When Jack Gentul spoke to his wife for the last time, he lied. “Honey, it’ll be all right, you’ll get down.” Alayne Gentul’s remains were discovered opposite the rubble of what used to be the South Tower of the World Trade Center after jumping from the 97th floor. The little dignity in Alayne’s passing has been sold away, consumed by the world’s thirst to know more about that day. She told her husband she was scared, told him how much she loved him for what was soon to be the last time. But her final whimpers have been relived over and over, punctuated by shaving adverts, and Davina McCall’s pleas for viewers to stay tuned for Big Brother.
The media’s reaction to terrorist attacks is part of the attack itself. This is why Michael Adebolajo asked a passer-by to film his hate-filled monologue after murdering Lee Rigby, hands drenched in blood.
We consume these outrageous, murderous acts. Having processed them, we want to react, to do what is right. There are few more outrageous and disgusting acts than kidnapping and enslaving school girls, upholding a warped ‘Islamist’ belief that women should not be educated. As with every major terrorist attack, the predictable cycle of condemnation, prevarication and retaliation is in motion. Liberals have begged for caution. Conservatives have demanded intervention. Yet again, Muslim leaders have condemned the attacks, explaining that the violent Islamists in question do not represent all Muslims.
A Twitter campaign designed to push the Nigerian government into finding the 234 girls that have been missing in Borno State for almost a month; the #bringbackourgirls hashtag. While I do not dispute the authenticity of the anger on the #bringbackourgirls hashtag, most comments are just the reactions of citizens conditioned by the consumption of terrorism. We have become consumed by the need to react, to do what we feel is right.
African Geopolitics in 140 Characters
The facts alone can shock a Western audience. How could a government ignore the warnings of this attack? Why has the Nigerian state seemingly abandoned these girls? If they are not doing anything, why are we not out there helping the families? These are all understandable questions, but facts are facts.
Most protesters are not aware of the unnatural colonial unification of North and South Nigeria, nor do they understand life in a state dominated by oil production. Few understand that the North of Nigeria is a largely rural, uneducated Muslim entity that is very different to the oil-producing, urbanising, Christian South. Northern Nigeria has more in common with Mali, Chad and Niger than the South, and federal state capacity is very weak where Boko Haram operate. This problem has not emerged overnight, it is the aggregation of corruption, civil war, colonialism, indifference and poverty.
So what exactly is the #bringbackourgirls campaign achieving? It is an English language movement led by Western celebrities seeking to correct a horrific injustice in a non-English speaking rural part of West Africa. Even if members of Boko Haram had access to Twitter, they would not understand anything the protesters have to say – most of them can’t even write their name in Hausa. The girl that is now the face of the #bringbackourgirls campaign is actually from Guinea-Bissau, a fact the BBC did not even bother to verify.
More concerned with the world’s thirst for oil than its people, the corrupt government has already shown brutality in the North-West states. Such attacks have been going on for years. No matter how much you care, the use of the #bringbackourgirls hashtag only encourages the West to intervene in a situation they do not understand. Knee-jerk support legitimises the words of British officials who stress the need to “coordinate with the French in Niger” on national radio with no shame of their colonial past.
Yes, this is disgusting. Yes, the girls must be found. But we have been down this road before, and our unwarranted self-importance can make things worse. Michelle Obama is heartbroken by the kidnappings but she is also happy to sleep next to a man complicit in this injustice. It is easy for the planet’s great orators to assert that all are created equally, that America cares about black African Muslim girls, and that the Western media should be doing more to highlight this injustice. But is that true? For years we have been happy to turn a blind eye to Nigerian state officials stealing the oil wealth and hiding it in European bank accounts instead of investing in healthcare and education. In 1980, 17.1 million Nigerians lived in absolute poverty, but that number is now over 110 million.
Think Before You Tweet
So, why are Michelle Obama and David Cameron particularly heartbroken about this attack? Hundreds of schools have been burnt to the ground in the Northern states since 2010, children are buried alive for learning to write their names in non-Arabic Hausa, and the Nigerian federal state is disinterested because it is too busy stealing from its own people. This issue is too important to be hijacked by the self-righteous who only need to read ‘Muslim’ and ‘African’ on their Twitter feed to proclaim the need to do something. Social media campaigns flare up and die when the audience decides there has been an appropriate conclusion; remember how much the world cared about finding Joseph Kony? The situation in Nigeria is complex, and strong opinions backed by little substance, worthy moral principles and arrogance are a dangerous mix. Think before you write #bringbackourgirls. Is your voice helping the situation, or do your words form part of a mandate for Western intervention? Boko Haram’s crime is unacceptable, that goes without saying. But is your energy not better spent demanding justice for the 110 million Nigerians living in poverty, not just those involved in this horrific attack? Even if the girls are found and returned to their families, greater injustices will continue in Nigeria that require sustained interest. Do not carelessly consume terrorism. Do not use the #bringbackourgirls hashtag.
Bottom Line: Likes and hashtags misdirect informed criticism of complex international crises.