A hashtag’s unintended consequences in Nigeria

Activists in DC rally in support of the
Activists in DC rally in support of the “Chibok girls” taken by Boko Haram.

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Emmanuel Akinwotu is a British-Nigerian writer based in London and an editor and contributor to the Project for Study of the 21st Century PS21 AFRICA channel. He tweets @ea_akin.

A year after the Twitter campaign “#bringbackourgirls” put Nigeria on front pages around the world, the whereabouts of 219 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram on April 14, 2014 remains unknown.

The global clamor for their release, ferocious in the months after the kidnappings, is now modest, by comparison. But the campaign — and even more, the brutal conflict that sparked it — has had major consequences. Over the past year, Nigeria has changed.

On March 28, for the first time in the country’s history, Nigeria’s opposition claimed victory in a presidential election judged fair and free. President Goodluck Jonathan’s ruling party conceded its 16-year grip on power, and is now a weakened force after significant defeats in state elections.

The new president, former Nigerian military leader Muhammadu Buhari, is not universally popular. As head of state from 1983 to 1985, he was part of a dictatorial regime that committed numerous human rights abuses. His efforts to fight corruption and improve living standards led to authoritarian policies.

But the world since Buhari last ruled Nigeria is a starkly different place, and the self-proclaimed “converted democrat” will likely take a more inclusive and technocratic approach this time around.

His victory represents something else that’s new, too. Buhari, a Muslim from the North, won overwhelmingly in the majority Christian southwest, as well as across northern states. His All Progressives Congress (APC) party, a relatively new alliance of small opposition parties, capitalized on the government’s perceived failure to tackle domestic challenges such as corruption, unreliable electricity and poverty.

Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram also helped the APC win. The brutal insurgency has in part made voters nostalgic for the kind of leadership embodied by former military men like Buhari. Many voters felt that, compared to the incumbent, Buhari would do a better job tackling security and corruption — a priority that trumped religious divides.

Muhammadu Buhari speaking at Chatham House, February 2015.
Muhammadu Buhari speaking at Chatham House, February 2015.

And that brings us back to the #bringbackourgirls campaign. In the weeks following the schoolgirl abductions last year, Nigerian citizens were overwhelmingly skeptical of their government. The hashtag campaign raised global awareness of the plight of the missing girls, and also of the government’s weakness. It kept attention on the crime, and played a role in the deployment of more than 100 U.S. Special Forces to advise and support the Nigerian military.

But the campaign’s most important impact was on domestic politics. Politicians faltered under the pressure of added international scrutiny.

Now Nigerian politics will no longer be dominated by a single party. The APC’s win has given balance and alternative to a system that desperately needed it.

But democracy won’t solve all of Nigeria’s troubles. The oil price swoon of the last year has hit Nigeria’s economy hard. Oil exports account for 75 percent of government revenue, and while the price has lately rebounded, the Nigerian economy remains fragile. The central bank has largely cushioned the naira currency’s fall in value, and while the economy has slowly diversified away from reliance on oil, it must do so more rigorously.

Nigeria’s economy, in need of structural reform in a volatile global economic climate, will be a huge challenge for Buhari’s government. His APC party made a number of grand promises, including new welfare systems for the unemployed and state-funded new jobs. Implementing these policies may prove difficult, as will providing reliable, consistent electricity nationwide.

And it’s not clear whether Buhari’s defiance and rhetoric against Boko Haram will result in tangible change. Successive Nigerian administrations have been unable to fix the systemic problems that make the Northeast fertile ground for terrorist groups.

The anniversary of the abductions in Chibok a year ago re-opens old scars. The government’s failure to deal with Boko Haram was exposed at the price of 219 girls, who remain missing. The new government has promised change and nothing is more important than providing security to the people of Nigeria.

This piece originally appeared on Reuters.com on April 17, 2015.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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