After 276 girls were abducted from their school's dormitories in the middle of the night on April 14, 2014, in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, one campaign — #BringBackOurGirls — brought the kidnappings to international attention. Shared millions of times on social media, it caused global outrage, simultaneously provoking shock at the actions of the Islamic militant group and anger at the Nigerian government's inability to protect some of its most vulnerable citizens.
Critics continue to point at the ineffectiveness of "hashtag activism," with many saying out that, despite the high-profile figures who came onboard to support the campaign — including Michelle Obama — the girls have still not been rescued, and little is even known about their health or whereabouts. Even Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau mocked the campaign, joking in a video released in the months after the kidnapping: ""Bring back our girls? Bring back our army!" he said.
Nigerian Ibrahim Abdullahi, a 38-year-old corporate lawyer, was the first to use the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. On the second anniversary of the kidnapping, VICE News spoke to him about the impact he thinks the campaign has had and whether he remains hopeful that the missing students will be released and reunited with their families.
VICE News: How do you feel today on the two-year anniversary of the Chibok kidnapping?
I don't feel happy that the girls have not been rescued but I'm happy at the same time that so much effort is being put in place to rescue the girls here in Nigeria. The government is doing so much to rescue the girls.
Obviously initially the government were criticized for not responding to the abduction. You're saying you think that's changed?
Yes, the last government of Goodluck Jonathan didn't do enough to rescue the girls and if the last government had done more the girls would have been rescued within a short time. But I think the new government of Muhammadu Buhari has done so much to stop Boko Haram, to take the war to them. Before Boko Haram used to attack Nigeria, but now it's Nigeria attacking Boko Haram and Boko Haram are on the run. I think that is a good development.
Did you see the "proof of life" video published today showing 15 of the Chibok girls?
Yes, I saw the video and I think some parents of the girls… have identified most of the girls as the abducted Chibok girls. It makes me want to be optimistic the girls will be rescued soon because at the time there were people saying that the girls will never be rescued, that the girls were radicalized or married and they will never come back. But seeing them… there is hope that they are alive and they will be reunited soon with their families, either by military force or through negotiation, I think the girls will soon be back.
You started the Bring Back Our Girls campaign and that went all around the world — it was what really raised the profile of this kidnapping — but a lot of people would say it was a failure because the girls are still missing. Would you agree with that?
I do not agree with that. I think for somebody to say that the non-rescue of the girls is a failure of the hashtag is misplaced because I think the hashtag was meant to raise awareness and I think it achieved that. So much awareness was created all over the world. It is not only limited to a hashtag. There have been protests. It takes time to achieve aims but people protested in London recently — how would they have known about it without this campaign? It achieved a lot and Boko Haram is now being fought squarely. I think that's a credit.
Could you tell me a bit about how you came to start the campaign in the early days after the abduction?
I was watching TV and this news broke out about the girls after the kidnap. We were tweeting every day but not under that hashtag, we were tweeting with #ChibokGirls, #BokoHaram, so many hashtags. I think it was around a week later when I saw live broadcasts of the United Nations international book fair when so many dignitaries from Nigeria were in attendance.
At that event the former World Bank Vice President for Africa, Mrs. Obiagele Ezekwesile, drew the attention of the public to the abduction of the girls. That alerted me because I thought it was just people who were not elected in this society, people like me, who were aware of these things. So when people in high places at that time also standing for the girls alerted me… I tweeted it with the hashtags #BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls. Mrs. Ezekwesile retweeted me also and from there the tweets started becoming popular.
Bring Back Our Girls was tweeted millions of times by people all around the world. Did you have any concerns that raising the profile of these particular girls and their situation could have negative repercussions for them?
No, I think [Boko Haram] crave attention and that hashtag maybe gave them more attention, [but] at the same time maybe made the government also realize the danger of Boko Haram, so I think the life of the girls was not put in any danger by the hashtag because I think that hashtag even helped in preserving the girls.
If not for the hashtag those girls would have been like any other girls abducted by Boko Haram and [no one] may have known about it, because these are not the only ones, others were abducted before them and others were abducted after them. Some have been raped, some have been killed, some have been suicide bombers. I think the hashtag… helped make Boko Haram preserve them because at the time they wanted to bargain for their release with the Nigerian government.
Thousands more women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram. Do you feel you have any duty to expand the campaign and make it clear to people that those abducted are more than just the Chibok girls?
I think my campaign is not only about the girls, it's about stopping Boko Haram. It's about stopping extremism and radicalization in northern Nigeria and in the world at large, because it is only when we stop Boko Haram that Boko Haram will be incapable of kidnapping in the future. If we don't stop them they will continue.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd