Bring Back Our Girls – But Are We Able To?

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has managed to attract global awareness and condemnation of the abduction of approximately 276 school girls by the terrorist group, Boko Haram, last month. But how can we assess the impact of the campaign? Why were the girls abducted and what does it tell us about the nature of the broader conflict in northern Nigeria?

Hashtag activism

#BringBackOurGirls went viral with more than one million people retweeting the hashtag, including support from a range of political leaders, activists such as Malala Yousafzai, celebrities, and other high-profile people. On the one hand, it demonstrates that the world will not tolerate the deliberate targeting of women and girls. It also highlights the respect for access to education, and underlines the shared belief that ‘the school’ should be a safe space during violent conflict. It seemed that the Nigerian government only started to take action at the peak of the campaign although undoubtedly helped by the broader media spotlight on Abuja for the World Economic Forum. China, France, the United Kingdom and the United States have all expressed outrage and offered technical support to help ensure a safe and rapid return.

At the same time, hashtag activism has its skeptics especially when used in response to violent conflict. Some believe it oversimplifies the deeper complexities of the causes, acting simply as a short-lived demonstration of detached public sentiment. From this perspective, such campaigns can raise global awareness and put pressure on those responsible to respond but in the long-term they serve as unhelpful distractions, can polarize debates, and have no real value for the victims, as argued by critics of the#Kony2012 campaign.

The safe return of the abducted girls would undoubtedly support the influence of new social media as a tool for global awareness raising. For now though let us consider the apparent reasons for the abduction and reflect briefly on what they tell us about the broader violence.

Beyond greed and grievance

Often we try to understand the causes of violent conflict in terms of ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’. In the context of northern Nigeria both factors are at play, and the recent deliberate targeting reveals an escalation in the violence as well as an agenda to manipulate international attention.

Boko Haram first threatened to sell the girls, provoking fears of human trafficking, the sole pursuit of profit to fund further violence and with no expressed interest in dialogue. In a more recent video claim, we have been informed that the girls have converted to Islam and will not be freed until all imprisoned members of the group are released. Although Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has rejected such a deal, the move by the group reveals a combination of greed and grievance.

It is easy to see how grievances may be driving Boko Haram given its rapid gains in public support over the last 10 years. Nigeria is powerful politically and as the largest oil producer in Africa, its economy has been growing annually by 7 percent. The benefits though have not been felt in the north where rates of poverty and inequality remain significantly higher than the south, compounded by public perceptions of poor governance and corruption, and particular dissatisfaction among youth. The Nigerian mobile police is often unable to control security, forcing the Nigerian government to deploy the military. Since they are mandated to shoot suspects of a crime, chaotic situations have ensued leading to the killing and abduction of civilians (Ibeanu, 2006). Loosely translated as ‘Western education is sinful’, Boko Haram claims to fight for an alternative vision in the form of an Islamic Nigerian state ruled under Sharia law.

This is not the first time that Boko Haram has deliberately targeted women, with kidnappings in 2013 in Maiduguri and Sambasi Forest, and civilians have become increasingly targeted since the killing of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in July 2009. The scale and audacity of the April attack certainly indicate the group has become more extreme and committed to using violence. The abductions will undoubtedly further the deep divisions within northern Nigeria and it could trigger an overall deterioration in the conflict. As seen from the Second World War to Bosnia Herzegovina and Rwanda, sexual violence, including rape, can be as deadly as any bomb in destroying individuals as well as families and communities. The deliberate targeting of women increases vulnerability and has a profound impact on the social fabric of communities.

Although we do not yet know if it was the initial intention, Boko Haram has clearly raised its profile and reputation for violence at the international level, and it builds on its deadly attack on the UN headquarters in Abuja in 2011. The ‘spectacular’ nature of the abductions, the provoking of public outrage across the world and its subsequent ability to keep the media’s attention reveals a capacity to manipulate and to spread terror.

So where do we go from here?

Ultimately it is the responsibility of the Nigerian government to secure the safe release and return of the abducted girls and to draw upon outside expertise and support where needed. The priority should then be to address the underlying causes of the conflict in northern Nigeria and to prevent new conflicts from emerging. Even when conflicts appear to end, the violence does not really stop until women can feel safe in their own community. To reach this outcome, we need to try to understand the motivations for Boko Haram’s actions and the deeper drivers of the conflict. At the same time, in this era of new social media, we need to understand better both the intended and unintended impacts of our response.

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