How Bring Back Our Girls went from hashtag to social movement, while rejecting funding from donors

October 10, 2018 23 By Duncan Green

Ayo Ojebode, of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, introduces his new research on a fascinating social movement, part of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability research programme

In a world where movements appear and fizzle out just as they are getting started, Nigeria’s Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) movement is an exception. Meant to be a one-day march in 2014, it has now entered its fourth year and is waxing strong. What’s more, it has done so partly by rejecting funding from foreign aid organizations and supporters. Why?

The BBOG movement erupted in April 2014 following the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls from Chibok Secondary School, Northeast Nigeria, by the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency group. The group organized a public protest on 30 April in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. It was meant to be a one off, but then something happened.

A man from Chibok, an abductee’s relative, knelt and begged the crowd: “don’t leave us; if you do they (the government) will forget us”. On the spur of the moment, former minister Oby Ezekwesili announced: we will stand with you until your kids come back! Since then, the BBOG has met every day at the Unity Fountain in Abuja. It has also staged some 200 protests within and outside Nigeria.

Not a flash in the pan

There were many reasons to expect the BBOG movement to live up to its initial aim and be short-lived. One is that it was taking place in a fragile and conflict-affected setting, where the pressures of daily survival make social causes a lower priority for many people. Government helplessness, especially in the face of insurgency, makes membership of pressure groups frustrating.

Another reason to expect the BBOG movement to be a flash in the pan is that its focus was not a recurrent issue but a one-off one: pressure the government to rescue the abducted schoolgirls and bring them back alive and safe. That it was women-led is also not a particularly helpful factor.: in patriarchal and male-dominated societies, women-led movements and protests, if they happen, tend to be shortlived.

Yet the movement trudges along.

Elastic circle of concern

Although the stated aim of the BBOG movement is to pressure the government to confront Boko Haram and bring the abducted Chibok girls back home safely, it keeps redefining and extending what this really means.

When some women were abducted in Bassa, the BBOG printed their photos on large placards and staged a protest – “bring back our girls and the women”. When lecturers of a university were abducted while on fieldwork, the BBOG staged a protest: “bring back our girls and the UNIMAID lecturers”. When Boko Haram allegedly killed a large number of soldiers, BBOG staged a march, “bring back our girls and don’t bury our soldiers secretly in mass graves”. The list goes on. The Movement then extended its concern to include demand for good governance – shorthand for everything from the provision of safety and security of citizens, to better healthcare, better infrastructure and a better economy.

In Nigeria and indeed in most fragile and conflict-affected settings, most of those who join protests are those who have personal stakes: an abductee’s relative, owner of a threatened roadside business, residents of a neighbourhood marked for demolition etc.

By constantly redefining the circumference of their focus, BBOG increases the number of those who have personal stakes and, therefore, willingly join marches or protests. Yet, by keeping the Chibok girl’s abduction at the centre of their discourse but then weaving other contiguous issues around it and extending it to good governance, BBOG demonstrates a single-mindedness and doggedness that endear them to both local and foreign supporters.

The BBOG operates a surprising funding policy: they have so far refused funding support from both foreign and local donors. The leadership argued that once there was money, there would be a struggle for it among them, and their focus would be shifted from pressurising government to sharing money. They also feared that once people (especially politicians) gave them money, they could be seen as being partisan. (There were allegations at the start that they were being used by the opposition to harass the government.)

Relying heavily on donations from members and in-kind support, the Movement does not even have a bank account. They do, however, solicit international news makers (such as Ms Michelle Obama) to openly identify with their cause.

A lot is being said about the shrinking civic space in conflict-affected and authoritarian settings. However, a closer attention to the strategies of civic actors may reveal two things: one, that the civic space is not really shrinking but changing, and two, the creative ways in which civic actors are responding to these changes – the creativity that explains their resilience.

This post is based on research by Ayo Ojebode (University of Ibadan, Nigeria), Dr Fatai Aremu, Dr Plangsat Dayil; Dr Martin Atela & Prof Tade Aina, commissioned by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR)