After months of dubious rescue attempts and one viral global social media campaign, the majority of the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls snatched April 14 by Boko Haram militants from their boarding house in the country's restive northeast are still missing.
#BringBackOurGirls was one of the most ambitious, inspired, and ultimately ill-fated social media campaigns of the year. More than 200 girls aged between 14 and 18 are still off the radar. Many have reportedly been raped, killed, or auctioned off as slaves or child brides for as little as $12. The 57 who fled and returned to their villages had escaped. They were not rescued.
The campaign's failure bears no reflection on the local activists who seeded the grassroots movement. Those steadfast advocates, together with the girls' distraught families, managed to keep pressure on the Nigerian government for weeks, while shining a spotlight on the ongoing sectarian violence plaguing the region, like nobody in that country, perhaps even continent, had been able to do before.
Many behind the campaign believe that the girls remain missing in part because of the Nigerian government's botched response from the onset. This began with President Goodluck Jonathan's administration taking 19 days to formally acknowledge the abduction — after repeated denials — and even after security experts repeatedly emphasized the first crucial 24 hours in any kidnap recovery, and then culminated in a series of failed or fabricated military operations and alleged truces, false hostage exchanges, and a raft of other claims and cover-ups.
The government not only missed a "huge opportunity" to "revive Nigeria's dying image," Bukky Shonibare, one of the Nigerian campaign coordinators told VICE News, but it has also essentially now given up on these girls, "who dared to be educated in the face of insecurity and insurgency that is rampant in their region."
Twitter told VICE News earlier this month that the plight of the kidnapped schoolgirls gave birth to one of the most socially resonant and impactful hashtags of the year — up there with the Hong Kong protests' #occupycentral campaign and Americans' rallying cry of #BlackLivesMatter, which came in the wake of Ferguson anti-police brutality protests.
A Twitter spokeswoman could not confirm the exact number of retweets or mentions the hashtag had elicited at the height of its popularity, but this map visualizes the exploding impact the campaign had across virtually every continent in the first two weeks it took off in late April.
The rise of #BringBackOurGirls was meteoric. The appeal resonated from small towns thick in the jungles of Nigeria and Chad — where it is suspected Boko Haram militants took many of the girls after abducting them — to the halls of the White House, where Michelle Obama tweeted herself clutching a hand-scrawled sign sporting the slogan. A petition followed, which has garnered over 1 million signatures. Then Hollywood stars clamored onto the bandwagon.
But just as quickly, the #BBOG campaign became overwhelmed by its own invisible messenger — the internet. It was soon lost among the garble of cat videos, news of wars in other corners of the globe, Ebola outbreaks, and ice bucket challenges.
Like many social media campaigns before it, the hashtag and girls slipped quietly out of sight and out of the consciousness of many who had riled up so fervently in their defense. In Nigeria, the issue has become swallowed by the upcoming elections.
"The bring back our girls campaign was very important in terms of being a rallying cry for Nigerians outraged by the neglect of the Nigerian government," Human Rights Watch's Deputy Africa Director Rona Peligal told VICE News. "It was heartening to see it attracting worldwide attention, but we haven't seen a resolution of the issues."
Indeed, Boko Haram, the Sunni militants wreaking havoc and seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate across Nigeria's northeast for more than five years, continue to stage near weekly bombings, massacres of entire villages, forced conversions, and kidnappings across the oil and natural resource-rich nation's northern belt.
Ultimately, "social media campaigns don't solve problems," Peligal said. "They are good for putting pressure on governments and organizations for a while, but they are certainly not the be-all and end-all of advocacy."
While the government's military and strategic response to Boko Haram has overall been "below par" on several levels, Shonibare said, it is Jonathan's complete lack of empathy for the girls' distraught families that is inexcusable.
"The President of Nigeria has yet to visit the parents and the Chibok people," Shonibare said. "Rather, some of the parents and the escaped girls were brought to Abuja to see the president. It is quite un-African for a grieving people to visit the one who is to commiserate with them."
Every day the girls remain missing, Shonibare's hopes of their return also diminish, although she believes "if the government is serious about rescuing these girls, they will; regardless of how difficult it may now seem."
In the meantime, the organizers of the campaign are going "back to the drawing board" to re-strategize in light of the country's current political climate to keep the issue on the "front burner."
"No matter what, we just have to remain hopeful," said Shonibare. "The only other alternative, hopelessness, is not an option."
_Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: _@lianzifields