Nigeria is currently in the international spotlight over the terrible events of the past three weeks. Two bombings rocked the capital city, resulting in the deaths of at least 89 people, and on top of that, more than 200 secondary school girls were kidnapped, plus another 11 girls this month. These events add to the long list of attacks attributed to the Boko Haram group since it began terrorizing the north-eastern part of country in 2002. The group’s reign of terror includes the murder of more than 70 male students in two separate incidents in Sept. 2013 and Feb. 2014, as well as last year’s kidnapping of women and children (who were later released in a prisoner swap), attacks on the United Nations headquarters in the capital, journalists, churches, military barracks, and telecommunication infrastructure.
Until recently, we had seen very little action from the Nigerian federal government. Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has been rightly criticized both in Nigeria and around the world for doing little, if anything, to seriously tackle the years-long security crisis. The Nigerian government was embarrassed into taking more action by media focus contrasting the government’s silence and outrage expressed by political leaders in other countries, including President Barack Obama.
The scale of the international community’s attention has been surprising and is certainly welcomed; this may be the best hope for getting these girls safely back to their families. Had it not been for this groundswell of attention, worldwide protests and social media campaigns (e.g. #bringbackourgirls), the Nigerian government might have continued to view this event as another minor distraction from its real priority: getting itself re-elected in 2015.
It is unfortunate that many good things about Nigeria rarely make it into the international press, such as the significant support it has provided in peacekeeping missions in other countries, its booming industries, and the vibrant creative arts scene, including literature, fashion, music, and films. However, the current bad press the government is receiving is focusing much-needed attention on the shaky foundation on which the country currently operates, fueled by an unhealthy obsession with wealth and material things that is derailing Nigeria from achieving its great potential. Nigerian civil society groups and ordinary citizens have been complaining about this situation for many years, but it is the international spotlight created by the abduction of these young girls that is now leaving the Nigerian government exposed and on the defensive.
The one piece of good news coming out of this tragic story is the outpouring of concern that has come from different parts of the world, which has in turn galvanized more intensive efforts to find the missing girls and brought in on-the-ground support from additional security experts. Continuing shows of support from around the world, such as the May 10 rally held in downtown Vancouver’s Robson Square, are crucial to maintaining momentum in the mobilization of assistance from around the world, such as the Canadian government’s offer of military surveillance equipment and personnel, to help find the girls. Such actions are also necessary because the plight of these girls might otherwise be forgotten once the news cycle determines that it has had its fill and is in need of a fresh story. In these often cynical times, this story highlights the difference that our attention and voices can make, even in situations that seem far removed from our reality.