Social media and facing tragedy

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 minute-plea 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 people-driven 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 lesser-known 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 stories 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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