By Theophilus Ilevbare*
Hashtag online activism has continued to prove critics wrong in the amazingly unique way it amplifies disconsolate unheard minority voices, suppressed or subdued by a repressive and despotic government. It draws attention of millions to a horrific story. It gets better when world leaders and celebrities latch onto the hashtag as it nudges other countries to weigh in or even intervene in the crisis. Granted, a lot of persons may not know the complexities of the political, economic or security problems associated with such hashtags, and don’t bother to know, but still join the sentimental global train to amplify such stories helping to raise awareness to tales of horror. It is sometimes regarded as a wave of superficial momentary sentimentality because it is not in any way a real engagement in any attempt to resolve a complex or violent threat. However, the voice of minorities is amplified by sharing their stories in a way even the most sophisticated and networked print or electronic media platform cannot achieve. Like #OccupyNigeria protest of 2012, #BringBackOurGirls campaign is another case in point.
The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag went viral worldwide sparking global awareness to the almost 300 schoolgirls abducted in the predominantly Christian community of Chibok, a small village on the outskirts of Borno State. Celebrities and global politicians – among them, world leaders – have united behind a cause to bring succour and hope to the families of the abducted girls by the Islamic fundamentalists who started out as a small salafist sect in Borno but have over the years morphed into a monster threatening to take control of some North-East states of Nigeria. Before now, many people outside the shores of Nigeria have never heard of Chibok or Borno State. The awareness the hashtag raised brought to public knowledge, the horrendous atrocities the religious zealots have inflicted on a nation now at the mercy of their mindless and wanton killings. While the #BringBackOurGirls movement has drawn attention to the plight of the Chibok families, we’re still faced with the stark reality of our girls still missing. Like everyone else, I had hoped that the campaign will be a tipping point for Nigeria’s war on terror. But subsequent attacks by the Jihadists in different states that have claimed over 250 lives and many more injured, has deflated such hopes.
Critics of hashtag activism have drawn parallels between the #BringBackOurGirls movement and #Kony2012 campaign. Via a movie, Invincible Children, that went viral on the internet with over 8million views on YouTube within the first few hours of upload, global attention in 2012 was attracted to a Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, and his Lord’s Revolution Army (LRA), where children were made soldiers and used to perpetuate some of the most brutal crimes against humanity. Kony had been terrorising Uganda and Ugandans for decades but America and the rest of the world only got a glimpse of it when it became a convenient and popular hashtag. #Kony2012 trended for days and weeks on social media platforms turning the LRA Ugandan warlord into the most hated, loathed and wanted man. Despite the awareness that compelled the US to send some 100 troops to Uganda to co-ordinate the search for Kony, the campaign soon lost momentum and two years on, Joseph Kony remains at large!
Not so impressed observers have described hashtag online activism as “a frictionless convenience, conducted from the safety of a computer screen or handheld device that often serves more as a flattering public symbol of concern than concern itself.” Complex and multidimensional nature of problems are otherwise meant to look too simplified by mere tweeting, filming, and changing picture profiles across platforms. They posit that beyond the awareness raised, hashtag activism does not solve the problem. Some others call it an exercise in “self-esteem”. True, the reaction of the outside world is mostly sentimental as it essentially revels in the moment but in the case of the Chibok girls, it has drawn global attention to their plight, ratcheting up the pressure that has led to some sort of international military intervention or assistance. But a hashtag campaign at the very least can’t hurt even if those involved in it know next to nothing more than the hashtag.
Granted that hashtag activism oversimplifies the complexities of events abroad, and even if well-intentioned, rarely affect things on the ground but same cannot be said of the #BringBackOurGirls movement. Fillip and compass have been added to the rescue mission with the deployment of foreign intelligence personnel and some advance aerial surveillance gadgets by the US, Britain, China, Israel, France and a few other European countries joining the ongoing efforts to reunite the abducted schoolgirls with their loved ones. Sustained daily protests in the Nation’s capital, Abuja, by the #BringBackOurGirls movement have put the government on its toes. Western countries are rushing Special Forces and all their first-world paraphernalia to Nigeria in the hope of tracking the missing girls down.
In spite of all the criticism against hashtag activism, the bring back our girls campaign has gone beyond borders, breaking barriers and doubts that the farthest hearts can be touched and leaders of world superpowers can be forced to act.
President Jonathan, the man in the eye of the storm, only came alive when he learnt the online campaign has drawn the attention of Western powers. He did not flinch since the religious extremists kidnapped about 300 girls from Chibok. Nigerians didn’t expect him to lift a finger though, after all, nothing now moves him considering how he danced away in Kano 24 hours after 74 persons were killed by a bomb blast at Nyanya. On this occasion, he began to act when the international community joined in the viral campaign. Wishing the uproar will go away quickly, same way his government moved on from the murdered schoolchildren of Federal Government College, Buni Yadi, who were killed by some unhinged monsters. John McCain, the straight from shoulder, critically outspoken Republican Senator, lampooned the Jonathan’s government slow response: “The United States didn’t have to wait until a practically non-existent government of Nigeria gave us (Americans, that is) the go-ahead before mounting a humanitarian effort to rescue those 276 abducted girls.” Hillary Clinton threw all diplomacy and prevarication aside to submit that “the government in Nigeria has been somewhat derelict in its responsibility towards protecting boys and girls, men and women in northern Nigeria over the last years”.
But these campaigns and sustained protests have made us realise that people do actually care, even if they’re unwilling to hit the streets in protest. There is a new way injustice can be fought in the world where everyone gets involved in some way. It gives those who join the bandwagon a sense of belonging that they can play a small part of something immense to raise awareness about people around the world who are powerless, helpless and can do nothing about a dangerous, difficult, or otherwise unfortunate situation.
* Follow Author on twitter @tilevbare