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.