At the time of writing this article, it has been 936 days, 15 hours, 1 minute and 44 seconds since the 14th of April 2014. On that day, 276 school girls from Chibok, Nigeria were abducted from their hostels in the Government school they attended and became merciless pawns in the game played by Boko Haram, for what the extremist group hoped would bring the power needed to influence President Goodluck Jonathan.
In an effort to shame and refute the psychological terrorism that Boko Haram were attempting, public figures such as Michelle Obama, Ellen, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Cara Delevigne….to name just a few, all endorsed the #bringbackourgirls campaign. After the collective outcry died down, the young girls were forced into marriage, embarking on a future of repeated abuse and forceful religious conversion. Their schoolbooks and hope for the future fast faded with the political will to save them. Celebrity endorsement can be a loaded gesture, and whilst it of course applies pressure and often acts as a catalyst for action to be taken, they, just like everyone, have lives to keep living. Whilst we were all shocked and devastated at this brazen assault on the freedom of such young girls, in the meantime, the world’s attention has frenzied back and forth from refugees to terrorism, from unarmed shootings to the Syrian crisis.
Soon after the dust settled and celebrity endorsement of the campaign dried up, thousands of families fervently protested, facing the distressing possibility that the world might forget their girls. Their simple cries for their girls to return safely had been diminished by the larger political voices and biases that drowned out the campaign. Within weeks of the abduction, the grassroots movement was associated with ‘political troublemakers’, and President Jonathan pulled out of a meeting with the girls’ families.
This is not to say the incident has been neglected, there have been negotiations and talks going on between the army, the Government and figures from the extremist group. In August 2015 the girls had been close to being returned, but a ‘swap’ deal that was meant to happen fell through. Once again, the agency and freedom of the girls was seen as secondary to brokering a more acceptable deal that portrayed the army, the Government, and Government forces in a positive light. After all, there have been calls upon Nigerian security forces, claiming they did not do enough to protect their citizens, and that in the past Boko Haram had evaded international law and been allowed to continue operating. Nigerian commentators have also maintained that President Jonathan did not take the abductions seriously, which in part may have contributed to the election of his rival, President Buhari.
So why then, did only a handful of news sites cover the release of another 21 girls on Thursday the 13th of October 2016? Is it that the injustices happening in a non-European country are just not seen as important enough? Or just that the passionate voices of celebrities attached themselves to the next trending campaign? Newly elected President Buhari, who took office in 2015 and expressed his concerns and intentions to commit Nigeria to the ‘global fight’ against terrorism, met some of the newly released girls last month. However jubilant their return may have been, their arrival has been tinged with sadness, as many have come back as wives and mothers; a decision in which many of them had not been involved. They will ultimately have incurred deep psychological trauma that will likely remain with them. Medical support, high quality education and reintegration of the girls into the community has said to have been made ‘a definite priority of the federal Government’. Yet once the cameras have gone, and the worlds’ gaze moves on, will these earnest promises of rehabilitation be kept? They have suffered as a result of Government inaction, and it is no coincidence that their return is of great political value to the President’s efforts to assert sanctions over Boko Haram.
Concern or ‘clicktivism’?
The ‘Western’ world and the connotations that come along with its support, is perhaps quick to lend its voice to certain causes. Yet within this, do the actual people behind the cause get the right attention? Or are their needs drowned out by the sanctimonious voices on social media, keen to take an angle. In this case, on the political landscape of Nigeria and how this reflects more widely on the state of African politics. Too often we have duly written about the ‘rise’ of Africa, and cast aspersions and comments about its composition and position within the global society. Yet perhaps it is time to rethink our attitude. Have we really grasped the importance of commitment when it comes to such an urgent issue?
Indeed, a feeling of incredulity has shadowed the much awaited return of some of the girls last month. Amnesty International has estimated that over 2000 girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since the beginning of 2014, with many forced into sexual slavery. With social media being an inextricable part of our lives, has this created a false sense of activism? Do we feel as if we’ve made a difference with just a simple hashtag or like, or are we too quick to take up challenges, only to abandon them in the wake of the next celebrity led campaign? Whether this comes down to every good gesture featuring a small amount of self-gratification is perhaps beyond the scope of this article.
Perhaps the greater question is despite our girls being back, are they truly being heard? For all our social awareness, has our fervour enhanced or thwarted the true meaning of grassroots activism?