As an African studying in this country, it often heartens me how much regular people in the U.S. generally care about issues on my home continent. From issues in South Sudan, to Central Africa Republic to Darfur and now Nigeria, there has always been heart-warming concern shown. It is for this reason that this month’s post has been rather challenging to write as it seeks to interrogate some of the ways this concern has largely played out.
Over the past few weeks, we have been inundated with news about the missing girls in Nigeria. The girls, almost 300 of them, were abducted by a separatist group known as Boko Haram. The outpouring of emotions by people all around the world through social media was heart-warming but also raised several questions for me. Many, including politicians, begun a social media campaign on several platforms that sought to raise awareness of what was happening in Nigeria (#bringbackourgirls). What is perturbing about this sort of activism is the fact that it, like many campaigns of this nature before, it appeared to be a fad in which celebrities, media personalities and even politicians participated in. A fad that has now died down and left us with a sense of not knowing the complexities of the situation in Nigeria. Who was it meant for? Was it directed towards Boko Haram? If so, why would Boko Haram care about what you and I have to say on the Internet? Was it meant to alert foreign governments so that they would offer help to Nigeria to rescue the girls? Was it meant for you and I, to let us know of the situation in Nigeria?
To put my frustration into context I have to go back to 2012 when the Kony2012 video and the ensuing #StopKony social media campaign were started by Invisible Children. This campaign was heavily criticised not only by scholars but also by Ugandans in Uganda and Africans more generally who argued that it misrepresented the situation on the ground and failed to put the fight against Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony into its proper political context. Ugandans also lambasted the video and subsequent campaign as having exaggerated the extent of Kony’s power and influence while ignoring the very real needs for health care services and the reintegration of former child soldiers into society and schools, as well as ignoring the politics that led to the formation of the LRA in Uganda. Invisible children blatantly represented the situation as one simply between good and evil.
This brings me to the #bringbackourgirls campaign. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy with a population of approximately 170 million. This year alone they spent $ 2.1 billion on their military and this was a reduction from last year. I say this to highlight that this is not some hapless backwater country in the middle of nowhere. Yet for some reason, Boko Haram was able to waltz into a school, burn it to the ground and kidnap young girls. What do we know about Boko Haram after the hue and cry? How is it that this rag tag group of belligerents were able to abduct these girls with this amount of military presence in the region? The truth is we don’t know and the campaign never addressed these issues in any meaningful way, instead it focused on the simple message of asking that the girls be returned. Somehow we are meant to believe that a social media campaign will do the trick? It is this that frustrates me when looking at social media campaigns.
This is not unique to Nigeria either. As I have been talking about in this column, the same phenomenon has been playing out in Central Africa Republic and South Sudan as well. A recent psychology study finds that social media campaigns often raise moral outrage but not necessarily engagement by everyday citizens. Instead once people realise just how complex the situation is and that Africa, like the rest of the world, is complicated and messy they tend to lose interest in ‘doing something.’ This is not to say that there is no place for social media campaigns. It is a recognition that no amount of tweeting, retweeting, liking or reposting is going to bring back the missing girls. As we feel good about ourselves for being engaged citizens and ‘doing something’ Joseph Kony is still a free man, Central Africa Republic is still fighting, so too is South Sudan and the girls in Nigeria are still missing. The world is messy and there is no magic potion to solving its problems. Sometimes killing the monster will not solve the problem nor is the problem always solely the monster’s responsibility.
Wahutu Siguru is the 2013 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Siguru’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa.