Beyond the Hashtags: Nigerians Seek Lasting Solution to Boko Haram Insurgency

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Analysis Violence

Beyond the Hashtags: Nigerians Seek Lasting Solution to Boko Haram Insurgency

Samuel Okocha

Spaces for Change, a human rights advocacy group in Nigeria, recently organized a citizens' forum titled #BeyondTheHashtags "to generate a data bank of [citizens'] concerns" about the abduction of hundreds of the nation's girls as well as the "rising insurgency in the northern part of the country."

Advocacy groups are seeking short and long-term measures to end the insurgency that has left thousands of people dead in northern Nigeria.

More than 200 school girls have been held in captivity by Boko Haram soldiers since April 14. Their abduction has inspired an online campaign with hashtags, such as #BringBackOurGirls, gaining global attention.

The online campaign, along with street protests across the globe, forced Nigeria’s government to accept help from foreign countries to find and free the girls ranging in age from 12 to 15. But efforts to bring them back have not been successful.

Spaces for Change, a human rights advocacy group in Nigeria, recently organized a citizens’ forum titled #BeyondTheHashtags “to generate a data bank of [citizens’] concerns around the Chibok abductions and the rising insurgency in the northern part of the country,” the organization explained on its website

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“Beyond the Hashtag is a conversation that is looking at improving security consciousness among citizens beyond the street protests and online campaigns,” Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri of Spaces for Change told Rewire. “We ask ourselves: beyond the hashtags, what do we need to do to ensure these abductions do not occur again?”

At the forum in Lagos, advocacy groups, legal practitioners, and ordinary citizens gathered to track the gaps and progress in the Nigerian government’s fight against terrorism.

Spaces for Change has been collating citizens’ concerns and questions regarding the effectiveness of the government’s counter-insurgency operations.

Concerns Over Accountability in Spending on Defense

“Some of the questions that have come out relate to adequacy of military infrastructure,” Ibezim-Ohaeri said. “There is also the welfare of military personnel. There have been a lot of questions on whether these soldiers fighting the insurgents are adequately taken care of and well-motivated to engage and quell the insurgency.”

Last week, a military commander escaped death after a group of angry soldiers turned their guns at his vehicle and pulled the trigger. Some accounts claim the soldiers were expressing their unhappiness over their poor welfare.

In 2009, 27 soldiers that served in the United Nations Mission in Liberia were sentenced to life in jail by a military court martial.

The former UN peacekeepers were court martialed for demonstrating on the streets of Akure in southwestern Nigeria over unpaid allowances. The life sentence was later reduced to seven years.

Nigeria’s security budget has increased considerably in the last two years. But Ibezim-Ohaeri says citizens are asking whether the allocations have matched actual spending in the sector.

Building Citizens’ Capacity

Amy Oyekunle recently returned from Borno state, the hotbed of the Boko Haram insurgency.

“I am happy about the international publicity with the bring back our girls hashtag,” she said. “But beyond the hashtag, I think that Borno needs a very strong sense of strategy in terms of how they would recoup and deal with the insurgency.”

“We saw a lot of women who had lost their husbands. A lot of children have been killed. And then there’s the tendency that parents might not even send their children back to school because of the Boko Haram attacks on schools.”

“So there’s a strong need to build the capacity of the citizens themselves to deal with what they are experiencing,” she added.

Advocacy groups agreed on the need to empower citizens to be able to alert security institutions when they see any sign of security threat within their communities.

“In the U.S., a child knows what to do when he or she finds himself in a dangerous situation,” Ibezim-Ohaeri said. “But many here, including the enlightened Nigerians, do not know. We therefore need an effective awareness campaign to make people know how and when to dial the emergency line.”

Laila St. Matthew Daniels, a psychotherapist and social activist, called for trauma centers to deal with the psychological and emotional shock of affected parents and families.

“Another one is to put across that the benefits of education far outweighs the minuses of not having an education,” she pointed out. “And how we can bring education a little bit to the outskirts and let these kids come back to school because they are scared right now.”

The War on Poverty Meets the War on Terrorism

Oil-rich Nigeria officially became Africa’s largest economy in April. But Africa’s most populated nation remains one of the poorest countries in the world. And many of the those poor people are found in northern Nigeria.

“While we were in Borno we found that the poverty rate in the state was unacceptably high,” Ibezim-Ohaeri told Rewire. “It’s compounded by lack of access to education for most children between the ages of 6 and 16. So in a community where poverty is rife and citizens don’t have access to education, it creates a very conducive environment for terrorism to thrive.”

For the government to win the war against terror, Ibezim-Ohaeri suggests a combined military strategy with an economic strategy that lifts people out of poverty and encourages young school girls and boys to have access to education and realize their potential.

Without those two combined strategies, Ibezim-Ohaeri says it is very doubtful that the war against terrorism will be very successful.

The Rule of Law vs. Insurgency

At the #BeyondTheHashtags forum, human rights activist and legal practitioner Bamidele Aturu said, “Part of the problem we are having with Boko Haram was caused by the Nigerian police.”

Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, who was arrested by the army and handed over to the police, died in police custody in 2009. That incident triggered a wave of Boko Haram attacks on police stations and government institutions. The sect has simply refused to stop carrying out its attacks after the death of Yusuf.

The group has been blamed for the Tuesday twin bomb explosions at a busy market in the north central city of Jos. More than 100 people died in that attack. A few days earlier, a suicide blast in a street full of bars and restaurants in the northern commercial city of Kano killed four people. The explosion was reportedly caused by a car bomb in the mainly Christian area of Sabon Gari.

“Up until now, the Nigerian state has not apologized for that extra judicial killing of Yusuf,” Aturu said.

Ayo Obe, a rights advocate and lawyer, agreed. She lamented the seeming inability of the Nigerian police to get convictions in court, especially when it involves sensitive cases. “Instead we have had extra judicial killings,” she said. “This is a problem. The police need to be equipped to present enough forensic evidence to ensure convictions in court.”

She talked of the need for Nigeria to uphold the rule of law and prevent a state of lawlessness.

Building Trust in Government

The #BeyondTheHashtags forum also raised the issue of inconsistency in communications among government agencies.

“You hear the ministry of information gives [a piece of] information that contrasts with what the defense headquarters gives, and another contrasts with the information that comes out of the presidency,” Ibezim-Ohaeri said. “So citizens do not know which agency to look up to to get security information.”

Spaces for Change will do a thorough analysis of the data gathered at the #BeyondTheHashtags forum and share that information with various agencies that must play specific roles in the fight against insurgencies in the nation.