Is the kidnapping crisis in Nigeria exposing performative activism
16th March 2021
In April 2014, 276 female students were kidnapped by Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group, from a secondary boarding school in the northern Nigerian village of Chibok. The incident caused outrage in Nigeria and a movement to rescue the schoolgirls garnered international support. The hashtag #bringbackourgirls was shared all across the world, being used over one million times within the three weeks following the incident. It was posted by a wealth of celebrities and public figures, from Michelle Obama to Amy Poehler. In the 7 years since the abduction, some of the girls have escaped or been freed, however, many are still missing.
Considering the outcry on social media that this incident attracted, you would be forgiven for thinking that this kidnapping was an aberration. However, this is not the case. In fact, according to a recent report by SBM Intelligence this kidnapping “provided inspiration for subsequent heists”. At the end of February this year, 317 girls were abducted from another boarding school in northern Nigeria. While these girls were thankfully released, this incident was just one in a series of mass kidnappings that have occurred in recent months at schools in the region. In December, 300 boys were abducted from a boarding school, an incident that shared similarities with the Chibok abduction. Since December at least one kidnapping of this kind has occurred every three weeks.
“the international attention that surrounded the Chibok kidnapping has not been recreated, even as the situation surrounding abductions in Nigeria has arguably worsened.”
Due to an economic crisis in Nigeria, kidnappings have become a growth industry. The perpetrators are often armed gangs or bandits. Some kidnappings are linked to Boko Haram, while other groups use abductions as an easy way of making millions of naira. A countryside largely left to the mercy of militants, ineffective government policy and policing, along with the accessibility of arms has all led to the increase in kidnappings. While it is usually denied that payment of ransom has occurred regarding these kidnappings, these denials lack credibility. Not only is this a lucrative endeavour for criminals, but also for corrupt officials who have been reported to skim money off the ransom price. Criminals have learned that abduction pays and is often met with no consequences. Many in Nigeria want the government to provide protection and stability to prevent these kidnappings instead of having to pay the bandits. Poor school children are the perfect target for kidnappers because they attract such attention and thus the government will go to great lengths to try and get them returned to safety. Children are also helpless victims and the boarding schools regularly targeted are situated on the outskirts of towns, often with little or no security. International outcry did draw attention to the plight of the Chibok girls and force President Goodluck to act. However, it also may have made the girls more valuable to Boko Haram and the publicity it received likely inspired the copycat kidnappings we are seeing today.
And yet the international attention that surrounded the Chibok kidnapping has not been recreated, even as the situation surrounding abductions in Nigeria has arguably worsened. It seems that the #bringbackourgirls campaign is a perfect example of performative activism. Celebrities and public figures jumped on the bandwagon of the cause du jour but failed to commit themselves to the larger battle against the political instability and socio-economic deprivation that has allowed these kidnappings to continue. It is clear from the lack of comparable social media campaigns, that despite their claims in 2014, many celebrities and public figures are not committed to the long-term activism and pressure needed to improve the situation in Nigeria. This lonely work seems to have been left to campaigners in the country.
Kidnappings are not only a threat to the safety of children, they are also a barrier to education. Even after being released, many children who have been abducted do not return to education, and are stigmatised within their community. Parents may also be wary of sending their children to school as kidnappings become more prevalent. Additionally, states in northern Nigeria have closed public schools in the wake of abductions, putting hundreds of thousands of children out of school. For some this will be the end of their schooling, with young girls sometimes married off during disruptions like this. These kidnappings are depriving a generation of Nigerian children of their education.
Despite the international outrage and promises from the Nigerian government that they would all be returned, it is estimated over 150 of the Chibok girls are still missing. While many are still advocating for their release, collective society seems to have forgotten about them and the hundreds of other school children whose lives have been forever changed by abduction. It is apparent that a one-off campaign will not stop kidnappings in northern Nigeria, instead activism needs to continue, even when it may not be trendy anymore.
Featured Photo from Michael Fleshman on Flickr