When mothers cry, society answers. This powerful message was brought home by the recent social media campaign to free the Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted by militant Islamist group, Boko Haram.
With the exception of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, no single terrorist act has moved the world to action like the now-famous Chibok school abductions of close to 300 girls by Boko Haram on 14 April.
The group has carried out more than 500 deadly attacks with impunity in the past five years. It is therefore unlikely that Boko Haram could have predicted that its attack at an all-girls school in a remote town in north-eastern Nigeria would trigger such a massive international outcry – especially one involving some of the world’s most powerful individuals, states and organisations.
This is not the first time that Boko Haram has abducted young girls.
Several cases were reported in 2013, in which the group abducted young Christian girls, forced them into marriage and converted them to Islam. A lack of action from the Nigerian government may have emboldened the group to plan and carry out the Chibok attack – their biggest abduction ever.
This abduction could also have gone largely unnoticed by the international community had it not been for the number of girls and families involved, as well as the lacklustre government response. The sorrow and consternation of the schoolgirls’ mothers, friends and relatives galvanised a worldwide social-media campaign (#BringBackOurGirls), which has ignited a global movement to free the girls. This mass mobilisation has become a uniting force, for women and mothers especially, in their demand for action from the Nigerian government and the international community. This campaign has also provided unprecedented visibility for Boko Haram: visibility that could have both negative and positive consequences. The exposure of Boko Haram to tremendous international scrutiny has spurred views that the Chibok abductions may prove a tipping point for the demise of the group.
A key question raised by the abductions is the role that women, and mothers in particular, can play in combating terrorism. Violent extremism, in some cases, could be a learned social behaviour that begins at home. In this way, mothers play an important role in addressing such behaviour, as they could instil social codes and morals to dissuade children from turning to violence. This is a particularly crucial role for Nigeria’s women and mothers given reports that indicate Boko Haram’s recruitment and use of children.
The Chibok school abduction also emphasises the role of women and mothers in mobilising against terrorism beyond the confines of the home and outside of traditional roles of child-rearing. This could be seen as ironic, given that Boko Haram claimed one reason for the abduction was to enforce the view that women should stay at home and not be educated.
Women’s opposition to terrorism in Nigeria is not new. International Women’s Day on 8 March this year saw women in Lagos protesting against the increase in terrorist acts, particularly the killing of nearly 60 pupils at a boarding school in Yobe State on 24 February 2014. This provided a precursor for the response to the Chibok abduction crisis and sparked the first mass protests by mothers in Nigeria.
The involvement of these mothers has broadened opposition against Boko Haram, including by civil society organisations in Nigeria and elsewhere. This could go a long way in reducing support for the group, which would further isolate it. Counter-terrorism actions aimed at eliminating the group would also have a greater chance of succeeding.
While it is difficult to fully quantify the impact of the #BringBackOurGirls social movement, one thing seems certain: the Nigerian government is no longer the sole actor in the fight against Boko Haram.
Nigerian women risk their lives in mounting protests against a group that is widely feared due to its mass killings and bold attacks. These protests saw women unite in a country that has significant tribal and religious divisions, as well as deep-seated class-related divides. It is also significant that Nigerian women took to the streets amid claims that the abductions were a scam, and that no girls were missing.
Days after the escalation of the social-media movement, Boko Haram released a video that showed the girls alive, and offered to swap them for prisoners. The women’s actions also prompted a response by
President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, which accepted the international assistance that it had previously rejected. This illustrates the power and influence that women and broader civil society can have in bridging divides that could hinder counter-terrorism efforts. Seizing this momentum, the Nigerian government should seek to empower civil society organisations, especially women’s or mothers’ organisations, to play a greater role in counter-terrorism in Nigeria.
Uyo Salifu, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, Institute of Security Studies (ISS), Pretoria, South Africa.