Making a hash(tag) of Africa policy

The global phenomenon of the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign has succeeded beyond all expectations in not only raising awareness of the plight of the nearly 300 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram militants, but in focusing much-needed attention on the burgeoning threat posed by the Islamist group.

Back in 2011, when I testified at the first congressional hearing ever held on Boko Haram, an event held in conjunction with the release of a bipartisan report spearheaded by Reps. Patrick Meehan (R-Penn.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), the topic was so obscure that all of the participants could have convened in a broom closet.

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In the little more than three weeks since First Lady Michelle Obama posed for her selfie with the hashtag, the United States has deployed military, intelligence and law enforcement personnel to Nigeria, where they have joined British and French teams helping with the search; other countries, including Israel and even China, have also offered assistance; French President François Hollande has hosted a summit in Paris which resulted in West African countries declaring "total war" on the Boko Haram; and President Obama has notified Congress under the War Powers Act that U.S. military personnel and an unarmed Predator drone have been sent to Chad to fly missions over northern Nigeria as part of the effort to locate the missing girls. All this happened because the unprecedented display of global social-media power — from its April 23 start with a frustrated Nigerian lawyer, Ibrahim Abdullahi, to its embrace by everyone from Pakistani Taliban victim and girls' education advocate Malala Yousafzai to actress Angelina Jolie to British Prime Minister David Cameron to Michelle Obama — essentially shamed Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan into accepting the help that his government has nevertheless long-resisted asking for.

All of this — especially the attention on the plight of the schoolgirls — is welcome, but one also needs to be realistic about both the limits of what can be achieved by social-media sensations like the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and the inherent downsides to such efforts.

First, while international pressure was critical in getting Nigeria to accept help that it clearly needed, the spotlight now shined upon it may, ironically, make a happy ending for the girls and their families all the more unlikely. While Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has backed away from his early bloodcurdling threats to sell the kidnapped girls into slavery and instead has offered to trade them for imprisoned militants, with the world watching and countries like the United States and the United Kingdom (which have longstanding policies against negotiating with terrorists) now involved, can Jonathan, who faces a tough reelection in less than eight months, actually make any concessions? On the other hand, it is rather doubtful he can be that tough either: Not only has the Nigerian military been largely ineffectual in its efforts to contain — much less crush — the burgeoning insurgency, but the very army unit spearheading the fight against Boko Haram, the 7th Division, is so dysfunctional that just two weeks ago its soldiers opened fire on their commanding general.

Second, while the singular focus on the kidnapped girls puts human faces on the toll that violence in Nigeria has exacted — a reliable tally kept by former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell puts the number of deaths from political violence at more than 10,000 since 2011 — it also risks ignoring the larger threat posed by Boko Haram and other extremist groups throughout the region. Already, Boko Haram has crossed over the poorly secured frontiers of Nigeria. Last year, following the French-led military intervention against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other extremists who had overrun northern Mali, evidence was uncovered that Boko Haram not only had links with the North African al Qaeda affiliate, but had operated training camps in areas controlled by AQIM. Exactly a month after the Chibok abductions, a suspected Boko Haram attack in northern Cameroon resulted in the abduction of 10 Chinese workers and the theft of a dozen vehicles. In the last week, twin bombings in the central Nigerian city of Jos, which left more than 100 people dead, have been blamed on the terrorist group, while Boko Haram gunmen have rampaged daily through villages near the border with Niger and Cameroon.

Third, current strategic and budgetary constraints limit U.S. resources available for commitments abroad in general, and Africa in particular, and policymakers consequently need to carefully husband resources, prioritize engagement, and rely on complicated (and often messy) compromises in order to resolve conflicts and secure outcomes America can live with. While up to now there is no conflict between the "action" demanded by activists and the broader regional interests of the United States, the virtues of prudent statecraft are inherently in tension with the black-and-white, awareness-raising ethos of social-media campaigns. The carefully calibrated response of the administration has so far been appropriate to the strategic and operational realities on the ground. However, what happens to the light footprint when the online demand shifts from a generic "do something" to a specific "send in the special operations forces"?

Finally, like the controversial earlier Kony 2012 effort aimed at the fugitive child-snatching warlord from Uganda, the key to the current campaign's success lies in its simplified messaging. While nothing justifies the outrageous kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls and every realistic effort should be expended to secure their freedom, tweets and hashtags do little justice to the complex web of legitimate political, economic and social grievances that, as I noted in an early study for the U.S. government, have rendered significant segments of the population in northern Nigeria amenable to Boko Haram's message of overturning the status quo in the country, if not the militants' methods — to say nothing of their being less-than-well-adapted to capturing the nuances of the profound pathologies which beset the body politic and institutions of Africa's most populous country. Until the latter are addressed, it appears inevitable that the tragedy of the Chibok schoolgirls will, sadly, be repeated many times over.

Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.