Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Americans, Boko Haram & Message Control

Ampson Hagan, MPH
Peace Corps Volunteer
Health Sector
Cameroon 2013-2015

The tension is a palpable drum beat in the air. How quickly the calm and quotidian life in village can warp into a roiling wave of danger and anxiety. Somewhere in between those extremes, the mere knowledge of the existence of possible doom has created a highly fragile and volatile resting state. Boko Haram is as much a danger as it is an intractable cancer, with remission being simply the lull in between terroristic episodes. Boko Haram already has a real effect on my safety and well-being. Being so close to the Cameroonian-Nigerian border, this Boko Haram crisis is a credible threat that may materialize into a dangerous episode. My biggest fear is being forced to move. Moving in the States is a nightmare, even with all the moving campaigns and packing materials and the often taken for granted ability to drive myself. Here in Cameroon, simple travel is an adventure that often borders on reckless personal endangerment. Having to move would be harrowing.
The Boko Haram threat is very real here, especially for us U.S. Peace Corps volunteers living in Cameroon’s North region, which borders the Extreme North region of Cameroon and the Borno State of Nigeria where much of much of the terrorist group’s attacks have occurred. Our close proximity to the areas where foreigners have been captured and where Cameroonians have been killed in the Extreme North, as well as the likelihood of a terrorist attack, merit considerable efforts on our part to maintain our safety during our service here. When I see my phone light up with a text message notification, I hope with bated breath that it isn’t evacuation orders, or news that a volunteer has been taken. Sometimes I imagine that I may learn of a Boko Haram incursion in my region by reading the news on the Internet, and the stunned feeling I’ll have when I realize that I will be forced to move out of the North region.
The possibility of a forced move is very real, but it’s one I’m hoping is never realized. I don’t want to have to reintroduce myself to a new village and go through all the growing pains again. Of course, this isn’t nearly as bad as what choices villages face if met with a Boko Haram problem. They may be taken and sold, attached and even killed. They’re expendable. My reasons for fear of moving are purely superficial. Despite possible danger for me, I recognize that it is not appropriate for me to make false relativisms connecting my security concerns to the dangerous situation for Cameroonians and Nigerians. Just because I am directly affected by Boko Haram does not suddenly render me identical to villagers here, as my problem, solution and circumstances are wholly different. Unfortunately, Americans back home are doing just that.
The “international community” has until now met the steadily rising magnitude of brutality and religious extremism veiled as religiosity with a benign ignorance and patent indifference. But recently, Americans that have gotten more publicity for hashtags and tangentially related girls groups in far away lands than for direct involvement in the destruction of Boko Haram. They’re not in the path of destruction, like people are here in this nook of central Africa. They are not in harm's way, but they are appropriating the plight of Nigerians as if they themselves have been attacked, humiliated, kidnapped or killed by acolytes of Boko Haram. The more than 200 abducted Nigerian schoolgirls have nothing to do with Americans. They’re not "their" girls. They're not mine either. I'm not afraid that my daughters will be kidnapped or that my village will be attacked. Americans, however, made a simplistic, dangerous relativism between themselves and these Nigerian girls, implying “We are like them and our girls are like those girls.”
These interested Americans represent a special subset of the country, consisting of online activists looking to throw their weight behind some cause that launches heir country into some correctivist international conflict. Clinging to the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls that they don't own, these online activists and citizens have taken over the reins of a movement that best serves the Nigerian people, whose actually presence on Twitter is but a fraction of the global Twitter population. This Twitter activism takeover is akin to government intervention, a social intervention. Ironically, people want their government to intercede on behalf of others, yet they are obscuring the chance for a sovereign people to lead a national charge to hold their own government accountable. Americans and their oppressive activism are taking on the cause for retributive action as their own, by subsuming the Nigerians and their plight into their own serial drama.
As an American, a foreigner, I’m cognizant of the fact that my life has a higher valuation than that of most Cameroonians, and I fully recognize how privileged I am as an American in this foreign land. Knowing all that, it would be a supreme insult to be the voice of a campaign claiming kinship with someone with whom I share no familial or societal bonds. No one but Nigerians should be saying “Bring Back Our Girls,” when they haven’t met those girls, or seen those girls. The optics of this saga aren’t pretty. Americans’ blatant refusal to cease control over the messaging of this protest, especially after feeling the ardent backlash from Nigerians and others, merits an investigation of their individual and collective motivations. These girls have more value than an opportunity for people to feel good about being a part of a cause. They’re more than that.
