Two years ago today, on 14 April 2014, the tiny north-east Nigerian village of Chibok became internationally synonymous with a brutal crime: the kidnapping of 276 teenage schoolgirls from their high-school dormitory by Boko Haram. Despite a change of government and concerted international aid for the fight against Boko Haram, the girls have still not been found.
The kidnapping precipitated a Nigerian civil society campaign, designed to put pressure on the government to react swiftly. It didn't take long for news of the kidnapping to go viral on social media, under the emotive hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Even celebrities got involved, with everyone from United States (US) first lady Michelle Obama to model Cara Delevingne tweeting in support. Suddenly the conflict in northeastern Nigeria became headline news, and Boko Haram global pariahs. It didn't take much longer for criticisms of the social media movement to emerge.
Commentators observed that retweets and Facebook likes did little to change things on the ground; that the movement ignored similar or worse atrocities happening in Nigeria and elsewhere in the region; and that all the attention might actually make it harder for a negotiated settlement to succeed.
Sure enough, #BringBackOurGirls has not brought back the girls. Hashtags just don't work that way. As their families and the affected community mark the second anniversary of their disappearance, more than 200 girls are still missing, their fates unclear (some have been able to escape). And Boko Haram continues to use the Chibok girls to enhance their own profile, recently demanding a reported $50 million ransom from the Nigerian government for their release.
But the cynics weren't entirely right: hashtag diplomacy, while a blunt instrument, is a powerful force, and #BringBackOurGirls has contributed to a fundamental change in Nigerian politics.
‘It created some serious negative perceptions in terms of the government. Regardless of achievements made in the fight against Boko Haram, the fact that these girls in particular have not been found is considered to be a blot on the government's record,’ said Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
Specifically, the movement had implications for then-president Goodluck Jonathan's administration. In April 2014 – a year away from the presidential election – Jonathan was about to begin campaigning in earnest. ‘The “Bring Back Our Girls” movement was a significant factor in the elections. The kidnapping of the Chibok girls, and the publicity around it, was a big part in the electorate losing confidence in Jonathan's government,’ said Ewi. It helped that the hashtag motivated both Nigerian and international media to improve their coverage of northeast Nigeria.
Lagun Akinloye, a Nigerian political analyst, agrees. ‘Even before the Chibok incident, there was a concerted effort to paint Jonathan's government as being inept. And then came “Bring Back Our Girls.” If there was anything to make a government look like it didn't know what it was doing, it was this. It started as a small issue and spiralled into a global issue, putting a spotlight on the president. The whole situation was like dark cloud over Jonathan's head. From a public relations standpoint, it tainted his administration completely.’
Sure enough, Jonathan and the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) went on to lose the presidential election in 2015, with the opposition coalition led by Muhammadu Buhari taking over in a historic transition of power. And while there were plenty of reasons for this poor electoral performance, bitter PDP officials were quick to pinpoint #BringBackOurGirls as a key factor in their defeat.
At least one senior PDP figure, Ekiti State Governor Ayodele Fayose, has claimed that the whole incident was fabricated in order to discredit Jonathan's administration.
‘I don’t know whether there are missing girls, because no indicator has shown the realities of the game. It was a strategy to get some political push-ups. That is why you can never find them. You can never find them. What is not missing you cannot find,’ Fayose said in a video clip in March this year. While Fayose's outlandish claim strays into conspiracy-theory territory, it underscores just how significant the PDP consider the #BringBackOurGirls campaign to have been in their defeat.
Unlike the Jonathan administration's poor handling of the issue – typified by the exceptionally poor taste of its supporters in initially choosing #BringBackGoodluck2015 as a campaign slogan – incoming President Buhari made it clear that he would do everything in his power to return the Chibok girls to their families.
‘We do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued. Their whereabouts remain unknown. As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them. But I say to every parent, family member and friend of the children that my government will do everything in its power to bring them home. What I can pledge, with absolute certainty, is that starting on the first day of my administration, Boko Haram will know the strength of our collective will and commitment to rid this nation of terror, and bring back peace and normalcy to all the affected areas,’ said Buhari in a statement released on 14 April last year, the first anniversary of the girls' disappearance.
Fine words, except the girls are still nowhere to be found, and Boko Haram – although weakened by a sustained government onslaught, which began in the last months of Jonathan's government – remain a potent threat. Having already helped take down one Nigerian president, could the failure to find the Chibok girls damage another?
‘Buhari came to power on a promise to free the girls. If the people are to judge the government on this basis, it's clear that it is falling behind. So this could also lead to distrust of Buhari's government,’ concluded Ewi.
Simon Allison, ISS Consultant