#BringBackOurGirls is part of an unfolding process of citizen mobilisation given expression through hashtags and protests. It builds on earlier actions. When some said #OccupyNigeria was a failure, I was quick to point out the fact that it’s not correct to isolate on-line citizen mobilisation as single actions.
Before 1999, social mobilisation in Nigeria was frozen, except for a few activists to whom we outsourced our concerns and protests. In the face of so many pressing concerns, many people simply buried their heads in sand. With the arrival of democratised communication in the early 2000’s, thanks to mobile telephony, anger could be channeled through telecom networks. People discussed issues: poor power supply, the terrible roads, failures in the education system, shameful healthcare. Social mobilisation found an ally in telecom freedom.
Between 2007 and 2009, when social networks began to connect more voices on similar issues, the unfreezing of social mobilisation in Nigeria grew. By 2009, we began to see a clear demonstration of anger finding expression through BBM, Facebook, and more. Those organising for action enjoyed these tools. The 2010 protests in Nigeria, triggered by a sick and absent president and rumours of a cabal running the country, were advanced through social media connections. The events around the elections in 2011 built on this.
The 2011 elections saw citizens using tools like ReVoDa, a mobile application developed by a team of tech volunteers for the EnoughisEnough coalition (a non-partisan campaign for accountable government), and social media-enabled tools to take action. They were labeled ‘clicktivists’, but a group that had been silent found tools that allowed the safety of near anonymity while allowing them outlets for angry expression. This is why in 2012 #OccupyNigeria happened. Not because the political opposition or a tired labour movement called for mass action, but because the anger of those previously silent found expression.
Social media proved useful in amplifying the issues, connecting individual, angry citizens to shared forms of expression, and even to report live on organised actions. In 2013, Nigerian citizens began standing up for each other through various #SaveCitizen efforts. Some argue that hashtags are useless. They should ask the victims whose lives were saved because someone cared enough and started a hashtag and online action.
These actions are part of a trend, and it’s why it was easy for citizens to join a campaign that had elements of citizen solidarity, demand for good governance and measurable action. When the first set of #BringBackOurGirls tweets showed up, people in Nigeria could identify with what it represented. The government had failed to act and was going to cover up the abduction of #ChibokGirls, as usual. People saw concrete action that challenged citizen helplessness in the face of Boko Haram.
#BringBackOurGirls is not a single protest, but is part of an unfolding series of actions in Nigeria where citizens are organizing and expressing their anger through social media. Citizens respond to leadership that seeks results. As with many hashtags before it, and many more that we’ll see unfold, #BringBackOurGirls isn’t isolated ‘clicktivism’, but a sign of growing citizen mobilization.