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When #Hashtag Activism Meets Unhinged Terrorism

A powerful account of the April 14, 2014, Boko Haram mass kidnappings in Chibok, Nigeria, also provides a cautionary tale about what happens after the celebrity tweeting stops

Lola Adesioye
April 14, 2021
Danny Martindale/FilmMagic
Danny Martindale/FilmMagic

In Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls, Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw provide a powerful account of the April 14, 2014, abduction of 276 Nigerian school girls from the town of Chibok by the extremist militant Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, and the three-year saga that followed as the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls ricocheted around the world. Back then, I wrote about the kidnappings for Tablet and a number of other publications. As a woman born and raised in London to Nigerian immigrant parents—who placed massive emphasis on the value of education and went to great expense to send me to some of England’s best schools to get the type of Western education so reviled by Boko Haram—the abduction of these young women felt very personal.

I also knew that my great-grandmother, who started a school for girls in Nigeria in the 1940s and had been a vociferous advocate for women’s education, and my grandmother, a principal of a girls’ school, would have wanted me to use my voice to help bring back these young women. Parkinson and Hinshaw painstakingly depict just how difficult bringing them back really was, including the practicalities of trying to locate and rescue the girls, determining whether they were even alive, and the ethical dilemmas inherent in paying ransoms to groups that, as a result, are encouraged to see kidnapping as a lucrative business.

Over the course of the book, divided into four parts, Parkinson and Hinshaw brilliantly outline the diverse personalities at play. There is Oby Ezekwesili, Nigeria’s outspoken and Harvard-educated former minister of education, who first brought the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to the world; Zannah, a Nigerian who runs an orphanage for children affected by Boko Haram’s war; Pascal, a secretive Swiss mediator with an unexpected Nigerian accent who, together with Zannah, ultimately ends up securing the release of the girls; a Dubai-dwelling blogger with access to Boko Haram but whose negotiation efforts are hampered by the Nigerian government’s distrust of him; and, most startling and profound, the schoolgirls themselves. At least two of them risked their lives by diligently keeping diaries, which lend a depth to this book that would have been difficult for the writers to capture otherwise.

The notoriety that came from elevating the kidnappings to a global cause eventually made the issue of securing the girls’ release much more difficult.

Parkinson and Hinshaw navigate through high-level meetings featuring Barack Obama and John Kerry at the White House and the Nigerian leadership at the presidential compound at Aso Rock, while guiding the reader through the intricacies of mediating with a murderous terror group. They also provide a cleareyed look at the benefits and costs of social media-based activism. After the kidnappings, the world tweeted, wrote articles, and protested all the way from London to Lagos, calling for the girls’ return. Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and singer Mary J. Blige chimed in, elevating the issue to global prominence. But, as the writers point out, the fame and notoriety that came from elevating the kidnappings to a global cause eventually made the issue of securing the girls’ release much more difficult. As the authors and their sources explain, some 16 months after the kidnapping, “through the distorted prism of social media, the hostages had become the source of [Boko Haram leader Abu Shekau’s] fame and power ... it was #bringbackourgirls that had somehow given him the recognition he felt he deserved … ‘The Chibok girls made him world famous. And it was the attention he had always wanted.’”

The book’s first part is dizzying as it outlines the power of social media and celebrity influence. The disorientation one feels reading it is not a flaw in the writing, but a consequence of seeing how hashtags and tweets traveling at lightning speed can transform an issue, sending it like a pingpong ball from a social media platform all the way up to the White House. Yet over time, as with many online viral sensations, the world moved on to newer obsessions, leaving the children, their parents, and the negotiators to deal with the new expectations that had been created.

But the most compelling parts of this book come after the end of this first section, when the world has moved on. Parkinson and Hinshaw provide a detailed, thought-provoking, and at times, intensely depressing account of exactly what happens once virtue tweeting becomes real-world action from Western and African governments, militaries, elite mediators and mercenaries, and many others. Over some 300-plus pages, the writers capture the inner workings and complexities of the violent and elusive Boko Haram, for whom “Western education is forbidden,” as well as the multitude of geopolitical actors who played different roles in the drama with varying degrees of individual success, but whose collective efforts were ultimately effective in finally releasing some of the girls from captivity.

We see, repeatedly, the ineptitude of the Nigerian government—from then-President Goodluck Jonathan to his successor (and current) President Muhammadu Buhari, who pledged to have the girls released within the first 100 days of his presidency, a promise he broke. The incompetence of the government in Africa’s most powerful nation is painful to read, as infighting, paranoia, and the pursuit of conspiracy theories clearly played a large role in extending the duration of the girls’ captivity, not to mention in the ultimate outcomes of those who are likely to never return. (One hundred twelve of the original 276 girls are reportedly still missing.)

