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#BringBackOurGirls: the sudden and unsusccessful campaign that made Boko Haram world-famous

Paula Pérez Cava

Boko Haram activity became worldwide trending topic last months because of the kidnapping of almost 300 girls from a school in northern Nigeria, but it was just for a few weeks, even days. There was a wide and global media coverage: TV and radio shows, newspaper front pages, and analysis and comments from journalists, experts and politicians. Nowadays, after the sudden spread of the news from Nigeria thanks to a Twitter campaign, just some Internet news sites and Twitter users have kept talking about the issue. Therefore, the previous informative situation is back: just short news in the media which normally report this kind of infomation, news agencies and internet newsites.

Sudden Twitter campaign

Boko Haram have been committing deadly terrorist attacks for the last five years, targeting schools and even complete villages, so what happened to make the terrorist group and the kidnapping of the girls a mainstream matter to talk about everywhere?

The fact that caused the -delayed- world commotion took place on April 15th. The students were in the Government Girls Secondary School in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok, Borno state, when a group of men in trucks and cars broke into the complex taking the girls. As usual with this type of incidents, news agencies spread it but there was not a special impact on the media.

It took more than a week to talk about the issue on the internet and it was because of a tweet taken from the speech of the Vice President of the World Bank for Africa and former Nigerian minister, Oby Ezekwesil, at the opening ceremony of the nomination of the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt as the UNESCO’s 2014 World Book Capital City. Ezekwesil demanded the release of the girls saying “Bring back the girls!”, sentence that became the so known hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

News from relatives of the students who alerted that the girls had been sold as wives for 12 dollars on April 30th and the release on May 5th of a video Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram leader, confirming it, made the hashtag spread in the blink of an eye. In total, there were 916,984 mentions of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls as of May 5th, according to data provided by Sysomos, as Brian Ries reported in Mashable.com. Two weeks after its first use, #BringBackOurGirls had gathered 2 million mentions. From that day on, celebrities, politicians and active Twitter users started a spontaneous campaign using the hashtag and even pictures of themselves with it. For the first time in history, the first lady of the United States of America pronounced the President Saturday radio speech to talk about the issue. Michelle Obama also tweeted a picture of herself with the hashtag. This image was broadcast worldwide.

From that, the world started moving to try to reverse the situation of the girls. Requests in Amnesty International, Change.org…. everybody except from the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, who three weeks of silence after the kidnapping said he would take the girls home and committed more resources towards the search. The Secretary of State of the US, John Kerry, announced that the US would send military and law enforcement personnel to help in the search of the girls.

Why then?

With all these reactions some political analysts, journalists and Twitter users started remembering that Boko Haram had not begun its activity with this so known kidnapping. Some of them also criticised the fact that while the matter of the girls was still spreading through social media, Boko Haram had killed the double of people than students kidnapped in just one week.

Experts have pointed to some factors that made the issue became a mainstream story which the world cares about. Social media and the “hashtag activism” has been one of those reasons, as Laura Olin, responsible of social media strategy for President Obama’s re-election campaign, explained in Times magazine. People could participate in regardless of whether they know the larger context of the case or the campaign’s aims. Twitter users did it to help in a cause they thought it had to be solved. But, as Olin explained, critics have begun dismissing it as empty online activism that will not bring back the girls. Some other journalists criticised that this social media “hit” produces a “fire-fighting” journalism with little time for these type of news in the important media and no depth of the information, especially for radio or TV reports.

The fact that the victims were little girls and they could be used as sexual slaves, as data of hashtag use as that information was released, can be considered an important reason too. Some journalists and experts considered the video strategy launched by Boko Haram leader and his own personality -corporal language and attitude- as other cause to have this fact spread, as Irene Sacaluga, international information journalist and International Relationships specialist, explains. As for others, she also considers decisive the implication of Michelle Obama for the spreading of the campaign.

A little background

With no doubt, thanks to this campaign Boko Haram is now known all over the world but, as many claimed, this is not the first atrocity they commit. Considered one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world, Boko Haram appeared in 2002 in the state of Borno, in the northeast of Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa with almost 180 million people, the 62% living in extreme poverty, according to The World Factbook of the CIA.

