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Forgetting Nigeria's girls

Soccer fans wave a #BringBackOurGirls sign at a World Cup match in Brazil
Soccer fans wave a #BringBackOurGirls sign at a World Cup match in Brazil

It's been less than two and a half months since the northern Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped over 300 children, all girls, as hostages in their war against the Nigerian government. It's been less than two months since international outrage culminated in a predominantly-Western media blitz and social awareness outpouring, which borrowed the originally Nigerian hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. And it's been about one month since most of the world outside of Nigeria has lost interest in its righteous campaign to save the girls, most of whom remain in captivity or worse.

That Westerners would abandon their big-hearted, keyboard-limited mission as quickly as they had taken it up was probably inevitable, and foreseeable, from the start. Partly because this is the nature of most such broad-based, heartstrings-based Western activism in far-away countries, and partly because the problems turned out to be much deeper and the solutions much more difficult than they had imagined.

So it was easier, and less emotionally complicated, to quietly move on.

Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American novelist who has been a wary chronicler of the Nigerian kidnapping as well as the Western response, posted this reflection on "the simple wrong" on Twitter today:

It turned out that neither Boko Haram nor its kidnapping exist in a vacuum; both are part of a larger, messier, and less morally clear-cut story than the well-intentioned, activism-minded burst of Western attention had anticipated.

There is the deep and growing economic and political marginalization of northern Nigerians, who happen to be mostly Muslim. There is the ever-worsening Nigerian government's corruption and incompetence, which has included a military response to Boko Haram so heavy-handed and fumbled that it has killed and alienated a number of Nigerians who might otherwise be allies against the terrorist group. There are multiple, overlapping cycles of violence and distrust and resentment.


US Google searches for "#bringbackourgirls" since May 1, 2014


US google searched for Boko Haram since May 1, 2014

Then there was this: Nigerian security forces, in their campaign against Boko Haram, have actually been detaining (some might say kidnapping) the family members of Boko Haram fighters since 2011. The family members, often women or girls, are not accused of crimes, but held for what appears to be simple leverage (some might say ransom). Of course this does not excuse Boko Haram for adopting the same tactic, but it helps shed some light on why the group might see this as a valid way to fight the government it so hates.

Would there be a Western hashtag campaign #BringBackOurWives for the wives of suspected Boko Haram members imprisoned without trial? At least a discussion of why one group merits such concern and calls for action while the other did not? No, there would not be any of this. And there would certainly not be a share-able, snack-able hashtag social media campaign to raise awareness for the complex, difficult, and at times uncomfortable political and economic problems that had been overlapping and building on one another for decades to create the conditions for Boko Haram and its heinous kidnapping.

There was early hope that, even if the Western campaign was misguided and simplistic, it could still bring much-needed attention and pressure to the Nigerian government, its role in the crisis, and its refusals to reform itself. But the pressure dissipated with the attention.

In the end — and this is the end only for the Western concern campaign, not for Nigerians or their kidnapped girls — the flash of caring and tweeting and morning talk show panels probably did not make much appreciable difference for better or worse. The US government was prodded into sending a small coterie of military advisors, whom their Nigerian military counterparts greeted warmly but who were unable to bring overnight order to Nigeria's infamously messy armed forces or to the country's long-underserved, California-sized north.

Maybe the one effect was to numb Westerners to those deeper problems, to create a sense that Nigeria was part of a category of countries that are hopelessly lost to violence and better avoided for it. That's a category that exists only in stereotypes — in reality, every country is susceptible to violence and none is doomed to it — but it's handy excuse for shrugging off the suffering of those Nigerian girls, which was and remains deadly real, and for moving on to the next outrage.

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