The Risks of #BringBackOurGirls

Dr Scott Wisor

Two years ago, the #Kony2012 campaign was launched by the activist group Invisible Children, and the accompanying video quickly became the most watched in the history of youtube. The campaign aimed to make the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army ‘famous’, so that his crimes would be known and governments would be pressured to capture him, ending the LRA’s reign of terror in Central Africa. Despite the initial popularity of the campaign, it was widely derided by activists and academics, especially from Uganda. Among other complaints, the campaign was factually inaccurate, completely detached from the actual social and political context, focused on one particular strategy (military intervention) to the exclusion of a more comprehensive approach to peacebuilding and development, and it overrode the priorities of local civil society groups.

A number of commentators have discussed the similarities and differences between #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls. Unlike #Kony2012, #BringBackOurGirls was started by local activists, and is at least somewhat consistent with their goals—namely, to pressure the Nigerian government to secure the release of the kidnapped girls.

Nonetheless, there are still risks that the campaign will prove counterproductive. First, local activists may lose control of the campaign’s message, especially with regard to policy requests that are being made of governments.

Second, the immediate reaction of many public officials has been to call for Western military intervention. It is hard to think of a greater recruiting tool for Boko Haram than a Western military presence in Nigeria. And if US troops were deployed, and some injured or killed, would they be drawn into further conflict? Might the risk of foreign intervention jeopardize negotiations for the girls’ release?

Third, many people embracing the campaign are entirely unaware of the context in which these kidnappings have occurred. Perhaps there was no more blatant dismissal of the national level political and economic dynamics in which Boko Haram has arisen than when Senator John McCain, never one to turn down an opportunity for military intervention, proclaimed that he would send in troops to rescue the girls “in a New York minute”, without the permission “of some guy named Goodluck Jonathan”. That some guy, President of Nigeria, Africa’s second largest economy, is precisely the person Nigerian activists are pushing to secure the release of the kidnapped. Perhaps best for the girls, and more general diplomatic reasons, not to brush him aside.

Fourth, and most importantly, the huge amounts of publicity being generated by the campaign are playing directly into Boko Haram’s hands. The entire point of terrorist activities is to spread a message among a wider population (in contrast to tactical military attacks). This message may be used for a variety of purposes (recruiting new members, portraying an adversary as weak, drawing an adversary into drawn out asymmetric warfare, etc.), but it requires a megaphone to work. With the spread of #BringBackOurGirls, in the words of Will Moore, “Boko Haram is winning, and you are helping”.

Fifth, by portraying Boko Haram as terrorist kidnappers, the Nigerian government may be portrayed as the good guy, escaping criticism for its own poor record on human rights. Many critics of the #Kony2012 campaign noted that the Ugandan government deliberately protects Kony when international forces are close to capturing him. This allows the Ugandan government to continue to receive military assistance for its efforts and to avoid scrutiny for its own violations of human rights.

And finally, the campaign focuses exclusively on domestic causes of human rights violations, ignoring the causal role played, for example, by the conduct of Western oil majors in harming local communities and the role of oil revenues in undermining the capacity and responsiveness of the Nigerian state.

So while there are important differences between #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls, activists must still reflect on their own power, the context of human rights violations, and the unintended consequences of well-intentioned advocacy. It is possible to contribute to local activist efforts to prevent and remedy human rights abuse, but outsiders must tread lightly, be aware of local context, and guard against unintended harm.

Further links:

Mahmoud Mamdani, Saviours and Survivors

Alison Jaggar, Saving Amina

Linda Martin Alcoff, The Problem of Speaking for Others

International Crisis Group, Background to the Conflict

Beyond Kony2012

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