I started writing this post weeks ago and got caught up in a million different things so am only just uploading it today, so I apologise. I wanted to write about the Boko Haram kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls last month and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that has been trending worldwide on Twitter.
I’ll assume that you know that on 15 April this year, 200 girls were kidnapped from the school dormitories in Chibok, the northeastern part of Nigeria by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist organisation. On 4 May, it was reported a further eight girls were kidnapped.
Translating into English as “Western education is a sin”, Boko Haram wishes to halt the educational progress of schoolchildren.
Since these events, I have watched with interest as a social media campaign that began in Nigeria spread across the globe calling on Nigerian (initially) and then global leaders to #BringBackOurGirls. Although I desperately hope for these girls to be returned to safety, I have not felt as a ‘Westerner’ that I should be supporting this campaign by joining in the rallying cries on the internet.
Thanks to thousands of Nigerians, this social media campaign brought to light a serious incident in Nigeria that may not have got the attention it deserves in the West : although it was immediately reported in Nigerian and other international press, in the US, CNN admitted to minimising the story’s importance by claiming that “In Nigeria, the mass abduction of schoolgirls isn’t shocking” – there are no words.
I am fully supportive of Nigerians taking to social media to express their concern for the kidnapped schoolgirls and their calls to the Nigerian Government to resolve the situation. I am also supportive of the international community’s rallying behind Nigeria and demonstrating their solidarity with the families and friends of the kidnapped girls.
Unfortunately, however, I am concerned about the meaning that the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls conveys when it falls into Western hands.
I have seen many articles online that argue that the use of #BringBackOurGirls and “international outrage has increasingly mounted, which has forced Nigerian officials to do more in their handling of the crisis.” But, due to the international political power structures that exist and white supremacist system that we live in, I have to question whether the Western appropriation of this hashtag is doing more harm than good.
Janell Hobson, in her article Have you “Seen” the kidnapped girls of Nigeria? asks:
“As we raise more awareness about the situation in Nigeria, what are the demands that we’re making? Are we simply going to expect U.S. military intervention or aid in intelligence and counter-terrorism? How will we place gender and its intersections with race and class at the center of our analyses? Will we frame this as another “black pathology” story of U.S. “benevolence” intervening on African/Third World “incompetence” or “corruption”? This narrative is not helpful, especially when it comes from U.S./Westerners who couldn’t even begin to point out the northeastern region of Nigeria on a map. Will we also frame this as another “save the black and brown girls from the scary black and brown men” story? Such framing is also not helpful, since it flattens the complexities of how local and global forces mobilize capitalist struggles over oil, economic disparities, religious extremism and worldwide misogyny to reinforce the devalued labor and images of women and girls—especially in a globalizing world that has shifted so many cultural, political, economic and social structures. Against this gendered lens, racial hierarchies determine which women and girls matter. How our media and popular culture frame these stories determine whether they get taken seriously at all, or if they will even be “more seen.””
Jamoke Balogun raises a similar point when she says in her article Dear Americans, Your Hashtags Won’t #BringBackOurGirls. You Might Actually Be Making Things Worse.
“Simple question. Are you Nigerian? Do you have constitutional rights accorded to Nigerians to participate in their democratic process? If not, I have news you. You can’t do anything about the girls missing in Nigeria. You can’t. Your insistence on urging American power, specifically American military power, to address this issue will ultimately hurt the people of Nigeria.”
She goes on to explain that although she is glad that people care about the abducted girls and are spreading “awareness”, she argues that using the hashtag is championing military intervention and putting pressure on Western powers (the American government in particular), to get involved in African affairs. To Balogun, this means that “you become a complicit participant in a military expansionist agenda on the continent of Africa.”
Balogun suggests that the Western use of the hashtag gives the military legitimacy to encroach and grow their military presence in Africa and gives examples of how AFRICOM (Unites States Africa Command), the military body responsible for overseeing US military operations across Africa to advance U.S. national security interests, has expanded its role in Africa in recent years, boosted by the #KONY2012 campaign. The list of countries that American troops entered in 2013 is a long one.
I know that many Americans, and indeed Westerners, will be shouting at their screens at the moment that they are “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” when it comes to situations like this, and will also be quick to distance themselves from the decisions made by Western governments on their behalf. I also know that the primary concern is to bring back the girls from Boko Haram, and many would argue that this should be done by any means necessary, including Western intervention.
In another world; with another power structure where the playing field is level, where the US isn’t the global hegemonic power sent to ‘save’ Nigeria, where white supremacy isn’t the order of the day, where Nigeria and other African nations have an equal standing in world affairs, where it can be guaranteed that the US ‘assisting’ another country is wanted, consented to, temporary and can be reciprocated; calling on them to #bringbackourgirls might be less damaging, or, more likely, unnecessary. However, we in the West need to realise that, not only do Western military interventions have a destabilising effect in some countries (Balogun cites examples here and here), the involvement of the US government and military undermines democracy in Nigeria and, as Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole put it, will only lead to more militarism, less oversight, and less democracy.
The military personnel sent to #bringbackourgirls will never leave, not really. The opportunity to ‘rescue’ the girls will be seen as an open invitation to roam Africa under the pretence of ‘assistance’ for years to come, just as it did when they went looking for Kony.
Balogun concludes her article by saying:
“It was Nigerians who took their good for nothing President to task and challenged him to address the plight of the missing girls. It is in their hands to seek justice for these girls and to ensure that the Nigerian government is held accountable. Your emphasis on U.S. action does more harm to the people you are supposedly trying to help and it only expands and sustain U.S. military might.
If you must do something, learn more about the amazing activists and journalists like this one, this one, and this one just to name a few, who have risked arrests and their lives as they challenge the Nigerian government to do better for its people within the democratic process. If you must tweet, tweet to support and embolden them, don’t direct your calls to action to the United States government who seeks to only embolden American militarism. Don’t join the American government and military in co-opting this movement started and sustained by Nigerians.”
As usual, I would like to hear your thoughts on this blog post and my arguments, and, as usual I don’t pretend to be an expert on everything – I’m only human. Please do call me up on things I’ve said that you disagree with or if you think I’ve got it wrong!