#BringBackOurGirls campaign is not enough to tackle difficult issues

Opinion: Simple slogans can’t replace dialogue and hard bargaining

Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP

Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP


Something about the “BringBackOurGirls” campaign reminds me uneasily of the Kony 2012 video that went viral at an astonishing rate. The fate of the Chibok girls is terrifying, and the grief of their friends and family more than worthy of international attention.

But just suppose by some miracle Boko Haram did bring back these girls? Would international media attention cease and ignoring northeast Nigeria resume?

Although the world is only noticing now, Boko Haram has been active for five years and by 2013, according to Amnesty International, at least 70 teachers and over 100 schoolchildren and students had been killed or wounded. At least 50 schools had been either been burned or seriously damaged, and more than 60 others had been forced to close.

Thousands of children had been forced out of schools and more than 1,000 teachers had to flee for their safety to other Nigerian states.

Yet it was only in recent weeks that the media began to pay attention, and just this week that the UN imposed sanctions. That attention can be withdrawn just as easily.

Three psychologists published a study on Kony 2012 in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Their conclusions were that the highly emotive but inaccurate Kony 2012 video was very good at stirring outrage and demands for action, but the follow- up video, which was much more nuanced, scarcely registered.

Magic solution The first video presented the elimination of the criminal warlord Joseph Kony as some kind of magic solution. People like clear-cut, simple solutions. But the situation in Nigeria is complex. Obviously, as a radical Islamist group, Boko Haram in no way represents mainstream Muslims. Boko Haram also kidnapped Muslim girls seeking education.

Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, has reiterated in recent weeks the fact that the majority of Christian and Muslim Nigerians live together peacefully. Society of African Missions priest Fr Maurice Henry, home after decades in Nigeria, told me that when radical Islamists tried to stir up trouble in an area where he used to work, they were denounced by both Christians and Muslims.

However, while emphasising that oppression of Christians is localised and not the norm, the cardinal also said that in the Muslim-dominated states: “Official state and local government policies and actions often discriminate against Christians, to the extent of real persecution and denial of genuine religious freedom.

“Examples are in areas such as the availability of land for churches; access to the public media; provision for Christian religious knowledge in public schools; and equal opportunity for employment and promotions in public institutions.”

Oppression of Christians tends not to make headline news, even though Christians are facing discrimination, and, yes, even death in many places around the world, simply for being Christian.

Violent ideology For example, Amnesty’s otherwise excellent publication on Nigeria, Keep Away from Schools or We Will Kill You, mentions the word “Christian” only once.

Boko Haram’s full name in translation is “People committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad”. Persecution of Christians is not incidental to its violent ideology.

The problem of radical Islam is not confined to localised areas of Nigeria. At the moment, a Sudanese Christian woman, Mariam Ibrahim, who is eight months pregnant, is shackled in prison, awaiting flogging and execution for the refusing to renounce her Christianity.

However, in Nigeria as elsewhere, there are many factors implicated in the rise of radical Islam. In the northeast, where Boko Haram is strongest, there is immense poverty. Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa, but only 1 per cent of the population is wealthy. It is riven by tribal and ethnic division and corruption is endemic.

Radical religious movements gain support because of a corrupt and dysfunctional political system, and a military that often retaliates in brutal fashion.

Not to mention the fact that while Michelle Obama may tweet a picture of herself holding #BringBackOurGirls, her husband’s administration’s policy of sending drones to “take out” suspected terrorists without even an attempt to bring them to justice has only fuelled support for radical Islamist groups.

I grew up hearing about Nigeria because I went to school in Dungarvan with the Mercy Sisters, and they and the local Augustinian fathers had Nigerian missions. There were no easy answers for Nigeria then and there are none now.

Rescue danger But as Cardinal Onaiyekan said recently: “Even if and when we find where they are, rescuing [the girls] by force of arms would entail the kind of danger and risk that even the parents of the girls would be unlikely to sanction. The only option left, therefore, is some form of dialogue and hard bargain that would bring the girls back without setting a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.”

Dialogue and hard bargaining is not simple enough for a hashtag, but it is the only way forward.

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