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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Helon Habila

#BringBackOurGirls fought to keep global attention on Nigeria’s stolen Chibok girls. Ten years on it is still fighting

Members of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign during a visit to the presidential villa in Abuja, Nigeria, in January 2016.
Members of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign during a visit to the presidential villa in Abuja, Nigeria, in January 2016. Photograph: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

It was a kidnapping that changed Nigeria’s image internationally. For many, the first inkling of what was going on in the country’s north-east was after April 2014, when 276 girls were snatched from a school in Chibok by the Islamist militia group Boko Haram. It came from social media postings from the then US first lady, Michelle Obama, from the actor Angelina Jolie and Pope Francis, holding up #BringBackOurGirls signs. That became the name of a movement, and a rallying cry for the girls’ release. Ten years on, the girls are not all back home. But some things have been achieved.

The Nigerian government, under President Goodluck Jonathan, saw the new movement as opposition. The actual opposition, the All Progressives Congress (APC) party, was smart enough to ally itself with #BBOG, quickly embracing the message. It was partly due to the movement’s ability to mobilise its increasingly vast online following to vote for the APC’s candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, that Jonathan lost the 2015 election – the first time in Nigeria’s postcolonial history that an incumbent had lost a re-election bid.

In a short time, the #BBOG movement had formed branches in almost all Nigeria’s 36 states and internationally, mostly among the Nigerian diaspora in the US and the UK. Journalists spread its message and politicians campaigned for the girls’ release. Women especially saw these groups as their designated spokespeople, and #BBOG cultivated that following, infusing its messaging with feminist talking points. In kidnapping the girls, Boko Haram was waging a war against women, and against the education of girls.

The fact that the girls all came from a poor farming region where Christians are in the minority also helped the messaging. Their allies included the US congresswomen Frederica Wilson and Barbara Lee, who helped to promote their cause with the US government. In 2016, the government of Argentina awarded #BBOG the Emilio F Mignone International Human Rights prize.

Because of its meteoric rise, people often wrongly assume that the movement sprang from nowhere after the Chibok kidnapping. Made up largely of university educated, middle-class Nigerians, mostly women, it had its roots in the student protests of my generation, in the 1980s and early 1990s, against military dictatorships and school closures.

This generation stood up to Gen Ibrahim Babangida when he unilaterally cancelled the results of the general elections in 1993; they marched against Sani Abacha when the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested and hanged along with eight other environmental activists, known as the Ogoni Nine. They have a healthy distrust of governments and their promises because they have seen these promises come to nothing: they witnessed their student leaders being shot or arrested, expelled from school by dictatorial administrators. Protest was in their DNA.

The Abuja branch of #BBOG, perhaps the most dynamic, held daily sit-ins at the city’s Unity Fountain. I visited them in 2016 after returning from Chibok, where I had interviewed some of the girls who had escaped their captors on the night of the kidnapping. As we stood and sang the solidarity anthem, I could see that these protesters were in this for the long haul. Under the Jonathan administration, their meetings had been hounded by the police and soldiers, and attacked by rival demonstrators who were eventually outed as pro-government hires sent to discredit the movement.

But persistence bore fruit when 21 girls were released in October 2016. It was a big win for the movement.

And yet, in a catch-22 situation, as the movement grew, so did Boko Haram’s reputation; at one time it was designated – mostly by western media – as the world’s most dangerous terror group. Every press release by #BBOG became an advertisement for Boko Haram. This was when critics of the movement began to coin names for it, like “clicktivism” or “hashtag activism”, and even “slacktivism”; it was seen as an online movement with no real policy influence.

Even its staunch ally, the Buhari government, began to weary of the continuing pressure to act applied by the movement. Occasional press releases on the #BBOG website grew increasingly bitter towards the government. Buhari, once a general, read the criticism as dissent that should be resisted, and in 2019 the government put up a fence around the Unity Fountain, locking out protesters.

Ten years on, the movement hasn’t achieved its single most important objective: to bring back all the girls. But its successes perhaps lie elsewhere. When I talked to the Nigerian human rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe, he said that by far the movement’s greatest achievement was the way it shined a light on the plight of women and minority Christian communities in northern Nigeria. Not many, he said, including Nigerians living in the south of the country, understood the extent of daily persecution of Christian communities in places such as Jos or Gombe. #BBOG advocacy has made it easier for lawyers such as him to file asylum claims for Nigerians fleeing religious persecution.

But perhaps the movement’s biggest achievement is one that is little known and less talked about. Since 2015, Ogebe, through his organisation and in alliance with #BBOG in the US, has brought 11 of the released Chibok girls to the US where, previously barely able to read or write, all of them have achieved bachelor’s degrees. Some have gone on to get their master’s and others are working on PhDs. Other girls are now studying in Nigeria. This, for me, is perhaps the biggest achievement of the #BBOG movement. They have scuttled Boko Haram’s core task, which is to deny girls education. Armed with their experience and their education, there is no telling how far the Chibok girls can go.

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