Parkinson and Hinshaw have a fascinating chapter that looks at November 2015, when the level of dysfunctional rivalry within Nigeria’s two spy agencies—the Department of State Services and the Office of the National Security Adviser—reached almost comical levels. “The men who ran the twin agencies loathed, and were constantly trying to undermine, one another,” the authors explain. Parkinson and Hinshaw point out, rather less comically, that “The feuds made it nearly impossible to deliver a message up to President Buhari himself … Short, blunt messages from Boko Haram would be repackaged to ensure they didn’t offend. Government messages would be edited to include the correct salutations to show appropriate respect for the Boko Haram leadership.” And when there was no response from the government, Boko Haram would have to be assured that the messages had indeed reached the president. “It was like keeping a body on life support,” the authors write about efforts to keep the terror group engaged.

Although the authors use an objective journalistic style, heavy on details and facts, there is an unmissable quality of empathy that adds poignancy to what otherwise could have been a dry account. Parkinson and Hinshaw approach all of the figures in the story with humanity, depicting them as multifaceted, even when it comes to Boko Haram itself and the group’s maniacal leader, Abu Shekau, who at one point admitted, “I laugh when people call me insane…I’m not a lunatic. I behave strangely just to infuriate Nigerians.” The authors avoid using simple caricatures of the men and boys who work—some by choice, some by force—within Boko Haram, giving the reader a fuller understanding of the motivations, desires, and even hopes of the group’s members and its supporters. In some ways these insights render them, paradoxically, even more contemptible.

Ultimately, though, this is a story about the young women whose lives were suddenly upended from the innocence of girlhood to two years of unimaginable brutality and trauma. Parkinson and Hinshaw do an admirable job of featuring the Chibok girls as the protagonists of the story, and they appear nothing if not brave and heroic in the face of unspeakable abuse and fear.

Despite being flogged, beaten, made to “marry” Boko Haram soldiers, and a host of other frightening indignities, the girls rally together as arnan daji, or pagans in the forest—an insulting label foisted on them by their kidnappers—showing solidarity and outright defiance in the face of attempts at indoctrination and brainwashing. By writing down the lyrics to Christian songs, singing them (even when not allowed to), and smuggling food to sister-friends in other camps, they somehow managed to give meaning to their experiences and found ways to carry on.

Naomi Adamu, one of two girls in the group who kept diaries while in captivity, reminds one of a modern-day Anne Frank, writing in notebooks she smuggled in from school and in the ones she was given to practice memorizing Islamic texts. She used them instead for her own purposes, to keep her faith and memory intact. I hope that these diaries Naomi kept diligently throughout her capture will at some point be released to the public.

Dad, I want to see you. I’m so worried about you and Mum and the rest of the people at home. I wasn’t aware that this could happen to me … I want you to help me in prayer all the time so that I will defeat the devil each time he comes to torment me.

Eight months into captivity, as Christmas approached, and having already filled three exercise books with thoughts and observations, Naomi penned a heartfelt entry to her father. “Dad, I want to see you,” she wrote. “I’m so worried about you and Mum and the rest of the people at home. I wasn’t aware that this could happen to me, none of us who the BH kidnapped realized that … I want you to help me in prayer all the time so that I will defeat the devil each time he comes to torment me.” She signed off wishing him a merry Christmas from his “lovely daughter,” not knowing whether she would ever see him again. An entry to her mother, Kola, whose memories also feature prominently in the book, is tinged with guilt, self-awareness, and an unusually critical mind: “Dear my lovely Mum, I’m so worried about you. I love you so much Mum when I remember how you suffered to raise me … Now I’ve grown to help you but the BH took me away from the school. They are telling me words of nonsense …”

Surprisingly, Naomi also managed to hide a cellphone throughout her captivity. There was no phone signal deep inside the Sambisa Forest where she was captive, but holding onto the object gave her a feeling of connection to the outside world. Parkinson and Hinshaw also powerfully depict the girls’ families, showing how painful and heartbreaking it was for mothers in particular to lose their daughters in this way.

Throughout the book, there is an unspoken but fascinating juxtaposition that emerges between Boko Haram’s perverse ideology and that of the innocent faith of the girls themselves, who use their knowledge of Bible passages and Christian hymns to keep themselves going. The militants are hard men, but it is the girls who refused to submit to threats, terror, and demands for radicalization, despite not knowing what the consequences would be.

Bring Back Our Girls has a cinematic quality to it, and sometimes feels like it was written in the mold of a Hollywood script. There is no doubt that it has all the elements of a powerful film, and at times I had to put the book down to remind myself that the events I was reading were indeed real. But as Parkinson and Hinshaw were able to show through six years of meticulous work, for the girls in Chibok—some of whom were never rescued—and for all those involved, this story hasn’t even ended. Boko Haram continues to kidnap school children in Nigeria: This year alone, they have taken over 300. By exploring what worked and what didn’t in the case of the Chibok kidnappings, perhaps Parkinson and Hinshaw have provided some kind of guide for those who will, undoubtedly, be called on to deal with cases like this again in the future.

Lola Adesioye is a British Nigerian writer and commentator. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Economist, The Times of London and many more international publications.