Mohammed Yusuf, a cleric who was previously a leader within a Salafist group, founded Jama’atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da’awati wal-Jihad, which means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”, after known as Boko Haram. Yusuf wanted to create an Islamic State in the states of the north of Nigeria based on the model of the Taliban in Afghanistan through preaching the faith (dawa’a).

For the first years, the organisation provided economic support to Muslims, what made them gain support among a population in need though the wealth of a country with oil reserves in the Niger delta and other sources that made it became the largest economy in Africa in 2014. In 2003, they stablished a training camp for volunteers near the border of Niger called Afghanistan and started armed activity. Yusuf followers had some tensions with security forces, with assaults on houses of local officers and police, and some members of the group were killed in these clashes.

But it was in July of 2009 when the open conflict exploded. Nigerian police attacked some Boko Haram members who refused to wear a helmet when driving a motorbike. Days after, a series of violent clashes between the police and members of the group started in Bauchi, Borno, Yobe and Kano states. Yusuf was captured in Borno and executed under police custody.

New structure

After that, in July 2010, the former second-in-command, Abubakar Shekau, released a video assuming the leadership of the group and announcing further attacks. From that moment, Boko Haram has sought to create that Islamic State not only through dawa’a, but through violent jihad. They changed their strategy and organisation. The group started committing several suicide bombings and assassinations around the country, attacking private properties, banks and schools and killing citizens, police officers, government, military and religious targets, in a country with the population divided between Muslims (50%) and Christians (40%).

Probably the most known attack prior to the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, but not the deadliest, was the car bomb at United Nations headquarters in Abuja on August 26 2011. They killed 23 people and injured other 81. But there is a long list of attacks that prompted a declaration of a state of emergency in three states, Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa as well as a Joint Task Force (JSF) effort to push Boko Haram out of cities. In 2009-2013 period, they had been responsible for 2.34% of terrorist attacks all over the world, causing the 5.9% of fatalities from terrorist attacks, according to data from National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) of the University of Maryland.

As they changed their structure from a hierarchical on overall leader with Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram now operates with individual cell commanders that have gained a great autonomy in day a day operations. The US Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism listed Boko Haram as having from several hundred to a few thousand members. On November 2013, this department announced the designation of Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

According to many analysts, Boko Haram’s growing alliances with al-Qa’ida–linked groups, such as al-Qa’ida in the Land of Islamic Maghreb (AQLIM or AQIM), have changed its interpretation of violent jihad. The group has increased not only the scope of its targets but also the areas of activity, so the threat became regional: Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin are affected by their action. This violence has caused some 250,000 Nigerians had fled their homes in the last 10 months, much of them to these countries, according to Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) data. The United Nations agency UNHCR is constantly alerting of this situation.

The links with other organisations are not only ideological. Boko Haram receives foundation from AQLIM, according to the Nigerian State Security Services and the US Department of State. They also get funding through several avenues, such as abductions, robberies, donations and exortions. There had been also a controversy about donations from organisations in Arabia Saudi and the United Kingdom. In 2012, Nigerian Tribune newspaper said that Al-Muntada Trust Fund, a charity in the UK, had extended financial assistance to the group.

No consequences

Given the background, the question with no answer for the moment is if the sudden media and social media movement in western countries about the kidnapping could be able to free the girls sometime or if it will become in a “hashtag activism” anecdote with no real consequences, apart from a very noisy social impact.

News in latest months say that northern Nigerian states are under control Boko Haram and the brutal impact of the groups in neighbour contries, such as Cameroon. The group keeps on going committing terrorist attacks and kidnappings, devastating villages… but no news from the girls, not even with a hashtag.

** Paula Pérez Cava es periodista. Máster en Periodismo de Televisión. Actualmente, en el Departamento de Prensa del Congreso de los Diputados. Colaboradora en el Observatorio de la Cátedra Paz, Seguridad y Defensa de la Universidad de Zaragoza y en medios de información internacional. @paula_pcava

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