Sure, Help Save the Nigerian Girls, but Lose the Savior Complex
It’s been more than three weeks since more than 200 girls were abducted by Boko Haram from a boarding school in rural Nigeria and whisked into the Sambisa forest. Since the beginning, Nigeria’s citizens have flooded the streets demanding the government find the missing students. They even took to social media to pressure President Goodluck Jonathan to act. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls became the battle cry.
The tag went viral in Nigeria, encapsulating the anguish of the families in just 17 characters. Soon after, Twitter users around the globe, like me, sent impassioned pleas—and the hashtag—to celebrities, politicians, and world leaders to compel Jonathan to take action. But according to ABC News, an American woman by the name of Ramaa Mosley is responsible for getting the world to care about the girls.
“I was looking on Facebook and Twitter to see if anyone was talking about it, and people were not talking about it,” Mosley explained on Nightline. Mosley even claimed that “There were a few people who mentioned it who were Nigerian and were posting about it, but other than that no one in the United States or in Europe had made any calls.”
According to Mosley, because she took the initiative, #BringBackOurGirls reached critical mass and sparked world leaders to take action. President Obama has vowed to send military and law enforcement officials to Nigeria; U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack “an act of pure evil” and said he’d offer “further assistance”; France’s President Francois Hollande said his country would dispatch a specialized group to help. Though it took him weeks to make a statement about the abducted children, Jonathan told attendees at the World Economic Forum in Abuja that the “kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terror in Nigeria.”
Mosley’s involvement makes for a compelling narrative: A concerned mother with little social media experience but a lot of heart pulls off the impossible: She gets the world’s most powerful people to join her cause. Only that’s not exactly true.
While Mosley did create a Facebook page that now has close to 90,000 likes, the #BringBackOurGirls movement was already in motion by the time she jumped on the bandwagon. It was first tweeted by Nigerian citizen Ibrahim M. Abdullahi after hearing Oby Ezekwesili, Nigeria’s former federal minister of education, demand as much at a protest. Yet ABC’s Nightline chose to crown Mosley the patron saint of the movement, effectively giving her credit for the tireless work of Nigerian activists, families, and citizens.
After ABC (and then CNN and MSNBC) profiled Mosley, a skirmish erupted about who was responsible for pushing #BringBackOurGirls into the mainstream. Many have questioned whether it matters who gets credit for the movement so long as word spreads and the girls are found. But the truth is, it matters.
Though it first seemed like Mosley, a filmmaker who helped direct the film Girl Rising, about the struggle to educate girls around the globe, was spreading the word about #BringBackOurGirls out of the kindness of her heart, an interview with Girl Rising founder Holly Gordon has cast doubts on Mosley’s motives. Gordon admitted the kidnappings provided “an important moment for us to promote our film,” which CNN plans to air this weekend.
Like the Kony 2012 debacle, which urged Americans to hang posters and wear T-shirts to capture Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony because Africans couldn’t do it, the narrative around #BringBackOurGirls is quickly becoming “The West must act because Nigeria is incapable of saving its own citizens!”
This is not true. With the largest economy in Africa and military forces that are often dispatched to nations across the continent, Nigeria is more than capable of saving itself. Shared intelligence, weapons, and strategic planning from the West are all helpful tools, but Americans like Mosley will not “save” Nigeria with a hashtag. This line of thinking—the Konyization of African protest movements—does little more than infantilize an entire nation. As Nigerian poet Bassey Ikpi put it, “Pushing this story adds to that lie” that the West’s help was necessary to create #BringBackOurGirls instead of simply aiding its spread.
We’ve seen this play out before—from the scores of missionaries who flooded the “dark continent” to civilize the savages (and help themselves to its resources) to celebrities flocking to African nations to “save the children” from poverty, disease, and the terrible misfortune of being born on a supposedly backward continent.
While it’s necessary to help Nigerians rescue the missing girls for all the right reasons, folks like Mosley must first realize that they are not saviors. They’re fellow citizens lending their voice to a fight that is already in motion.