Hijacking Nigeria’s #BringBackOurGirls campaign

Why does the West assume a tweet can fix Africa’s problems?

The attention does little to dispel the ignorance that surrounds Africa and its issues, writes Ogunlesi [EPA]

One evening in May, I visited a bar in Dumfries, a small Scottish town of 40,000 people. When my host – the Scottish poet I was visiting on an exchange programme – introduced me to the bar owner as a Nigerian, she said she had something to show me. It was a local newspaper clipping from an event held days earlier, at which Dumfries’ residents had put up, in the town square, a display of shoes to symbolise the abduction of more than 200 girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria on April 14.

#BringBackOurGirls had become the global flavour of the moment, and wielding a banner proclaiming the hashtag an instant rite of passage for multitudes of famous and ordinary persons across the world. (The celebrity roll-call included Sarah Brown, Michelle Obama, David Cameron, Kim Kardashian, Diddy, Ellen DeGeneres, Hillary Clinton, Anne Hathaway and Angelina Jolie).

The publicity seemed like a good thing; the story needed to get the attention of the world, as that seemed to be the only hope of triggering a response from a government inclined towards setting world records for nonchalance.

The matter at stake had all the elements needed to capture the world’s imagination. It featured a group of young women seeking an education, arrayed against a band of turbaned, bearded, women-oppressing extremists whose “Western education is sinful” moniker (in English translation) appeared to sum up its odious raison d’etre.

Social media template

That Nigerian drama was fortunate to have, in the October 2012 attack on Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban – another case of evil terrorists versus school-going girls – a set already prepared for its global staging. And there was already also a pre-existing social media marketing template, in the form of the #Kony2012 campaign.

Kony 2012 was a 30-minute film produced by a US company called Invisible Children, Inc, about Joseph Kony, the 51-year-old Ugandan warlord and International Criminal Court indictee whose rebel militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army, has waged war against the Ugandan government for almost 30 years. The video, pushed by western celebrities, became the third most viewed YouTube video of 2012, and Joseph Kony the ninth most searched for person on Google that year. TIME Magazine noted that it “set a new bar for all things viral”.

Six months on, Nigerian girls still missing

The adoption – some commentators have described it as a “hijacking” – of #BringBackOurGirls by western celebrities and newsmakers followed in that tradition: a way for western newsmakers to play a part in changing the world from the comfort of their mobile phones, without having to put in any effort to actually understand the issues and respond in truly effective ways.

Unsurprisingly, in spite of all the noise, the “zeitgeist” has since lumbered on from #BringBackOurGirls, as it did from #Kony2012 – because that is what it exists to do: linger briefly on a hot topic, and move on to the next. In its reckoning, everything is important for the same reason: a means of generating “buzz” to fill the insatiable demands of the news cycle in the age of Twitter and Facebook.

Where the West is concerned, the trending issues can be drawn from anywhere – celebrity marriage, celebrity divorce, elections, sports. Where it concerns Africa, it is almost always about outsiders offering salvation – the urgency of rescuing a morally depraved continent from itself.

This is not to say that global social media attention on any of Africa’s many problems doesn’t have any benefits. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign led to the establishment of a Safe Schools Initiative – a $20m fund championed by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and aimed at protecting schools in the troubled region.

But the downsides seem more far-reaching. Apart from doing nothing, in practical terms, to make it easier to find Joseph Kony or the Nigerian girls, the attention does little to dispel the ignorance that surrounds Africa and its issues. Instead it ends up helping perpetuate dangerous stereotypes about the continent, reducing everything to the most simplistic forms – bad Joseph Kony versus the good children of Uganda and Congo; bad Boko Haram versus the innocent girls of Nigeria (the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign either ignored or remained blissfully unaware that Boko Haram had, months before the abduction of the girls, murdered almost 60 boys in a school in the region).

Context of ignorance

Indeed, these hashtag-and-click campaigns depend on a context of ignorance to thrive; if more hashtagtivists knew how complex the issues were they would be more circumspect about parachuting in phone-first.

Also, the benefits produced by the onslaught of celebrity attention sometimes proceed in rather strange directions. In the case of #BringBackOurGirls, prominent beneficiaries have included Boko Haram (whose profile rose considerably as a result of the International campaign, to what I suspect must be the envy of other terrorist groups; and who may have been emboldened by the attention to scale up their ruthlessness), and Levick, an American PR firm engaged for $1.2m by the Nigerian government to tackle the negative publicity the campaign was attracting to it.

There’s a Nigerian Bring Back Our Girls movement that has daily gathered at a public square in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, since the end of April, and have kept up the pressure on the government long after the celebrity hijackers strayed away. Those are the real heroes…

And then there was Ramaa Mosley, the US filmmaker who falsely portrayed herself as having created the hashtag – a claim that was rewarded with high profile media mentions across the US, and enthusiastic response to a fundraising campaign from which the Nigerian #BringBackOurGirls movement was compelled to dissociate itself. (It turned out she was making the false claim to promote a film she had just made about the challenges girls across the world face in getting an education.)

Finally, the arrogance behind the actions of many Western do-gooders tends to undermine the significance of local agency; the reality that African problems will never be solved without the active involvement and commitment of Africans themselves, and that external help – in the form of funding or publicity – will only be effective when hitched to expressions of home-grown effort, within the context of a clear understanding of everything that’s at stake.

For example, there’s a Nigerian Bring Back Our Girls movement that has daily gathered at a public square in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, since the end of April, and have kept up the pressure on the government long after the celebrity hijackers strayed away. Those are the real heroes, and the ones to whom the international celebrity backers should be seeking guidance from as to how to intervene.

Some 130 years ago, the European powers of that time gathered in Berlin to divide Africa up amongst themselves; an audacious move that came to be known as the Scramble for Africa. The spirit of the scramble is still alive in many ways; this hashtag-seizing, celebrity-feel-gooding industry being merely one of the more benign manifestations.

Tolu Ogunlesi is an award-winning poet and author. His fiction and poetry have been published in The London Magazine, Wasafiri, Farafina, PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing, Litro, Brand, Orbis, Nano2ales, Stimulus Respond, Sable, Magma, and Stanford’s Black Arts Quarterly, among others.