Hashtag activism, as it’s often called, is not sold on everyone. But usually I find those who have the privilege of power, voice, and viewpoint in traditional media circles are most apt to mocking this form of activism entirely. Awareness, like it or not, is the first step in change, any change, and more so with regard to movements. For those whose ideologies, concerns, and perspectives have always received attention, hashtag activism seems futile in bringing about awareness and change. For those whose narratives often are ignored by the power dynamics that are invested in popular and mainstream media, online activism – hashtag activism – offers the opportunity to present ideology to a variety of audiences, to counter negative narratives of one’s community, and to speak for one’s self. This has all been done in #BringBackOurGirls.
Nigerians both at home and in the diaspora were and are still in a certain kind of disbelief that terrorism on such a scale exists in their country. While recent Nigerian history can point to the deplorable violence that took place in the Biafra war, Nigeria’s civil war from 1967-’70, subsequent military coups which were not without bloodshed, religious violence at different periods in especially the north of the country, kidnappings of foreign nationals in the Delta oil-rich but very poor region, Nigerians could still not fathom for the most part that Boko Haram had come this – kidnapping over 250 young children, young girls. Writing as a Nigerian, it was distressful, disturbing, and yet still astonishing.
The reality however is that Boko Haram had been active since 2002, and had begun their violent insurgency since 2009. This was a year before President Yar’Adua died in office, who was then succeeded by sitting President Jonathan (who will be succeeded by Muhammed Buhari in late May following the late March election). The overarching point is that since 2002, Nigerian public officials, international terrorism watchdogs, and diplomats everywhere have been ignoring this problem. #BringBackOurGirls started in 2014 but it was five years since Boko Haram had been committing acts of violence, and twelve years since the group was active. Are we so incompetent as a people – both Nigerians and those concerned for the manifestations of terrorism internationally – that we only act after a situation escalates, and not before? Is prevention not better than cure?
Now one year later, we know from multiple reports that there have been about 57 girls who through their act of bravery, escaped the fate of kidnapping, and possible death by Boko Haram. We also know that about 200 girls are still missing. Hashtag activism has not brought them back. Boko Haram in fact, has killed more and kidnapped more. Nigerian military and intelligence has claimed they are not equipped to fight terrorism, and have also found that Western allies have not been forthcoming with the necessary intelligence. So this has slowed down counter-terrorism efforts, as they’ve been forced to look elsewhere for assistance.
On the ground, according to sources and family, there seems to be a psychological divide as much as a physical one between the north and south of the country. The north and particularly the north-east feeling the brunt of fear, while the south goes on almost as if it were a different country altogether. Life goes on indeed – it has to, even when you mourn such great loss in a nation. Still, it is telling of Nigerian political ineptitude that politicians and public officials could not break through ethnic and religious differences, in order to unite the country behind the common enemy that is Boko Haram.
Indeed it goes without saying that despite President Jonathan’s successes in the Niger Delta with improving the area, and especially in leading the country to become Africa’s number one powerhouse economically, he, above all, will be credited with failing the girls and especially the people of the north-east, and perhaps all Nigerians in his handling of Boko Haram. It is cited largely as the reason why as an incumbent, for the first time in Nigeria’s history, he lost the election. However, I don’t think it is solely Jonathan’s fault but a combination of all presidents and elected officials who have been ignoring this problem for twelve years. It is, I think, part of a certain Nigerian mentality where people learn to “manage” their suffering rather than demolish it entirely. Of course until things really get bad.
One year later, I can say that Nigerians have had a much-needed wake up call as to the reality of their government and their governance. It is a shame that Africa’s most populous nation should be stuck in such a horrid security disaster in the midst of economic and social progress. But is a reminder to the powers that be in the country that it simply cannot move forward in such a state. It is a reminder that the country has a long way to go before it really achieves the greatness its people know it is capable of. And while I do not absolve history and the effects of what has been stolen (and continues to be stolen) from African people – from resources to narratives to self-described identity, Africans cannot afford to get in their own way.
One year later, I think Nigerians know that while it is tragic that activism alone does not #BringBackOurGirls, it is important to the social reality of the country to hold their politicians accountable, as well as forcibly participate in shaping their own global media narratives and stories. Those girls, wherever they are, should not be martyrs for their country or the world – humanity does not need such martyrs. Even if by a miracle, they were to be rescued, it would still stand that the country had failed them – perhaps even before they were kidnapped. I hope one year later, Nigerians and those who care, will not continue to fail the most vulnerable among us.