rooms do not exist to treat the injured. Here, mothers mourn sons who have either been killed by insurgents or, left with no other choice, have joined them.

Most of the victims live in such poverty that, even without the challenges of the insurgency, their lives would play out on the margins, scraping by for survival.

Last month, Bono, the Irish musician and the lead singer of U2, came to Maiduguri hoping to retrain the international spotlight on Boko Haram-induced problems, which, by most measures, are on track to get worse.

This city in northeastern Nigeria was once the home of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, a dynamic imam whose teachings eventually spawned the Islamic extremist movement that has killed thousands and uprooted more than 2.6 million people from their homes across four countries. So far.

Bono, the Irish musician and the lead singer of U2, has been a leading voice in raising awareness of the victims of Boko Haram. Credit Shannon Stapleton/Reuters


In Maiduguri, Bono met with local government officials and toured encampments for people who had fled their villages as Boko Haram closed in. He visited with a group of young women and children who once lived among Boko Haram commanders.

“These girls were just an unexpectedly human face of the conflict,” Bono said in a telephone interview after his trip. “When you think of Boko Haram, I just didn’t think of that, or of the malnourished kids, which we saw at the camps.”

This week, in meetings around the United Nations activities, Bono has been lobbying world leaders to increase aid for the victims of Boko Haram. Borno State serves as the backdrop in a video that will be released on Friday, in which he calls for longer-term economic policies to stem the appeal of terrorism.

Getting the world to focus on the Boko Haram crisis will not be easy.

Most people know of the group through its most high-profile attack, on the schoolhouse at Chibok, where nearly 300 girls had gathered for exams in 2014. Militants set fire to the school and took off with the girls, only about 50 of whom managed to escape in the days after the attack.

The episode struck a global nerve. Schoolboys who had been slaughtered around the same time failed to register on the world’s conscience. But after the taking of the Chibok girls, a social media campaign went viral, with even Michelle Obama photographed holding a poster with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

In the years since, most of the world’s attention has been on another terrorist group, the Islamic State, and its attacks on Westerners in France, Belgium and elsewhere. Those acts have prompted vigils and rallies in cities around the world, as well as scorn and retaliation from world leaders.

The handful of campaigns to help Boko Haram’s victims have largely faded. Even though Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Even though Boko Haram, by some measures, has been far more deadly than the Islamic State.

The daughter of a former Boko Haram commander’s wife at a safe house in Maiduguri. The militant group has targeted people in some of the poorest areas on the planet. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times


About 200 of the Chibok schoolgirls are still being held captive — one was found in May wandering the forest, hungry and with a baby. But even that campaign has largely become a local one, drawing a few dozen activists to small gatherings in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, in hopes of pressuring President Muhammadu Buhari to find the girls.

Recently, Mr. Buhari released details of failed negotiations for the girls’ release. On Wednesday, he requested that United Nations intermediaries help restart the talks.

But access to food and health care is also in jeopardy in areas where Boko Haram is active or has been recently. Mercy Corps said last month that an estimated 800,000 people are living in burned-out villages and unstructured camps in 15 locations across Borno State — many far outside Maiduguri, with little or no food assistance, no operational markets and no way to make a living.

Bono’s Nigeria tour is part of a global appeal by his group, the One campaign, and the United Nations for more attention — and more money — to help the displaced throngs, and to help stop a growing malnutrition crisis in the region where about 3.8 million people are facing severe food insecurity. In Borno State alone, 49,000 children will die if they do not get treatment, according to a recent report from Unicef. About 200,000 others suffer from severe acute malnutrition, the report said.

The United Nations office for the coordination for humanitarian affairs has said it needs $739 million to care for the millions of people affected by Boko Haram in Nigeria, one of Africa’s biggest economies, as well as in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. By mid-September, it had received only one-quarter of the total amount.

“There’s so much strategic importance in Nigeria — that’s why it’s odd that there’s not more focus on what’s happening,” Bono said.

“It’s pathetic,” he added. “If Nigeria fails, Africa fails. If Africa fails, Europe fails. If Europe fails, America is no longer America.”