Three years and 22 days after the Chibok raid, 82 Nigerian daughters were released in exchange for Boko Haram fighters. In a move that could not come at a better time for President Buhari, he has once again captured the attention of the Nigerian citizen. In politics, bandwidth is power.
The Chibok story is one that is difficult, if not impossible to forget. In 2014, 219 school girls were loaded on to lorries and deprived of the opportunity to ever live normal lives. What swiftly followed was one of the biggest humanitarian social media campaigns we have come to know, defined by the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
The world stood still and condemned the Nigerian government for allowing the tragedy unfold; the negative perception certainly contributed to President Jonathan's electoral defeat. Even three years on, the Chibok story rings on, far louder than others in its wake. What made the Chibok case so different?
Boko Haram lives on
Despite Buhari's military successes, Boko Haram has not been defeated, and many still face the fate of the Chibok girls. Barely a year after the kidnap of the Chibok girls, Amnesty International released a scathing report, revealing that at least 2,000 women and girls had been abducted by Boko Haram since the start of 2014, with many forced into sexual slavery, coerced into marry their attackers or made to fight.
But since Chibok, reports of kidnappings in the North-east have not been met with the same level of national or global outcry, and the massacre of Boko Haram has been viewed primarily through the Chibok lens.
Did we forget to stand for all our other girls?
One view is that the Chibok girls are symbolic. They serve as the poster kids for a terrorist movement that eventually had to break. And once they captured the attention of the international press and community, they became immortalised in our memories. Before the President Buhari set foot in Aso Rock, his political agenda for the North-east had been set.
In itself, this is a good thing. Goodluck quickly learnt that narratives stick, and it was near impossible for him to achieve anything else while the Chibok shadow hung over him. However, there is a possible downside. In a bid for political wins, President Buhari has a great way to draw in supporters. Freeing one girl is a win, but freeing one Chibok girl is a win for the ages.
And the others?
The 'left behinds', those victims who were not captured in the Chibok narrative, are still important to us, and we must not forget them. Many men are slaughtered, children kidnapped, and women raped, behind media doors. Boko Haram's modus operandi is still alive, as they take their victims to camps in remote communities or villages, indoctrinate them with radical versions of Islam and transition them into human bombs or sex slaves.
One account reveals the case of a 19-year-old girl, Aisha. Together with her sister, the bride and the bride’s sister, they were abducted from a wedding and migrated to a camp in Adamawa where they were eventually forced to marry their abductors. How Aisha differs from the Chibok girls is a matter of narrative and storytelling. The international community cannot be blamed for not always coming to the aid of Nigeria, so as Nigerians, we must remember that the story of girls like Aisha remains potent, particularly at a time like this.
The Great Divide
The Chibok campaign was largely fired up by social media, until they sparked the attention of the world, including Michelle Obama. While millennials are well aware of the reach of media, whether social or mainstream, there is a disconnected world in which the parents of the victims live, where social media holds less value.
By 2015, Amnesty International had documented at least 300 raids and attacks carried out by Boko Haram against civilians, mainly targeted at vulnerable communities in North-east Nigeria. It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine the victims of these attacks being able to leverage the power of social media in their fight against terrorism. In reality, while the internet connected population in Lagos and Abuja can rely on social media or internet driven campaigns, many victims of Boko Haram attacks cannot hashtag and trend topics. Digital ghosts, they are unable to partake in media campaigns that could alter their fates.
The divide is underscored by reports that even as Twitter users discovered on Sunday that the 82 girls had been released, many Chibok parents without internet access could only wait till Monday to confirm if their daughters were involved in the exchange. Those who bore the brunt of the Chibok loss first celebrated last.
After Chibok, where to?
The release of the Chibok girls is an event worthy of celebration, and no one can take that away from the President. But we must constantly remind the government that others do exist – the remaining 113 Chibok girls and all other Boko Haram victims.
Even within Chibok, some have criticised the handling of the girls, considering that none of the 21 girls who were previously released has been allowed to go back home. More alarming is the psychological effect on the girls, made harder to fathom by the admission that 83 girls were supposed to be exchanged, but one refused and chose to stay with her Boko Haram husband. 218 will never be the same as 219.
It remains unfortunate that those who need the loudest voices have the most limited access to powerful technology platforms. While it is clear to the internet connected world that their plights are being carried across the world, some remain out of the loop. There is still a lot of work to be done, and many other similar cases will go unnoticed.
For those who can speak out, the message is clear: keep the hashtags and keep noisemaking. Mr President, even in absentia, will have to prioritise and who knows, might even react.
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