a tale of two hashtags

Boko Haram, in northeast Nigeria, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), somewhere near the Central African Republic, share several common factors. They are:

  • Destructive violence: In the years since its escalation of mass violence, in 2009, Boko Haram-affiliated attacks have killed large numbers of civilians in northeast Nigeria and, increasingly, northwest Cameroon. In its three decades of insurgency, the LRA has killed fewer but still many civilians. The relative scale of Boko Haram’s violence may have as much to do with the greater demographic size of its targets–towns and, sometimes, cities, in addition to small villages–as with the group’s tactics. Casualty counts aside, the groups’ devastation is constant. Each has crippled its affected local economy, and has caused mass displacement on an extraordinary scale. Those who have survived either group’s violence will not likely live to see their communities restored.
  • Ideology: The common-ground between the respective ideologies of Boko Haram and the LRA is not obvious; notionally, Boko Haram is Muslim, and the LRA is Christian. Whatever their notional differences, however, both Boko Haram and the LRA share an ugly millenarian politics: their respective interpretations of Islam and Christianity advocate mass social upheaval, rather than incremental change. Of course, the LRA’s millenarian belief is more explicit, and its links to the history of millenarianism in northern Uganda, where it was originally formed, are stronger. Historically, violence soon follows millenarianism; whether that’s a consequence of belief, or of other factors, is unclear. Some view ideas–here, ideology–as an important driver of violence; I am not among them.
  • Tactics of violence: Like government forces, violent insurgencies use specific tactics to accomplish strategic goals. Till recently, Boko Haram’s primary tactic was mass violence, which allowed the group to establish a political stranglehold over several local areas in northeast Nigeria. In recent months, Boko Haram has also added kidnapping to its violent arsenal, as during the recent abduction of more than two hundred schoolgirls in Chibok, in northeast Nigeria. LRA-linked fighters frequently abduct children from civilian communities; however, it is not clear that Boko Haram fighters learned the tactic from their counterparts in the LRA. Indeed, the two common tactics probably serve two different functions: many speculate that Boko Haram will hold the Chibok girls for ransom, while LRA fighters rarely use kidnapping for financial gain.
  • The Toto effect: Both Boko Haram and the LRA are located “in Africa.” Similarly, a bistro in France and a butcher in Poland are both located “in Europe.” Really, it’s irrelevant.

The respective violence of Boko Haram and the LRA has sparked two social movements–against Boko Haram (we’ll call this “Bring Back Our Girls”), and against the LRA (“Kony 2012”)–which also share several common factors. They are:

  • Norms: Each movement is accurately described as a member of a larger, global human rights community. Both advance “human rights norms”–that is, an aspirational belief in the safety and security of individual persons. Human rights entail the return and protection of Chibok’s schoolgirls, who remain vulnerable to various abuses while under Boko Haram’s control; likewise, rights require the capture and prosecution of the LRA’s key perpetrators of mass violence, including Joseph Kony, the group’s near-mythical chief. Where their priorities differ, either group shares a guiding principle, in a global sense.
  • Tricky avenues to securing those norms: If the safety and security of individual persons is the dominant concern of both Bring Back Our Girls and Kony 2012, neither campaign offers a morally pure path toward that goal. Neither the Nigerian military, which would rescue the Chibok schoolgirls, nor the Ugandan military, which would apprehend Kony, will accomplish either goal with minimal harm to civilians; abuses will occur, and often, because the business of these militaries–most militaries, in fact–is more often killing than protecting. Neither is the so-called “political solution” to either insurgency, sans violence, a morally praiseworthy affair. Such is the nature of securing rights: moral action rarely aligns with political reality.
  • A digital public: On Twitter, users refer to the campaign against Boko Haram by its hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls; Kony 2012, #Kony2012. By design, these hashtags are fleeting. Activism seeks to change the basic function and foundation of society; hashtag activism, if we must use the term, only offers a voice to those desires. Applied correctly, that voice can be just as powerful. Hashtagged communities think sentimentally; many fewer follow with moral action. But that’s fine: a digital public–fifty-nine Twitter followers, or twelve-thousand six-hundred and thirty two–is a fungible thing. For some, hashtags are a form of moral self-satisfaction; for others, they are genuine portraits of empathy. We should strive toward the latter, as a moral purpose, but the former is always a necessary intermediary. Leslie Jamison inscribed it best, in an essay “in defense of saccharin(e)”: “[W]e’re talking about people using text to imagine themselves across the distances of separate lives.”

These two categories, and the seven total factors that comprise them, have prompted several comparisons between the Bring Back Our Girls and Kony 2012 campaigns. In general, the comparison reads:

  • Kony 2012, a campaign largely branded, staged, and claimed by the San Diego-based advocacy organization Invisible Children, was an inorganic movement: it was, in Lydia Polgreen’s words, a campaign for Californians, and not for the survivors of the LRA’s violence. In contrast, Bring Back Our Girls is Nigerian-born, branded, staged, and claimed. Therefore, the campaign is an indigenous symbol of a democratic process so often absent from Nigeria’s governance.
  • Kony 2012 was a campaign of Western norms, projected globally. In contrast, Bring Back Our Girls is a campaign of global norms, projected locally.

These comparisons are both correct and incorrect:

  • Neither Kony 2012 nor Bring Back Our Girls are isolated moments, in space or time. As LRA researcher Ledio Cakaj observes, the Concerned Parents Association, a civil society group in northern Uganda, emerged in the aftermath of a mass LRA abduction in 1996. Its guiding norms–the return and protection of abducted children–more closely mimic the Bring Back Our Girls campaign’s than they do Kony 2012’s. Their values remained local in nature, and largely local in scale.
  • Kony 2012 was, fundamentally, a campaign of Western norms, but for reasons rarely referenced. The theory of change behind Kony 2012 was indirect: in its advocacy efforts, Invisible Children sought to alter U.S. foreign policy first, and the LRA’s operations second. By their telling, Kony 2012 participants shifted the moral compass of U.S. foreign policy to achieve new rights for LRA-affected civilians. For many, this citizen engagement–democratic participation, on behalf of others beyond ourselves–is a contradiction in terms; some days, I count myself among this crowd.
  • In a global ecosystem, how do we trace the location of a norm? Here, the theory of power is imperfect. The story of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, both analog and digital, is as follows: the parents of the abducted draw attention to their plight, which draws the attention of their local communities, which draws the attention of their national communities, which draws the attention of their international communities. This path is rarely static: the stories of the parents of the abducted resound alongside the empathy and sympathy of their global supporters. Instinctively, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign is a local event, staged before a global audience. But at what point is this no longer true, and how do we ensure that those local stories remain as resilient as their narrators?

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