Politics & Policy

The Harm in Hashtags

Image from a Boko Haram video
Feel-good tweets do not address the root causes of Boko Haram’s violence.

What should be haram (“forbidden” in Arabic) in dealing with Nigeria’s now infamous and increasingly violent Boko Haram, after the group kidnapped more than 250 schoolgirls last month, is an approach that is as rudimentary as that of the kidnappers themselves. The group, officially designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department in 2013, now stands trial in an international court of public opinion, and a rudimentary, indeed simple-minded, response to their brutality seems to be exactly what is taking hold.

The highly public global hashtag campaign #BringBackOurGirls — aided in part by Michelle Obama, who recently had her picture taken in the White House as she made a sad face and held up a sign with the hashtagged slogan — recalls the similarly simplistic Kony 2012 campaign that sought to capture the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, in the jungles of Uganda. There’s a danger that these brief waves of hashtag activism are nothing more than feel-good gestures from the West, pitting our good guys against the bad guys. Our response must go deeper.

No conflict is that simple, and a response that is not thoughtful and substantive can do far more harm than good. American benevolence toward the African continent, for example, no matter how benign, can often be construed, rightly or wrongly, as having racist, neocolonial overtones. The campaign against Kony was accused of falling into this trap, and the campaign against Boko Haram will face the same criticisms if its supporters aren’t careful. If Americans truly cared about kids trafficked for sex or slavery, a critic might counter, they would work to rescue the thousands of youth trafficked here in the U.S., and they would be enraged by the fact that one-third of all human-trafficking cases in the United States involve children.

American policymakers are increasingly prone to handling conflicts by ignoring or eliminating the adversary and trusting that this will solve the problem. By killing Osama bin Laden, Kony, or Abubakar Shekau (Boko Haram’s current leader), the U.S. deals a blow to the momentum of Islamist movements but pays no heed to the fact that another 20 followers are ready replacements. This is the thinking that guides America’s increasing reliance on drone warfare and special-operations units — the belief that our enemies are finite in number and that we can exterminate them through strategic, surgical strikes. Meanwhile, the wider conflict rages on, reaching into more and more regions.

To be clear, the abduction of innocent children is deplorable. We must immediately condemn it and make every effort to rescue the child hostages and bring the perpetrators to justice. But unless we want to repeat our mistakes and deal with Boko Haram the same way that we have conducted the Global War on Terror elsewhere — terrorizing innocent civilian populations with our counterterror tactics in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Central and South Asia — we should consider the root causes of this particular conflict.

Boko Haram offers some obvious lessons for the international community, because the warning signs were evident years ago. We could’ve prevented the escalation of this conflict had we acted when Boko Haram was a nonviolent insurgency operating under the leadership of Mohammed Yusuf in the early 2000s.

Yusuf’s movement grew out of Nigerians’ frustration toward the country’s Western-educated elites. Located mainly in the capital in the Christian-dominated south, these elites have failed to fix the perpetual problems of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and lack of opportunity in the Muslim-dominated north. Government elites allowed uninterrupted human-rights abuses by security forces that were cracking down on Islamists and turned a blind eye as these forces killed hundreds of innocent civilians on countless occasions.

If there ever were an opportunity to alleviate suffering and address the grievances of Nigeria’s impoverished north, that would’ve been the time. But America missed that moment and failed to challenge the ruling elite, however corrupt, largely because it didn’t want to risk losing access to Nigeria’s bountiful oil and natural-gas supply.

Since its inception, Boko Haram has become more indiscriminate and more violent, firing upon Muslim and Christian populations alike. The longer the world waits to act, the more complex the problem becomes and the higher the stakes. This is why it’s so critical to handle this conflict with more sensitivity than a Twitter hashtag can muster.

Even if these girls are rescued — and let’s hope they are safely returned to their parents — the kidnapping and abduction of innocent children on this scale has become the new way for insurgencies and rebel groups to gain bargaining power with the world’s superpowers. As several outlets have already reported, even some al-Qaeda adherents and jihadists online were clearly shocked by the kidnapping tactics, but this is the new frontier in disseminating fear.

Any attempt by the U.S. government to deal with this issue requires a multifaceted approach, as organizations such as the International Crisis Group (ICG) have suggested. We must put pressure on Nigeria’s federal and state governments, in partnership with neighboring countries and regional and international partners, to disarm the current ticking time bomb; deescalate short- and medium-term threats; and get to work fixing the root causes of this crisis, especially in Nigeria’s north.

#page#Here’s how to do it. First, on the security front, while it may be counterintuitive for counterterrorism advocates, we must persuade Nigeria’s military and police to restrain themselves. The military’s track record has been problematic, for example, in the poor but historically peaceful states of Borno and Yobe, which were vulnerable to exploitation by political interests and radical leaders. As Boko Haram’s authority grew, the national government’s heavy-handed security crackdowns exacerbated the conflict and increased support for Boko Haram. Harsh government tactics have only spurred more unemployed and listless youth to pursue violent extremism.

After dialing it back, Nigeria’s federal government must bring to justice those within the uniformed ranks who are responsible for extrajudicially offing Boko Haram’s founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf. That will help calm a long-simmering sense of injustice among the opposition while setting the stage for holding accountable anyone who has committed crimes, whether in government or within Boko Haram. If the government can address the insurgents’ complaints about Yusuf’​s assassination head-on, it can begin to deflate the rage that fuels extremist rhetoric.

While ramping up intelligence-sharing, border-monitoring, and security partnerships, as ICG has recommended, the work of disarming, de-radicalizing, and reintegrating former fighters must be the security priority. This is no time for lip service. Take a lesson from Saudi Arabia’s efforts as they’ve employed, married, housed, and de-brainwashed violent extremists with some (though not total) success.

Second, the harder work of long-term political, economic, and social reform must begin. The unequivocal commitment and cooperation of Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan is essential here. Politically, a solution will be found in the north only through conversation with traditional and religious leaders. The capital’s elite can no longer govern remotely, with scant respect for the north. Corruption, furthermore, must be systemically routed out; otherwise it will continue to fuel Boko Haram’s violence.

Economically, pervasive poverty and growing inequality should be ameliorated by harnessing the country’s ample natural resources for the benefit of the many, not the few. The transition from military to civilian-electoral rule in 1999 was supposed to help resolve the problem of unequal access to natural resources, particularly in the Niger Delta. But socioeconomic and political grievances have continued to inspire nonviolent and violent protest, coupled with a rise in large-scale organized criminal activities.

The Nigerian government has shown almost no interest in even minimally fulfilling the basic needs of the population. A transparent and locally led development agenda in the north — one that builds the necessary infrastructure (e.g., for electrical power and roads), irrigates the arid agricultural regions, and slows desertification — would begin to pave the way from the impoverished past toward a brighter future.

Socially, much-needed improvements to Nigeria’s education system, empowerment programs for women, and an aggressive conversation at the community level about ways to reduce religious radicalism will set the stage for longer-term sustainable and societal development. In some schools, the need is as fundamental as paying teachers’ salaries, not to mention stocking the classrooms with sufficient supplies. Excellent education shouldn’t be only for the Nigerian elites who can study in Britain. Making sure that each student has a world-class education would take the wind out of Boko Haram’s sails.

Finally, on the religious front, the Muslim and Christian communities — having already endured decades of conflict and competition over resources and over the religious identity of the state — know well what steps to take. Religious leaders have met innumerable times before for dialogue, and they must work once again to mitigate and deescalate the violence. Perhaps international Christian and Muslim groups can offer additional support by offering to host meetings in a neutral setting, as open wounds from recent violence will be slow to heal.

No amount of hashtagging, no matter how well-intentioned, will “bring back our girls.” And unintentionally, the tweets and selfies can send the message to impressionable populations that Western elites are once again using elitist mechanisms to gain control. If America truly wants to rescue Nigeria’s innocent children, it must rescue their future. For many, there is no future, and this has swelled the ranks of Boko Haram. Build the possibility of a future and violent revolution becomes a lot less appealing. Nigerians will have something to live for, not die for. Let’s start hashtagging that. But in the meantime, let’s bring our kids home, be they in North America or northeast Nigeria.

— Michael Shank is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

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