Why we've lost interest in the Nigerian schoolgirls, 100 days on
It has been 100 days since the Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped. What did #BringBackOurGirls achieve, and where has the outrage gone? United Nations adviser Robert Johnson writes from Nairobi.
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Today marks 100 days since the kidnapping of an estimated 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in Chibok by militant Islamist group Boko Haram. More than 200 girls remain missing, and the majority of those who have escaped have done so with no assistance from security forces, despite various such claims by Nigerian authorities. There have been reports that two of the victims were raped by their captors and left for dead soon after the kidnapping, and another report of four of the girls being shot and buried for being “unco-operative”.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan had initially responded to the situation with mixtures of disregard, denial, silence (it was fully 20 days before he made his first statement) and ineptitude. This was followed, a month ago, by Jonathan engaging a US public relations company at US$1.2 million on a contract that seems at least as focused on handling the international media “narrative” as securing the release of the girls, and appears to be attuned to Jonathan’s ambition for re-election in next February’s national elections.
Jonathan finally met with the parents of the schoolgirls for the first time on Tuesday (citing his larger strategic concerns about the girls’ safety) — largely attributed to the “intervention” of Pakistani girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai, which seemed to add some sort of profile-lifting opportunity for Jonathan.
The 100-day point is passing largely unnoticed by the global network of people who attached themselves to #BringBackOurGirls. One month after the kidnappings, #BringBackOurGirls seemed to have been appropriated as a Western initiative attracting celebrities and politicians (including within the Australian Parliament), but they just as quickly lost interest. A little-watched interview with Nigerian human rights lawyer Ayo Obe is well worth viewing on much more than just this point: as she reminds us, it is Nigerian activists — predominantly women — who initiated and continue to drive that campaign.
“Bring Back Our Girls” dates from April 23, after the phrase was used by Nigeria’s former education minister and current vice-president of the World Bank’s African division, Obiageli Ezekwesili, at a public event and tweeted by two men in attendance. Her phrase was hashtagged and embraced as a broader campaign by Nigerian (mainly women) activists that spread to the Nigerian diaspora, especially within the United States, reaching a May 1 peak. Hillary Clinton first tweeted her support on May 4. The May 5 video by Boko Haram’s leader, in which he declared the planned forced marriage of the girls to their captors or that he’d sell the girls into slavery, was a defining moment to Western ears. By the end of that week, the US first lady took the important step of replacing President Barack Obama to deliver his weekly radio address, expressing her “outrage” at the Nigerian kidnappings.
But two to three days after Michelle Obama’s speech, there was an interesting “development” that was followed by a further loss of global momentum in this online campaign. On May 12, Boko Haram’s leader offered Jonathan an exchange of the girls for imprisoned militants. The next day, the Nigerian government indicated its interest in undertaking such negotiations. This was the stage at which I ended my May 13 article in Crikey as follows:
“These Nigerian girls would appear to be a long way short of their freedom if it’s conditional upon the release of ‘Islamic terrorists’. Will #BringBackOurGirls maintain its current unqualified outrage?”.
I said this at the time because of an inevitable conflict of purpose: no effort should be spared in securing the release of the girls, and “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”.
Negotiations were being brokered by a Nigerian journalist reported as being trusted by both the government and Boko Haram. But predictably, the US administration quickly reminded Nigeria that this course was an unacceptable means of securing the girls’ freedom. On May 24, at a Paris summit with US, British, French and Israeli foreign ministers, Jonathan finally scrapped any such negotiations. Coincidentally or otherwise (but this cynic/realist goes with the latter), this was accompanied by a falloff in outrage from various prominent outspoken leaders, evidently including (so far as I could see in media reports) the US first lady. Less than three weeks later, Barack Obama celebrated the swap of five Guantanamo detainees for one US marine following negotiations with the Taliban.
Without diminishing the tragic and brutal nature of this action by Boko Haram, there is an important broader context. Firstly, prior to those kidnappings, Boko Haram’s actions had resulted in the deaths of many boys, including within schools, which attracted very little media attention outside Nigeria. A February 25 online report appears to be the first to note that Boko Haram’s actions were spreading from attacking and killing schoolboys to also include the kidnapping of schoolgirls. Secondly, in the first half of 2014 alone, Boko Haram has killed more than 2000 people in Nigeria (claims have also been made of 4000 deaths in the first three to four months of 2014). Thirdly, it seems that Boko Haram’s kidnapping of girls was, at least partly, a response to the Nigerian government’s own security forces’ actions since 2012 in attempting to destabilise the militia group by taking (“arresting”) its members’ wives and children. It is also reported that officers within the Nigerian military are linked to and/or involved in supplying arms to Boko Haram.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the campaign has at least forced Jonathan to act beyond spinning the narrative, although his office remains reluctant to give the Bring Back Our Girls movement any such credit (to say the least). His recent actions have been overwhelmingly due to the domestically driven campaign, which is where his re-election attention remains focused (and thus likely also informed by his US image consultants). Jonathan now faces the challenge of securing the girls’ safe release without the option of a prisoner swap, with his forces stating for some time that they know the “exact location” of the girls. Boko Haram will be intent on ensuring that any such “military solution” is far from successful.
At this 100-day mark — which coincides with a huge global gathering sponsored by the British government and UNICEF (Girl Summit 2014) to secure commitments to action against the worst violations against girls — the schoolgirls of Chibok stand as a stark reminder of such globally fickle outrage about severe violations of the rights of children, and, evidently, especially of girls. Those girls seem to be as far away from their freedom as ever, although I hope I am wrong.