ABUJA – In the month since the Islamist militia group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 girls from a secondary school in the Chibok Local Government Area of Nigeria’s Borno State, the authorities have maintained a stunning silence. This has inspired distraught Nigerian citizens to create the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, in the hope that the simple demand would spur their government into action. In a country where citizens have few options to hold officials to account, can “hashtag activism” make a real difference?
The Nigerian government’s response has been marked by missteps. First, the military released a statement that the girls had been released, then retracted the statement when it was found to be untrue, deepening public outrage. The media narrative quickly spun out of the authorities’ control, forcing them to try to contain the damage as the country prepared to host the World Economic Forum on Africa in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
Though the government has insisted that it can handle Boko Haram on its own, it has accepted help from other governments, most notably the United States, whose military has already sent experts to help provide technical assistance to the Nigerian security forces. President Goodluck Jonathan’s wife declared that she would enter the dreaded Sambisa Forest herself, while accusing protesters from the Chibok community of being affiliated with Boko Haram. And Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala initially commiserated with the abducted girls, before snapping in an interview that she was tired of answering questions about the case.
It is important to note that this is not the first time that Boko Haram has abducted young girls or harmed children. The details of the killings of 43 schoolboys in the Federal Government College in Buni Yadi, and another 78 at the College of Agriculture in Gujba, are available for all to examine. Moreover, stories of sexual violence against young girls abound. Even after the latest mass abduction, eight more girls were kidnapped in Borno State’s Gwoza Local Government Area, which borders Chibok.
All of these stories elicit horror and despair from most Nigerians. But there is precious little that they can do – and they should not have to do anything. After all, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure its citizens’ security. The fact that Chibok parents and other vigilantes felt compelled to enter Sambisa Forest with sticks and machetes after the kidnappings can be viewed only as a failure by the government to meet its obligations.
While the 56 million Nigerians on social media account for less than half the country’s population, they have managed to initiate a global conversation and attract international attention, making it all but impossible to dismiss them outright.
To be sure, Nigerians’ online activity is not always a good indicator of the national mood. For example, the anti-homosexuality bill signed into law last year was far more popular offline than online. Anger over a video of a young woman being gang-raped, by contrast, was far more palpable online, where the Twitter hashtag #ABSURape emerged, than within traditional media.
Nonetheless, the most successful citizen-led efforts to hold the government accountable have followed trending conversations by a critical mass of Nigerians online. For example, the decision to remove a fuel subsidy, which caused a sharp increase in gas prices, spurred online discussions marked by the hashtag #OccupyNigeria – discussions that spilled offline into protests in some major Nigerian cities.
Likewise, the #Aluu4 hashtag that arose following the lynching of four young men mistaken for thieves near the University of Port Harcourt called the media’s attention to mob violence in Nigeria. And the #ChildNotBride protests forced the National Assembly to defend its decision not to remove from the constitution Section 29.4(b), which states that any married woman, regardless of her age, qualifies as an adult, allowing her husband to compel her to renounce her rights as a Nigerian citizen.
In a similar manner, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign began online after the renowned Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s World Book Day speech, in which he called upon Jonathan to “bring back the pupils.” Nigerians’ expressions of outrage online soon translated into organized action offline, led by the former government minister Oby Ezekwesili (who also spoke at the World Book Day event) and civil-society leaders, including the lawyer Maryam Uwais and Hadiza Bala Usman. Protests have spread across Nigeria, as well as to countries with large Nigerian diaspora populations, such as the US, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Canada.
International media have paid rapt attention, reporting on protests and sit-ins. The security challenge that Nigeria faces dominated discussions during the World Economic Forum’s recent meeting in Abuja, where the United Nations special envoy for global education, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, unveiled the Safe Schools Initiative.
Much more important than merely an anguished call from a concerned citizenry, the homegrown social-media campaign surrounding #BringBackOurGirls is part of a heightened awareness by Nigerians of the need to hold their government accountable. As the February 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections draw near, the most important questions are what Nigerians will do with their awakened political consciousness, and how ready they are for a new kind of leadership capable of building the country that they want and deserve. To usher in a new, more hopeful era, Nigerians must prove themselves to be a citizenry worthy of it.
This piece is courtesy of the African Women Development Fund, a grantmaking foundation based in Accra, Ghana.