Over the past month, social media has accomplished what once seemed impossible: bringing the plight of northern Nigeria into the American public discourse. Many policy professionals have been doubtful about the power of social media in foreign affairs, particularly when it comes to issues facing the world’s most indigent populations without reliable access to electricity, much less Twitter. However, last week, the United States deployed 80 troops to the region, as well as intelligence teams, to search for the kidnapped girls of Chibok and help counter Boko Haram, a group that has terrorized northern Nigeria with near impunity for over three years.
Sprung from the fickle life of a hashtag, the #BringBackOurGirls movement has now triggered a chain reaction harnessing the power of international journalists, policymakers and world leaders to find the Chibok girls. Moreover, it is shedding the light of accountability on a government that has long exploited lax oversight as its economy grew into the largest in Africa, capitalizing on oil reserves at the cost of spills which routinely dwarf Deepwater Horizon.
Tracking security in a country already considered one of the most dangerous in the world, it is easy to become desensitized to the violence streaming out of it. The Chibok kidnapping was only the latest event in a crescendo of attacks, killing hundreds of people every month. Since the government declared a state of emergency in April 2013 and reinforced official buildings and military barracks, schools have become weekly soft targets. In February, 59 boys were killed when Islamists raided a boarding school, slitting their throats like cattle; 44 boys and their teachers were killed in the same manner and location last September; two months before that, another 40 students. It should be noted, that these students have been targeted regardless of gender or religion by a terrorist group whose very name condemns everything but the strictest Koranic education—shunning mathematics, critical thinking and other skills needed to help lift an ill-fated land from destitution.
In the weeks following the Chibok kidnapping, however, interest and concern spilled over from Nigerian protests and the confines of social media into U.S. newsrooms. Soon, more international journalists and broadcasters had descended on Nigeria than ever before.
And here lies the most important part of that hashtag’s cycle: the scrutiny of international media. Of all the problems dragging down Nigeria’s government, its talent for avoiding accountability is chief among them. This has been reinforced by a deficiency in Nigeria’s press, which despite enjoying a level of freedom rare in Africa, lacks the enterprise and standards to diligently scrutinize officials, often reprinting their statements verbatim.
To those accustomed to the military’s immunity from oversight, Defence Chief Alex Badeh's announcement that he knows where the girls are located echoes of the impulsiveness which characterized the military’s earlier statements. Three days after the kidnapping, Defence spokesperson Chris Olukolade cited Chibok principal Asabe Kwambura in his claim that all but eight girls had been freed. He was not counting on foreign journalists to follow up with Ms. Kwambura, who categorically denied making the statement. Olukolade also said the Air Force had begun flying reconnaissance missions “instantly.” However, the BBC’s John Simpson, reporting from a desolate Maiduguri airport under Air Force command, saw no indication of reconnaissance flights.
With most of the northeast inaccessible to journalists and independent observers, the military has been able to lead its own narrative, exaggerating successes and downplaying insurgent attacks. In the past, Olukolade has boasted of the military killing hundreds of suspected terrorists in offensives Amnesty International calls “uncontrolled reprisals,” while ignoring reports of equally-high civilian deaths. Northern leaders accuse commanders of garrisoning their troops in the safety of urban bases, and rarely deploying where they are desperately needed: the backcountry haunted by Boko Haram. To the people living in those areas, who rely on makeshift vigilante groups to fill the security vacuum, Amnesty International’s accusation comes as no surprise: that security forces received advanced warning of the Chibok attack and did nothing.
The greatest challenge to both Boko Haram’s continued impunity and the government’s foot-dragging now lies in the lifecycle of a Twitter hashtag. If the movement continues, it has the potential to not only help free the girls of Chibok, but also prevent Africa’s largest country from sliding further into conflict and destabilizing the region.
One thing is for sure. Wherever the Chibok girls are, they have no idea the world is watching. No clue that their plight has mobilized public discourse, from social media to news desks and into homes across the world, or that the president of the United States has deliberated his response in the Oval Office. If they are returned to safety and see us looking back at them, we can be proud of what we’ve done. #DontTurnAway
Clyne is a Nigeria specialist and security analyst for a global risk consulting firm.