This weekend, members of the Islamic group Boko Haram took a new, unprecedented step in their campaign of violence: They traveled across the border of Nigeria into Cameroon and kidnapped the wife of the country’s vice prime minister. The brazen abduction was followed the next day by yet another suicide bombing in the highly populated Nigerian city of Kano.
This year alone, the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group has killed thousands in northern Nigeria, frequently abducting school children, detonating suicide bombs, raiding villages, staging executions and conducting mass murders against people that do not adhere to their warped religious ideology.
For the most part, the Nigerian military has been powerless to stop them.
On April 15, members of Boko Haram kidnapped almost 300 schoolgirls from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok. Though some managed to escape, nearly 200 are still missing. Leaders of the organization have threatened to sell the girls as child brides and forced many to convert from Christianity to Islam. Experts believe that they are also being subjected to horrific sexual abuse at the hands of Boko Haram.
When word of the abduction spread in the media, outraged Internet users responded by creating the Twitter hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls. Even First Lady Michelle Obama joined the social media activism.
Unfortunately, despite the international attention, the Nigerian government has been completely unable—and possibly even unwilling—to do anything to free the children.
Boko Haram’s New Platform
Newsweek reporter Alex Perry has recently released an in-depth and deeply disturbing feature story (and accompanying ebook), about the terror organization behind the attacks.
By all measures, Boko Haram is an evil, brutal group whose main agenda isn’t politics—it’s violence and terror. But, until recently, they have been relatively obscure, and their violence was somewhat isolated to regional disputes.
Then the hashtag happened. As Perry explains:
“Boko Haram has responded to the attention by stepping up its attacks, including two more mass kidnappings near Chibok. #BringBackOurGirls is having to confront an awkward suspicion: that by ‘raising awareness,’ the campaigners may have given Boko Haram precisely the global profile it wanted. Moreover, the campaigners’ narrative is beginning to feel forced. The idea that this is an issue of girls’ education and militant Muslim repression of women is given lie by the revelation that the girls’ gender may actually have saved their lives. In raids on mixed schools, Boko Haram slit the throats of all the boys.”
For all of the awareness it’s brought to the plight of the girls, the well-intentioned campaign may now be doing more harm than good.
Where It Goes Wrong
In Nigeria, the hashtag and slogan have a somewhat different implication than they do in Western social media. There, families of victims are using it to express frustration over the ineptitude and corruption of their own government—issues that have long been a reality in the country. It’s a form of public protest and awareness that is pressuring politicians to find new ways to rescue the children. In Nigeria, it’s been so powerful and politically damaging that the government even tried to shut down the protests.
Among Western social media users though, #BringBackOurGirls spread so fast, that it took on a #Kony2012-like spirit, with well-intentioned but possibly misguided users posting it without really thinking about the implications. Who exactly were they addressing? The Nigerian military is full of human rights offenders, and is also known for unspeakable brutality. Were they advocating for American intervention? If so, was the solution to send in American troops? Were they addressing Boko Haram?
The lack of knowledge about the delicate and complicated political environment in Nigeria—and the roots of why Boko Haram is so powerful—may have fostered a potentially ill-advised trend. The woman who became the face of some parts of the viral campaign isn’t even Nigerian.
The difficult fact is that by spreading the hashtag, western culture may have given Boko Haram what they’ve wanted all along—an international platform.
What Boko Haram Wants
In his recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Perry describes how the roots of the Boko Haram movement indicate a large-scale problem that is at the core of the real issue of the government’s inability to rescue the girls.
Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Over the last few decades, the government has stolen hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue from its people. Bribery, crime and basic negligence are commonplace among the military and government officials.
Boko Haram comes from one of the poorest regions in the country, where basic government services are almost non-existent. The movement is against education—Boko Haram translates to “Western education is sinful”—which is a luxury many of their families never adequately experienced.
Yes, their actions are completely wicked and their views are twisted, but they didn’t spring from a void. An atmosphere of systematic disenfranchisement is also to blame. When a leader rises up speaking against the evils of the government, people listen. As Perry explained, “[The movement’s founder] pushed these grievances into this very purist form of Islam—very literal … But because of his charisma, because of the wellspring of grievances that he was able to tap into, he became kind of a rock star and was able to build up a large following across the Northeast.”
After some violent confrontations with the government, the movement grew, and it wasn’t long before their anti-establishment ideology spun entirely out of control. Boko Haram went from violent reaction against government oppression to brazen, evil terrorist group without much motive at all outside of wanton sadism.
Repositioning Our Activism
Two weeks ago, Boko Haram leaders released yet another video. This time, they were laughing and making fun of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. They were literally mocking the social media activism. And this time, unlike the early days when they used street preaching to convey their message, the world actually listened to Boko Haram. CBS, NBC, The Independent and many other major outlets all ran the story.
After years of disenfranchisement and isolation, Boko Haram is on the world stage, and a viral campaign is partly to blame.
The campaign has unquestionably done a tremendous amount to raise awareness about the issue. And, in the long run, it may help enact real, meaningful change. At the very least, it’s led more people to engage with what’s happening in Nigeria. But, for the time being, the hashtag alone isn’t ending Boko Haram’s reign of terror.
For people passionate about enacting change, raising awareness about injustice and giving voice to victims, social media is a powerful tool. But along with our zeal to expose evil, we must also be willing to have a constant awareness of global issues. It shouldn’t take a mass kidnapping to awaken our knowledge of what’s happening in Nigeria. But, in a connected world, with an infinite flow of stories and global events, sometimes that’s the reality. We can’t possibly know everything that’s happening everywhere.
What we can do however is take time to learn about the roots of global issues and social causes before deciding to take part in them. Even if it is just in the form of a tweet.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.