So­cial me­dia and fac­ing tragedy

Saratu Abi­ola

The Guardian (Nigeria) - - NEWS - @saratu

WHEN hor­rific news like that of the aid worker and mid-wife Hauwa Le­man’s ab­duc­tion and even­tual death at the hands of Boko Haram sur­face, many of us feel help­less but of­ten re­treat to our on­line and off­line spa­ces where we can build com­mu­nity. The story of her ab­duc­tion, along­side two other aid work­ers in Rann, Borno State, did not gain as much at­ten­tion un­til the short video of her In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross (ICRC) col­leagues do­ing a last min­uteplea to the gov­ern­ment to save her life hours be­fore the dead­line the in­sur­gent set by which she would be killed.

With the na­tional and in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion that Nige­rian so­cial me­dia cam­paigns have drawn in the past, it was easy to see why a com­mon re­sponse to Hauwa’s death was “we have failed her”. So­cial me­dia cam­paigns to bring at­ten­tion of gov­ern­ment to tragic hap­pen­ings have been some of the most pop­u­lar cam­paigns, gen­er­at­ing both po­lar­iz­ing views and gov­ern­ment re­ac­tions. The most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple of this was the #Bring­back­our­girls cam­paign, which helped raise in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion to the mass ab­duc­tion of school­girls from Chi­bok. Like­wise, the cam­paign in sup­port of the re­lease of the ab­ducted girls from Dapchi. These two were some of the big­gest peo­pledriven ad­vo­cacy cam­paigns we have seen in re­cent times that helped to drive home the hu­man­ity of peo­ple who live in the north­east that are liv­ing through what is now al­most a decade of in­sur­gency vi­o­lence. But much like the so­cial me­dia cam­paigns to get fund­ing for health­care for in­di­vid­u­als with se­ri­ous ill­ness with­out a broader fo­cus on Nige­ria’s fail­ing health sec­tor, a ma­jor chal­lenge of ad­vo­cacy on these iso­lated hap­pen­ings is that their nar­row fo­cus does not ex­pand to the larger chal­lenges Nige­ri­ans in con­flict-af­fected ar­eas face, or even an ex­panded con­ver­sa­tion on other lesser­known tragedies.

We could eas­ily say that Hauwa’s ab­duc­tion get­ting less at­ten­tion than other more high- pro­file in­ci­dents was a bad thing, but I think that be­lies the com­plex­i­ties of the sit­u­a­tion. Re­ports have shown us that con­sis­tent pub­lic out­cry fo­cus­ing on one par­tic­u­lar in­ci­dent – such as the ab­duc­tions of girls from Chi­bok and then, later, those from Dapchi – just raises the value of these ab­ducted in the eyes of those that have cap­tured them. It was the con­sis­tent at­ten­tion that com­pli­cated the ne­go­ti­a­tions for the ab­ducted girls from Chi­bok and drove the ran­som that the Nige­rian gov­ern­ment paid to three mil­lion eu­ros, per the Wall Street Jour­nal spe­cial re­port. Ad­di­tion­ally, re­ports have shown that the girls from Chi­bok were fed and treated bet­ter than other ab­ductees be­cause of their per­ceived value.

Ter­ror­ism thrives on spec­ta­cle, so at­ten­tion has the de­sired ef­fect for the mur­der­ous in­sur­gents whether they choose to keep the ab­ductees alive (prized pos­ses­sion that the Nige­rian gov­ern­ment can earn plau­dits for if they de­liver home safely) or kill them (a show of force that will in­still Nige­ri­ans with fear and demon­strate their rel­e­vance). The spec­ta­cle of ter­ror­ism and the easy avail­abil­ity of mul­ti­me­dia footage of their hor­rific work is also shown to have a pos­i­tive im­pact on the ex­tent to which these ter­ror groups are able to in­crease their sup­port and re­cruit­ment. More­over, some sto- ries go vi­ral and oth­ers do not. Whether on­line or off­line, sto­ries gain at­ten­tion of­ten as a re­sult of a del­i­cate alchemy that de­pends on var­i­ous fac­tors: a per­fect storm of tim­ing, the au­di­ence be­ing primed for a cer­tain story, among other things. Not ev­ery har­row­ing news story is go­ing to spread in the same way.

There­fore, a dilemma: does driv­ing pub­lic at­ten­tion on tragic hap­pen­ings like what be­fell Hauwa Ibrahim do more harm than good? Is el­e­vat­ing the sta­tus of one hap­pen­ing – like what hap­pened to Hauwa — in­crease the value of the ab­ductee to the ter­ror­ists and pos­si­bly risk the ne­go­ti­a­tions for her safe re­turn to her fam­ily?

There are no easy an­swers to these ques­tions, but what we do know is that jus­tice for those who have been ab­ducted, killed or driven from their homes is far from cer­tain and has been since the in­sur­gency be­gan. It is in the Nige­rian gov­ern­ment’s hands to cater to the wel­fare of the Nige­rian army of­fi­cers sta­tioned in the north­east and em­power them to help se­cure or­di­nary Nige­ri­ans like Hauwa Le­man who are do­ing their best to help oth­ers in a very grim sit­u­a­tion. To do any­thing else is to en­sure that Hauwa Le­man’s death was mean­ing­less.

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