The Western media is finally paying attention to (one sensationalist, emotional story in) Africa. But our focus on #BringBackOurGirls may have got 300 people killed.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign was still circulating last week when a unit of Boko Haram rode into Gamboru Ngala, a town on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, and — according to various reports — slaughtered 300 people there. The story got a brief mention, but no more.
Meanwhile, American first lady Michelle Obama took the radio slot reserved for the President to make the issue of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls one of unprecedented global focus. Then attention turned to the Eurovision song contest. In three weeks, the issue had gone from an unconscionable lack of attention to a dominance that entirely distorted the wider conflict it was a part of. The emphasis on the core issue as defined by Boko Haram — that girls should not be educated — only served to underscore the symbolic nature of it.
That a social media campaign had sparked a sluggish — and basically racist — Western media into action was widely taken as something to be celebrated, and in some ways it was. But it couldn’t be ignored that the only African story to gain sustained attention for some time was not merely one of oppression, but one of high drama. When word got out that the schoolgirls would be put into forced marriage to Boko Haram members or sold into slavery, also for polygamous marriage, their plight fitted ever more closely with Western obsessions — that of the global sexual trade and women trafficking.
#BringBackOurGirls made that link explicit and was also astoundingly presumptuous. These girls, before they were abducted, lived in a country with a life expectancy of 51 years, and 630 maternal childbirth deaths per 100,000 live births. The latter is the 10th highest in the world. They weren’t “our” girls then. Nor should they have been — Nigeria’s social development is its own affair. They became “our” girls only when their plight matched the worst thing that could happen to a woman in the West — violent abduction, presumed rape.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign makes visible every contradiction of this sort of activism. The event is an event, and there’s no way to ignore it. Yet on the other hand, the event announces itself not by the degree of its suffering or oppression, but by the quality of its drama, its grotesquerie. One could say that the event gathers some attention because the girls are presumably still alive, but even that does not admit to full logic. Boko Haram units have murdered groups of boys and girls before. Presumably if such a unit has murdered once, it will do so again — so by rights there should have been a #ProtectOurChildren campaign sometime before.
Nor was that the only glaring double standard. Hours after a Twitpic of Michelle Obama displaying the #BringBackOurGirls sign was circulated, it had been altered to reference the children killed by drones fired on the orders of her husband. Had the event occurred in Yemen, it would have been a toss-up as to which posed a greater threat to the girls. The ultimate absurdity occurred when it was suggested that the United States use drone strikes to go after Boko Haram and get the girls back.
The purpose of the international campaign was to put pressure on the Nigerian government to take swift action. The impression conveyed was that the government had been indolent, helped by the alleged actions of the President’s wife, Patience Jonathan, in arresting one of the parents of the girls for allegedly snubbing her at a press event. This part of the campaign had the usual dividend of pleasure of being able to boss black people about, and the volume only increased when there was news that the Nigerian army had advance warning of Boko Haram’s abduction mission.
That part of the campaign got results, and units were dispatched from their job of guarding front-line towns to the hunt for the girls. And that may be the most chilling result of this campaign — for one of those towns was Gamboru Ngala. If the campaign can take credit for spurring action, is it also liable for distorting the defence of a large area, by an overwhelmed national army — with lethal results?
So it would be easy to sneer at #BringBackOurGirls, but also pointless.
It’s a long way from being as crazy as the bizarre “Stop Kony” movement, but it is part of the same temptation. Indeed, it’s a restaging of the “liberal” imperialism that served as a cover for the carve-up of Africa in the 1880s — the widespread idea that occupying the entire continent was in the service of wiping out barbarism. The parallel expression of the new ideological imperialism is the campaign by US evangelicals, determined to institute draconian anti-gay laws in African countries where they can connect with conservative Christian traditions left by the last wave of improvement. They are just as convinced of their ineffable rightness in selectively intervening in African affairs as is the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign, and just as blundering in their effects.
The anti-Boko Haram campaign may have a more universal aspect — we can all agree that abduction is wrong — but it is the capricious and self-serving way in which it’s applied that does the damage. In this case, it may have helped get several hundred people killed.
But there’s a lot of it about, and there’s going to be more. When the Eurovision song contest aired on the weekend, it was a case of from the malign to the ridiculous, with the popular vote — a relatively recent innovation in Eurovision — turned, apparently, to waging a campaign against Russia. The storming vote for Austrian bearded drag act “Conchita Wurst”, aka Tom Neuwirth, and the song Rise Like A Phoenix, was in part tribute to one of the more striking songs, but it was also aimed squarely at Russia, whose contestants were roundly booed every time they performed or were even mentioned.
The booing was for Putin’s heavy-handed treatment of Ukraine; voting up a drag act was aimed at Russia’s homophobia. The absurdities were multiple. Many seemed to believe that Wurst/Neuwirth was a full-time transvestite or even a transsexual, rather than an Austrian TV act, the complex politics of drag apparently forgotten. The idea that a kitsch talent show should be the focus of an official “five-minute hate” against an entire nation was also uncontroversial.
The last time an Austrian with distinctive facial hair tried to summon up a pan-European hatred of Asiatic Russia — with a notion of a phoenix rising from the ashes, to boot — it didn’t go so well. But whether in Africa or Russia, feminist and sexuality causes seem capable of licensing a chauvinism and xenophobia in 2014 that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1914. The themes change but the process doesn’t change — mobilisation in the service of the West. And the next Boko Haram force is gathering at the border …