On Jan. 3, the terrorist group Boko Haram swept into the northern Nigerian town of Baga, slaughtering an estimated 2,000 citizens. In response, the Afro-American Cultural Center, as well as the African Students Association, called for Yale students to join the We Are 1ne Green Friday campaign last week, a social media initiative that seeks to raise awareness and affirm our “solidarity and empathy” for the victims of terror by taking selfies. They ask that we wear Nigeria’s national colors while holding one finger raised, to symbolize unity. In addition, they helpfully suggest that we “retweet to the max” and “propose solutions … [that] can address the root of the problem.”
This kind of hashtag activism is well-timed, tying into a number of political debates that have grabbed the world’s attention over the past few weeks. The silence of the international press that followed the massacre in Baga shows that we still need to affirm that black lives matter. The fact that Baga was deliberately targeted for the fierce criticism and open defiance of its religious leaders is a sharp reminder of the importance of free speech in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo. And yet, both as a Nigerian and as a Yale student, this campaign has left me angry and frustrated. The African community at Yale has invested much of its energy in highlighting and criticizing deeply problematic forms of activism such as “Third World voluntourism.” Therefore, our uncritical endorsement of this shallow campaign is both profoundly disappointing and deeply hypocritical.
There is no need to repeat the common criticisms of well-intentioned, social media photo campaigns. We are all aware that trending photos on Twitter have never kept a single bullet out of a body, fed a malnourished child or provided shelter to a displaced victim of terror. Instead, we argue that our activism is geared towards raising awareness, in the hope that this will engender solutions. We remember that we live in the uncomfortable space between what we can do, thousands of miles away in relative privilege, and what we know needs to be done. We claim that it is better to do something than nothing. However, my issue with We Are 1ne lies not in the fact that it just raises awareness, but in how it chooses to do so.
The campaign reproduces the damaging and dehumanizing trope of presenting Africans as if they are the victims of brutal, incomprehensible and random violence devoid of context or complexity. In informing the world about the people of Baga, it does not challenge its audience to understand the complex political dynamics that have fueled both the astonishing rise of Boko Haram and the government’s unwillingness to respond to them. In fact, the message sent out to Yale students did not even once mention the words “Boko Haram.” Those who view this campaign will not learn of the culture of government-sponsored political violence that fueled Boko Haram’s radicalization, the fact that some Nigerians of differing ethnicities have flat-out denied that the massacre even took place or, most astonishingly, that the government has deliberately quashed domestic news coverage on Baga to strengthen its chances of re-election on Feb. 14. Knowing that the organizers and supporters of the campaign may mean well should not prevent us from pointing out when they fail. What good are good intentions if they fuel ignorance?
If Yalies decide to, quite literally, insert images of themselves into the narratives of other peoples’ suffering, we owe them narratives that are respectful, thoughtful and comprehensive. The people of Baga are not victims of mindless conflict, but rather sufferers of a profoundly dysfunctional, violent political system. If you care about the victims of Baga, please donate money to organizations like the International Red Cross that have mobilized effectively to accommodate displaced communities. If, for whatever reason, you cannot, please take the time to be well-informed and inform others. Read the International Crisis Group’s comprehensive report on the insurgency, the fiercely partisan citizen-journalism of Sahara Reporters or the sound analysis of the Africa Report. Follow the growing crowd of young Nigerian journalists, such as Zainab Usman and Chuba Ezekwesili, who are taking academia out of the ivory tower and onto Twitter. Watch the presidential debate broadcast on YouTube on Wednesday or the one that is slated to occur on Feb. 4. Seek to empathize with the people of Baga by understanding and fighting against what caused their deaths, rather than just feeling sorry for them. They are more than victims.
Mez Belo-Osagie is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.