Boko Haram: Why selfies won't 'bring back our girls'

The onus is on politicians of all political and religious persuasions to take control of this situation

May 20, 2014
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The actress Salma Hayek joins the Twitter campaign calling for the release of the Nigerian school girls

Over a month ago, in April, Boko Haram militants conned their way into the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, and ordered its teenage pupils to board a convoy of trucks. More than 200 petrified girls were driven away into the night at gunpoint, their whereabouts still unknown. It is not the first incidence of female abduction in northern Nigeria by the Islamist terrorist group (a further eight people were subsequently abducted from Chibok in early May), but the fact that these men could kidnap so many individuals, at such ease, shocked a country already accustomed to their brutality.

The demographic of this Nigerian tragedy—teenage girls—ought to have marked it out from crises around the world. Had terrorists snatched 300 girls from the English boarding school I attended, the planet would have wobbled on its axis; rolling news would have saturated our minds with the faces and biographies of these flaxen-haired “bright hopes” whom “the world has lost…” Yet the crescendo of condemnation both within Nigeria and around the world was slow. Disgusted by an inert government response and agonised by impotency, the Nigerian public, and particularly its women, held protests in cities across the country, marching through the streets bearing banners adorned with the heart-wrenching message “Bring back our girls.”

This fuelled a social media storm with the now ubiquitous Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls trending around the world, and helping to push the story into the headlines. The tipping point was reached on 10th May when the US’s First Lady Michelle Obama used the weekly presidential radio address to describe her distress over the kidnapping, tweeting a photo of herself holding a placard bearing the hashtag.

The emergence of Boko Haram (loosely translated as “Western Education Is Forbidden”) is the product of a cultural-economic divide that began under British colonial rule. The authorities realised it was cheaper to administer northern Nigeria by leaving its Islamic power structure and culture intact. Missionary activity and western education was concentrated in the oil-rich south, a region that has held an economic advantage ever since. In a post-independence economy that has failed to diversify from oil, northeastern Nigeria remains impoverished, driving some young Muslims towards terrorism. Many of these men were educated in free Muslim schools where the Koran is the only subject on the curriculum. Western-educated girls are viewed as an affront to men who feel emasculated by unemployment and marginalised in a secular and corrupt economic system.

Although Boko Haram reportedly has some links with Al-Qaeda and has targeted security and government institutions, including bombing the UN headquarters in Abuja in 2011 (killing 21 people), most of the crimes committed by this fractious insurgency are aimed at fellow Nigerians of both religions. Designed to undermine the federal government’s authority and expose its weakness, it has caused the deaths of 4,000 people to date. This blurring of lines between ordinary criminality and coordinated terrorism partly explains why the US didn’t designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organisation until 2013. Another factor was that to do so might have boosted Boko Haram’s legitimacy. But the UN Abuja bombing prompted a change of direction. It is now illegal for any American citizen to support Boko Haram or have any financial transactions with them on US soil.

The latest twist in this complex tale came on 12th May, when Boko Haram released a video purporting to show the girls, alive and dressed in Muslim attire in an undisclosed location. US surveillance are analysing the video, applying the same techniques that were used to track Osama bin Laden. By examining the background vegetation and shadows behind the girls in relation to the Earth’s curvature, they will try to determine exactly where and when it was filmed. The US reportedly sent surveillance planes over the territory where the girls are thought to be held, while Israel, the UK and France have also sent personnel.

This is welcome news to those who credit the hashtag campaign for prompting more action. Others, however, believe it is too little too late, and are questioning whether social media activism (pejoratively known as “slacktivism”) has any real political value. Do mournful selfies of the likes of Cara Delevingne, Selma Hayek and other celebrities do anything to influence the policies of counter-terrorism authorities? According to ex-US Navy Seal Dan O'Shea in a BBC interview, such intense global focus could even prove counterproductive to ongoing backstage negotiations by inflaming anti-US sentiment among the insurgents.

In the video Boko Haram offered to swap the girls for their imprisoned “brothers in arms”, but the government rejected such a deal. Under what terms could Boko Haram now possibly agree to the girls’ release? The government does not want to offer them the type of amnesties and pay-offs offered to militants in the oil-producing Niger River Delta in 2009. There, militant youths who attacked oil installations were paid US$400 a month to drop their arms and reintegrate into society. But their objectives revolved around a fair distribution of oil wealth, unlike Boko Haram’s religious, anti-education grievances.

Over the years the government’s reaction to Boko Haram has alternated between negotiation and military action by an army that is mutinous (they recently shot at their own commander) and reportedly ill-equipped to face their insurgent opponents. If the Chibok girls are returned—and previous kidnaps suggest there’s some possibility—it will close a chapter in a complex saga: that of a disorganised and disunited government trying to contain a guerilla insurgency with unrealistic aims. Not a job for the faint hearted.

The onus is on Nigeria’s politicians of all political and religious persuasions to take control of this situation. When the bureaucratic weakness of the nation’s leaders is exposed and the global community responds tardily, the air of impunity smells ever sweeter for Boko Haram. With the lives of so many young girls at stake, the need for a unified response has never been more urgent.