By Sakke Teerikoski
In April 2014, the world was shocked by news that about 276 Nigerian school girls who had been kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Soon after, followed an international movement was sparked under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. At the time it got much attention in media, but four years have passed since then and it has faded from our attention. There is not much being written about it anymore. What has happened since? Were the girls rescued? Did the social media movement have an effect?
On the 15th of April 2014, Boko Haram terrorists attacked a school in Chibok in north-western Nigeria and kidnapped 276 girls of ages 16 to 18. They were forced into trucks and driven away to Boko Haram camps. 53 girls managed to escape early on, but the rest were not able to get away.
Boko Haram is now on the retreat, but back in 2014 it was still gaining power. In 2015 it controlled large land areas in north-eastern Nigeria, extending over the border to neighbouring Cameroon and the shores of Lake Chad. Kidnapping schoolgirls has a symbolic meaning for extremist movements like Boko Haram, whose ideology states that girls should not go to school but rather become young wives and mothers instead. The government of Nigeria has been criticised for not acting on time to battle Boko Haram and for not attempting to save the girls early enough. Boko Haram has performed many deadly terrorist attacks in north-eastern Nigeria since then.
The #BringBackOurGirls social media movement started out in Nigeria and spread across the world. Many celebrities from around the world, including Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Beyoncé and Pope Francis, posted about it and boosted the awareness about the girls’ fate. The movement has been accompanied by live demonstrations in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls reached huge attention on Twitter and was the most trending hashtag for a few weeks while during spring 2014. This was during a period when gender roles and women in conflict were already heavily debated topics on the internet.
The digitally competent Boko Haram militia also realised the value of the social media attention that the girls attracted. The terrorist group has posted pictures and videos featuring Chibok girls and their newborn children several times to intimidate the international community, and they have realised the value of the girls as leverage people to negotiate about with the Nigerian army.
Four years later, the fate of more than 100 Chibok girls is still unknown. Over the years, there have been reports of Chibok girls who have been found or who have been negotiated into freedom. The Nigerian government has reclaimed parts of the north-eastern territories of the country, and Boko Haram has lost land. In October 2016, a group of 21 girls were freed after negotiations had taken place between Boko Haram and the government. Another 82 Chibok girls were freed in May 2017, thanks to further negotiations. However, there have also been reports of girls who have died.
All Chibok girls are now adults. The girls who have been rescued have had trouble getting integrated back to their home society in Chibok. Some of the initial 53 escapees have moved to the United States to study. Two of the Chibok girls recently visited President Donald Trump in the White House. As for the girls who are still with Boko Haram, it is believed that some girls who were forced to get married with Boko Haram men now live with their children and possibly husbands as a family.
One can rightly argue that the #BringBackOurGirls movement has had effect, by putting pressure on the Nigerian government to act. However, it can be questioned how much of the pressure on the government has been thanks to the international social media dimension of the movement – the domestic movement in Nigeria has likely made a bigger impact. Global social media movements are often criticised for being more about posting hashtags and less about more tangible actions, and the #BringBackOurGirls case is no exception. In any case, the Nigerian government started to pull off successful negotiations with Boko Haram under the mediation of the ICRC. The indirect effect of the global movement on the end result can have had a considerable effect, e.g. through the pressure put on the Nigerian government to act more swiftly to rescue the girls and through the help offered to Nigeria by other countries where the movement reached the attention of decision makers. However, it is still too early to speculate on the overall impact of the #BringBackOurGirls social media movement, for the situation is still ongoing. One hundred Chibok girls still remain to be rescued, and they could be anywhere – even outside of Nigeria. Some Chibok girls are known to have been held captive in Cameroon.
It has been argued that the celebrity involvement in the social media movement also caused harm, through the attention and indirect leverage to Boko Haram. The social media attention can have aided Boko Haram in establishing contacts with other similar movements, such as ISIS and groups that are operating in the Sahel region. Already in 2015, Boko Haram was counted as a part of ISIS.
As a final remark, it should be said that the Chibok case is far from the only case of girls being kidnapped by Boko Haram. Amnesty International has estimated that the total number of kidnapped girls is several thousand! However, the Chibok kidnapping has been the biggest kidnapping carried out by Boko Haram. Thanks to the #BringBackOurGirls movement, the story of the 276 girls has received worldwide attention. While this text was being written, there were news from Nigeria about yet another mass kidnapping of schoolgirls. Boko Haram kidnapped 110 girls in Dapchi, also in northern Nigeria, on the 19th of February 2018. Later, on the 21st of March, 104 of them were returned to their families. Of the remaining 6, one girl is still believed to be alive and held captive by Boko Haram. The attention on social media has faded, but the kidnappings issue lives on.
By Sakke Teerikoski