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The Debate

The phrase #BringBackOurGirls, featured in thousands of Twitter posts and on signs held up by First Lady Michelle Obama and other prominent figures, is meant to draw the world’s attention to the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls by the Nigerian militia group Boko Haram – and, those who use it hope, to motivate Nigeria and the world to take action against this atrocity.  Is this a noble and worthwhile cause, or a naive and misleading form of outside interference? To some, it brings to mind #Kony2012, the online campaign that made “hashtag activism” famous with its enormously popular – and, many felt, completely irrelevant and ill-considered – campaign to bring Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony to justice. To some, worldwide hashtag campaigns are a powerful new way to spur the world to action. Others see them as the latest in a long tradition in which outsiders are manipulated into interfering in African affairs, without sufficient knowledge of the stakes or factors involved, and that such campaigns, however well-meaning, more often do harm than good.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
Akintunde OyebodeNigerian-based economist, banker and writer who lives in Lagos
Hashtags shine much-needed light on political inaction
Debate contributor
Gerald CaplanGerald Caplan is a scholar of African history and politics
This is an old story of campaigns that are irrelevant at best, damaging at worst

The Discussion

Debate contributor

Akintunde Oyebode : There is an interesting section of Revolution 2.0, Wael Ghonim’s book on the Arab Spring, where a pessimist reproaches Mr. Ghonim, saying: “No one will do anything and you’ll see. All we do is post on Facebook. We are the Facebook generation.”

He responded by changing the Facebook group he started to “January 25: Revolution against Torture, Poverty, Corruption, and Unemployment.” Today, the story of how Hosni Mubarak’s repressive government fell cannot be told without acknowledging Mr. Ghonim and the Egyptian online heroes who gave Egyptians a voice when they needed it.

In Nigeria, millions use social media as a forum in which to demand accountability from government and private corporations. Maybe it was the Arab Spring or the much publicized “Occupy” movement, but something snapped in Nigeria. On January 2, 2012, thousands of Nigerians in several cities organized street demonstrations to protest the removal of petroleum subsidies. As with the Arab Spring, the success of these protests has been subjected to several debates, but one thing is clear: the Internet’s place in driving social consciousness is here to stay.

It is easy to denounce the “hashtag generation.” After all, Egypt, its poster child, remains mired in upheaval, its online activists long detached from the political system. In Nigeria, there was a proliferation of Twitter hashtags used to drive various causes, from crowdsourcing funds for the critically ill to protesting the loss of tablets on domestic flights. Social-media users are routinely accused of being “keyboard activists” and living in an online bubble, disconnected from the real world.

A few months ago, over 50 boys were slaughtered in BuniYadi, in northeastern Nigeria, and last September another 40 students were killed during an attack on an Agricultural College. So, when over 200 female students were abducted from a Government secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, in the northeastern part of Nigeria, it must have felt like another routine attack on a school. In a move that suggested attacks and bombings were now par for course, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan did not offer a statement on the kidnapped girls for weeks, even as he deemed it fit to cancel a cabinet meeting due to the death of the Vice President’s brother.

Just like the death of Khaled Said did in Egypt, the abduction of over 200 women stirred something in Nigerians. Maybe it was the thought of young girls separated from their parents, or the snub by government. In any case, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign was a citizen-led response to force government accountability, and a call to action for the security forces to rescue the missing girls. Inspired by the outspoken protests of Oby Ezekwesili, a former federal minister, this campaign was not meant to become a global phenomenon. It was a simple cry by helpless Nigerians to raise awareness of citizens who were kidnapped by zealots and abandoned by their government. The rest, as they now say, can be checked on Google.

This is why I bat for online campaigns and their poster child, the hash tag. The unpredictable nature of what a simple hashtag can become, combined with the egalitarian nature of the internet, a place that limits censorship and amplifies one comment to millions of people, have combined to become a big vehicle for change and action. Today, it is Nigeria and its people thankful for the support of people tweeting from Alaska to Zhengzhou; tomorrow, it will be Nigerians supporting a cause in Aleppo. The ubiquity of online platforms is a true gift to everyone who believes in free speech.

Yes, there are opportunists who seek to earn a quick buck a campaign’s popularity. Those will always be a tiny minority. Overall, the support for the Nigerian people has been immense. Not only has it forced the Nigerian government to act, it has also drawn some long-overdue global attention to Boko Haram, a terrorist group that threatens the unity of Africa’s largest economy. These two results are significantly more important than the self-serving motives of opportunists who latch on to these campaigns.

As we maintain our vigil until the daughters of Chibok are reunited with their parents, we must draw fortitude from the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Debate contributor

Gerald Caplan : “This Nigeria!” So say Nigerians themselves when something out of the ordinary happens to them or their country, which is most of the time. It’s a phrase that says: “We understand that things happen here that don’t happen anywhere else.” And they do. Nigeria is like nowhere else. Sure, every country is special in some way or another. But everyone who’s experienced it knows Nigeria is special in ways no place else is. For good — and too often for ill.

Nigeria never stops being thrilling, creative, exciting, vibrant, hustling. It has never stopped producing extraordinary individuals in every possible field. But the other side of the coin often seems dominant: its belligerence, its impatience, indiscipline, tumult, disorderliness. Latent violence is never far off, and too often it is dismayingly present. Everyone is ready for a fight at the drop of an excuse and fighting can occur between families, villages, regions, nationalities, religions, ethnicities, and just about any other configuration imaginable.

I was involved in Nigeria long before I lived there in the late 1970s, when I was director of the Canadian-Nigerian volunteer manpower program, CUSO. For a student of Africa like me, Nigeria's progress always was — as it has remained — central to the destiny of the continent. So it was with bitter disappointment the world watched as independence from the UK in 1960 was immediately followed by a series of murderous coups and counter-coups, mostly based on ethnicity, nationality or religion. Nigeria was a British and therefore a constructed imperial artifact. Three large separate nations — the northern Hausa-Fulani, who are Muslims; the eastern Igbo, who are Catholic; and the Yoruba in the south-west, who are Protestant — all forced into one unnatural, fragile state. The coups by the new elite inflamed tensions among the people, leading to deadly pogroms by the Hausa against visiting Igbo, leading to Igbo leaders declaring eastern Nigeria to have seceded from the state under the name Biafra. A calamitous three-year civil war began.

Many of us, in countries around the world, threw our support behind Biafra and did everything in our power to help it survive. It was a fatal error. Within weeks it became apparent that Biafra could not survive. Every day after that time, war and its attendant hunger and disease uselessly cost the lives of more than a million Igbo people. And, perversely, it was our moral support and the food we helped smuggle in that kept them from surrendering much earlier.

When I arrived a few years later, a Nigerian form of normality already prevailed, exacerbated by the discovery of big oil. A military dictatorship was once again in power. Once again everywhere was brashness, car wrecks, belligerence, mountains of garbage, and illicit schemes, all now tied to corruption on a massive scale. Don’t bother going to the cops to report my car stolen from outside my front door, I was advised; they probably stole it. After two years, I could hardly wait to get out. A series of democratic governments and military dictators followed, with the former usually at least as corrupt and venal as the generals.

Twenty years after I left, with Big Oil dominating everything, little seemed to have changed for the better. Karl Maier, a journalist who had managed to stay for a decade, wrote a book with the telltale title This House has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria. Mr. Maier described a society in almost total chaos. Despite billions from oil, most people remained in poverty. Ethnic and religious strife still threatened the nation-state. Both schools and health service were wretched. To call the book depressing is far too anodyne. Even today, with many changes, much growth, many mores signs of western-style development, a large nouveau-riche class (including politicians), midnight still looms. Boko Haram is one notorious manifestation of the destiny that Nigerians — with the indispensable aid of Big Oil and its friends — have carved out for themselves.

I’m pretty certain the well-meaning young people around the world, most of them girls, who’ve been standing up for the kidnapped Nigerian girls know nothing of this background. I have nothing but admiration for young people who care about the plight of others. But without knowing how a tragedy happens you can’t understand how hard it is to deal with the consequences.

Venal political and military leaders lording it over poorly-trained, poorly-equipped, poorly-motivated, casually brutal soldiers — who’s going to take on the fanatical and diabolical warriors of Boko Haram? Who’s going to be impressed that the First lady of the United States, or Malala, or anyone else, is holding up placards or using social media to denounce the marauding zealots? I’m glad so many people care at the moment about the kidnapped girls. But if the harsh truth be told, their heartfelt entreaties are quite irrelevant to solving the Boko Haram crisis, and long before it’s over, you can be sure their interest will have vanished.