The loudest voices clamoring for intervention are those from white people miles away who have arrived late to the action, employing a 20th century white American savior mentality with 21st century savior rhetoric. It was the western media who decided that 300 girls was a large enough number to report to Americans, while trying to foster a connection to the distraught families of Borno State to Americans who can’t locate Nigeria on a map. Not only has the traditional media warped this problem into some soap opera and lucrative opportunity for people trying to get rich off of crisis, but the new news media outlets of Facebook and Twitter have added entirely new dimensions to this situation.
It's sad and frightening how much certain aspects of this saga parallel certain truths of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as antebellum & Jim Crow America, a blatant reminder of historical precedent. Africans are being killed, captured and sold into slavery under the guise of marriage. Those girls were taken to repopulate the ranks of the Boko Haram sect and provide income for their terrorist operations. They were torn from their school in their community and committed into concubinage. Just like past acts of injustice and violence, this terroristic kidnapping deserves worldwide attention, but "Bring Back Our Girls" makes no sense coming from the mouths of disaffected Americans. A white mother in Connecticut or a father from Idaho can say that the Nigerian girls are just like their daughters, but a mother of one of the abducted schoolgirls will boast no connection between her daughter and the daughters of these distant people. Co-opting a hashtag as slogan cannot efface the alterity of these children and it not a social currency that allows them to purchase or access the feelings and troubles of others.
The advent of social media and the unceasing desire to sustain a hyper-connected society has not only usurped traditional media in prominence, it has distorted the message or information that is actually shared. It’s like a sick game of telephone that uses advanced cellular phones, social media apps and message boards. The collective power of these distant and avatar-faced people possess is immeasurable, but apparent when it is strong enough to provoke governments to mobilize and intercede. This type of activist global governance is sometimes necessary, but the priority for the image of the global pressure should be given to Nigerians. Americans participatory empathy in a situation that has little to do with them has prompted participation on a global level. Nigerians are the aggrieved party here, not Americans and not “girls education”. Messaging and political power in this ordeal have shifter from these Americans to the American government and its western allies, none of whom were endowed with the responsibility of policing Nigeria, which only the Nigerian government and its people are sovereign.
The behavior is emotionally invasive, for people to use the emotional distress of others to advance some agenda in which the distressed people share take part. It promotes the idea that the agendas of the interventionist, liberal, Facebook/Twitter activist demographics are larger and more important than the grief of the families of the abducted girls. Advocating for military intervention in the case of abducted girls demonstrates a schoolgirl feminism that is reductive and unconstructive. The abduction is placed in this context of feminism and girls education, but the automatic emotional response to a kidnapping, devoid of intellectualization and importation of grander societal context, is insufficient to warrant global interest. The girls are an opportunity to progress a larger agenda. Their plight has been leveraged to have a “larger conversation" about girls education and feminism, a conversation that has little to do with the girls, their families and kidnapping. I’m not arguing that this tragedy is not a result of social and historical problems, nor am I saying that this should not be part of a larger discussion about terrorism, sovereignty, female education and basic human rights; what I am saying is that we should respect and regard this particular situation for what it truly is, a mass kidnapping, a disregard for human rights, and a crime. We shouldn’t try to foist extra social import onto this situation or problematize this drama beyond the nature of the actual problem. That’s belittling the true problem and declaring that it’s not big or important enough to be a respected without being part of a larger movement, in which that true it will be unrecognized.
I don’t have the solution for a framework of a proper, more responsible response, but there needs to be more consideration for others, even when we feel we have been threatened. Maybe this drama has provided us Americans, us reactionaries, us activists, an opportunity for introspection. How can we inform, provoke and mobilize people to action in defense of a noble cause or participation in a global movement? But before we do that, how can we recognize a movement we should lead and one that we should merely champion? Twitter etiquette should be a part of a larger activist etiquette. Americans can lead that noble and useful movement.