ABUJA, Nigeria—According to Fulan Nasrullah, who is a former member of Boko Haram, the group’s infamous leader first saw clearly the value of the young women he’d abducted from a school in the town of Chibok after Michelle Obama held up her little sign reading “#Bring Back Our Girls.”
“That’s when it clicked: ‘We can negotiate!’” said Nasrullah, who is now an independent intelligence analyst. In that moment, the girls were transformed from yet another group of young women abducted by the insurgency into potent global symbols and, in fact, a source of leverage for Boko Haram.
Friday marks three years since those 276 schoolgirls were abducted in the middle of the night from their dormitories in Borno State. Although a handful escaped or were released, most continue to be held hostage, having spent more than 1,000 days in captivity with no sign they’ll be freed anytime soon. And it is simply a matter of record that many of the efforts to do good and help these women, like Michelle Obama’s tweet, have not had happy outcomes.
That does not mean that the campaign was useless—it focused attention on a great tragedy, the Boko Haram war in relatively remote northeast Nigeria—that most of the world had ignored. Would it have been better to say nothing? To do nothing? No. But one needs to make a distinction between the power of a simple meme, which is ephemeral, and the conduct of policy, which is complicated and can be treacherous. For people who want to do good by creating an international uproar about an obvious atrocity it’s a catch-22: you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
In fact, abductions of schoolchildren by Boko Haram were nothing new in 2014, but the sheer size of this mass kidnapping drew attention. Soon after news broke about it, the viral social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls spread around the world. The hashtag was record setting and the movement attracted support from international luminaries—not just Michelle Obama, but also the Pope, and Malala Yousafazi.
But memes are quick to evanesce. Today, although the group behind the campaign continues to pressure the Nigerian government to find the girls, it has struggled to hold the international community’s attention.
When the campaign was reaching its height in 2014, Nasrullah says, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau was pleased because he “likes to have the United States’ attention.” Since then, the analyst notes, the Chibok Girls have become an integral part of the insurgency’s media campaign and play a significant role in its negotiations with the government.
Yet without the work of the #BringBackOurGirls activists the government might have been slow to act, if indeed it acted at all. The initial response of the military three years ago was that there really wasn’t much of a problem.
Glimmers of hope have met with huge enthusiasm. The escape of Amina Ali Nkeki in May 2016 was a case in point. Her reunion with family was accompanied by a series of press conferences. She was taken to meet Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima.
The #BringBackOurGirls movement got still more good news later in the year when, following two months of negotiations mediated by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government, Boko Haram released 21 of the Chibok girls. Ever since, the government has been tight-lipped about what the insurgents received in return for the young women.
For the freed Chibok Girls, fame has come with strict limitations on their mobility and freedom. According to the BBC, despite being brought back to Chibok in time for Christmas, the girls were unable to celebrate the holiday with their loved ones.
According to their family members, “the girls were kept in a politician’s house and barred from going home.”
While other women and boys rescued from the insurgents are subject to a screening process by vigilantes and the military before being released to family or into displacement camps, the Chibok girls aren’t permitted that sort of autonomy following their release.
Some of the young women who escaped from the insurgents in the first few days of their abduction were given the opportunity to continue their schooling abroad in the United States. By 2016, however, the Nigerian government said it was forced to take over guardianship of the girls from a U.S.-based human rights lawyer. According to Nigerian news reports, the government was prompted to assume this role because the girls were used in fundraising efforts and as a media prop, rather than pursuing their education in earnest.
In a media statement, the government said that, “The plan is that the girls remain in the U.S. to pursue further education and to graduate, uninterrupted, in a safe and nurturing environment and away from the public glare, which was supposed to be the plan in the first place.”
Not only has the intense focus on the Chibok girls often subjected them to restrictions and unwanted media attention, it has tended to obscure the important narratives of victims of Boko Haram and other threats faced by women in northeast Nigeria, as if freeing the Chibok Girls could solve the problems that led to their abduction and their abuse in the first place.
As activist Chitra Nagarajan notes, every time there is news of women and girls held by Boko Haram, one of the first questions asked is, “Are they the Chibok girls?” and “The answer is usually no.” Yet an estimated 7,000 women and girls have been abducted by the insurgency, and even though they suffered the same sorts of abuses as the Chibok Girls, their experiences are unremarked and unremembered. Meanwhile the hundreds and thousands of boys who have also been abducted by the insurgents garner little attention at all.
The obsessive focus on the Chibok Girls also risks obscuring rather than spotlighting the experiences of women who are living in displacement camps, or who have lost family to the insurgents, or who are suffering gross human rights violations at the hands of Nigerian soldiers, aid workers, and vigilantes.
Advocates on behalf of the Chibok Girls obviously did not intend any of this.
And there’s a grim irony in the fact that as the popularity of the meme has faded, we see Boko Haram working hard to keep it alive. Last August, more than two years after the abductions, Abubakar Shekau released two video about the girls. One was a “proof of life” clip released in April 2016 but apparently filmed in December of 2015.
The other much longer clip was presented by a Shekau lieutenant in August. He said that many of the girls had been married off, while others had been killed in airstrikes. It was a challenge to the Nigerian government to try to take them by military force.
The videos attracted little international attention.
More sinister still, in the aftermath of the Chibok abductions Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram began using women and girls as suicide bombers—another headline-grabbing tactic— that has only prompted the #BringBackOurGirls advocates in Nigeria to press the government harder.
Again, we see the contradictions, and the potential tragedy. If the girls are valuable, they are kept alive. If not, they are expendable. And as the power of the meme fades, so does their worth to Boko Haram: trending today, forgotten tomorrow.
The fight to free the Chibok Girls and to offer some hope of safety to the many other abducted, oppressed, and endangered women of Nigeria is going to be a long one. Good intentions are a beginning, but only just.
—With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey