People around the world have been showing support for the plight of the Nigerian girls that were taken from a secondary school by extremist group Boko Haram. Activists have been taking part in protests and joining online campaigns calling for the rescue of the girls but to what end?
The internet and social media in particular has made the world appear very small by creating a massive global community. It’s gratifying to be able to jump on Twitter or Facebook and discuss issues with like-minded people in other countries.
By using social media we have become more aware of the struggles going on around the globe, relying less on local news outlets to bring us first hand accounts. More and more of us are donning the mantle of activist, we are voicing our opinions and signing petitions as though we are living those struggles ourselves.
We don’t even have to jump on a plane to march for a cause, we just organise local protests and march on a countries embassy. Global solidarity is a beautiful thing but lines can get blurry.
Take the case of the missing schoolgirls. Maybe like me, you first learned about it because someone on your timeline is Nigerian, they tweeted the news and you sympathised with their plight. Maybe you did some further reading and found out more about Boka Haram or maybe not.
As an armchair activist it can be difficult to know when to raise awareness and apply pressure. After a few weeks and with the girls still missing, the global community started to demand that their local media cover the story and compared the plight of the missing girls to that of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the South Korean ferry disaster.
You might want to shake your fist at me for what I’m about to say but here goes: Aside from the human-interest angle these incidents are not comparable and here’s why:
Missing Malaysia flight
On 8 March, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur International Airport bound for Beijing. On board were 227 passengers, including 153 Chinese, 38 Malaysians as well as passengers from Iran, the US, Canada, Indonesia, Australia, India, France, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan and the Netherlands.
You know those news stories where 1000 people die in a fire/earthquake/tsunami and ONE was a Brit so our local media rinses the hell out of the story and interviews that one Brit’s family, pet goldfish, Uncle Tom Cobley and all? Well the missing plane story had so much media attention because all those countries were doing the equivalent of the one Brit story. From the get-go it is an international human-interest story.
Plus a disappearing plane is a mystery to be solved and is big news. I imagine someone in Hollyweird is already writing a film script about it.
Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Nigerians
You can see where I’m going with this already can’t you? On 15 April more than 300 schoolgirls aged between 16-18, were kidnapped from a school in Chibok by militant Islamist group Boko Haram. As far as I can tell not one of those girls were British, American or European. Despite the human-interest angle this story was not instantly of global importance and wasn’t even picked up by the Associated Press until a day after the kidnappings. For weeks the missing girls remained an internal matter for the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to handle.
Unfortunately the matter was not handled and the mothers of the missing girls started protesting giving the story some traction. It was a group of Nigerian activists that started the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag and the global community picked up the ball and ran with it.
Whilst Nigerians were begging their government to do more, we were begging our media for more coverage. In time the story got the global coverage people felt it deserved and it’s been an opportunity for celebs to jump on the protest bandwagon.
The kidnapping of the schoolgirls has helped to shine a global spotlight on what Nigerian’s have been putting up with for several years from Boko Haram. In the meantime at least 53 of the girls escaped, the Nigerian government says 276 are still being held captive by the terrorists. But don’t trust the numbers as different figures are being quoted everywhere.
Don’t’ invite people to my house without my permission
Nigerian First Lady, Patience Jonathan made herself a laughing stock when she claimed the story of the missing schoolgirls was a lie to bring down her husband’s government. She subsequently had the leader of the protests, Naomi Mutah Nyadar, arrested and even I started questioning the leadership in Nigeria.
From the First Lady’s point of view the protesters can be seen as an embarrassment for the government as they Nigeria hosted the Africa meeting of the World Economic Forum. There were big plans to showcase the country’s emergence as Africa’s largest economy. Oops.
Another oops is the video of the first lady holding a meeting with the teachers of the school where the girls went missing. Not sure what Patience was trying to say but her tears appeared on cue.
According to journalist Alexis Okeowo, the day after the abduction, the Nigerian military claimed that it had rescued nearly all of the girls. A day later, the military retracted its claim; it had not actually rescued any of the girls. And the number that the government said was missing, just over a hundred, was less than half the number that parents and school officials counted: according to their tally, two hundred and thirty-four girls were taken.
It is the lack of action and incompetence of the Nigerian government that had people calling for the west to intervene, looking at President Obama like he’s actually the president of the world, not just the US.
Felicity Morse the social media editor at the Independent made the mistake of tweeting “Don’t give me your hashtags woman, your husband is the president” in response to US First Lady, Michelle Obama’s #BringBackOurGirls picture. But she’s not the only one calling for American intervention. This is where lines get confused for the global community.
Remember the Kony 2012 campaign that helped to highlight the plight of Uganda? Activists were inviting the US government to ‘get Kony’ but nobody asked whether Uganda wanted or needed an intervention.
The difference here is that the families of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls welcome intervention from the west and are relieved that Britain and the United States have offered their support. But the global community was asking for this help before and it’s getting to be a pattern.
Don’t overstay your welcome
France has a big stake in helping to suppress Boka Haram. The country already has more than 4,000 troops operating between Mali to the west and Central African Republic to the east. It’s been busy preventing radical Islamists from taking control of Mali since 2012, so they were already in the neighbourhood.
It’s one thing to be outraged by the suffering of another human being but we must be very careful not to invite unwanted guests to take charge of something that is not their responsibility. In a situation like this the most we could have done was to implore Goodluck Jonathan to ask for and accept help from other world leaders, we cannot force help on him.
The Nigarian armed forces remain overstretched since President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeast a year ago. As few as 25,000 service-ready troops face an insurgency over a wide area in the northeast, communal violence across north and central Nigeria and rampant oil theft in the south, as well as commitments to peacekeeping missions. Boko Haram know this and take advantage of the situation every chance they get.
It’s fair to say that Nigeria’s armed forces aren’t up to the task anymore and the country could certainly benefit from all the help it can get. It doesn’t have the sophisticated surveillance and monitoring equipment that US and Britain have to track the militants. This is the same spying equipment we will protest against when used against us. For now we will be happy if it helps to bring back the kidnapped girls and suppress Boko Haram.
Let’s hope that the west don’t see this as a weakness and an invitation to stick around in Nigeria long after this matter is resolved. We can go back to protesting our privacy and the interference of the west in the affairs of other countries and US drone strikes when this is all over.
We shouldn’t hesitate in the struggle for global social justice but we should be aware of what can be done and who can be called upon to make things happen.