Women in Nigeria face a caustic landmine of political advocacy online

Members of the Mother's Savings Club, Nigeria. Image by Karen Kasmauski/USAID in Africa via United States government work, public domain.

In Nigeria, the political advocacy sphere is a caustic landmine. Politics and advocacy usually get filtered through a religious and ethnocentric prism. Advocates with a strong social media presence — especially on Twitter — have to develop a tough skin to deal with the avalanche of gbas gbos (Nigerian Pidgin for “throwing punches”) in digital spaces. 

Nigerian female advocates — in addition to weathering this identity-driven harmful content — also face the added reality of gender-driven attacks.  

How do female advocates in Nigeria cope with the bitter online terrain such as trolling, hate speech and targeted misalignment of their messages? How do they forge ahead to make sure that these attacks do not simmer their resolve or eclipse the message of their movement?

Two online social media movements in Nigeria lend powerful insights into the experiences of advocacy and gender: The #BringBackOurGirls movement, led by Dr. Oby Ezekwesili; and #ArewaMeToo, led by Fakhriyyah Hashim, both experienced gendered political hatred that greatly affected the integrity of their messages.  

#BringBackOurGirls (#BBOG) movement

Six years ago, on April 15, 2014, about 200 school girls between the ages of 15 and 18, were forcefully abducted by Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group, from Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok near Maiduguri, in northeast Nigeria. 

The kidnapping of the Chibok girls ignited an international outcry. The BBC reported that in April 2014,  the #BringBackOurGirls trended on Twitter with over 3.3 million tweets, 27 percent of the tweets came from Nigeria, 26 percent from the United States and 11 percent from the United Kingdom. 

Dr. Oby Ezekwesili answering a question during a UN Women event with #BringBackOurGirls Campaign Coordinators. Image by UN Women/Ryan Brown, September 14, 2014. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dr. Obiageli (Oby) Ezekwesili, a former vice president of the World Bank, and one-time minister of education in Nigeria, started tweeting about the Chibok girls the day they were kidnapped. She was motivated to take action due to a previous attack on schoolboys at the Federal Government College of Buni Yadi in Yobe State, northeastern Nigeria on February 25, 2014. Fifty-nine boys died from gunshots or knife wounds, while the others were burnt to death.  

However, it was not until April 23, when, as a guest at a UNESCO event in Port Harcourt, in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, did her cry for the release of the schoolgirls grab national and international attention: 

And on May 7, 2014, former American first lady Michelle Obama posted an image of herself on Twitter holding a sign with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. She also released a video a few days later from the White House — making it a global sensation.

It would take two years before the Nigerian army rescued one girl, in May 2016. By October 2016, 21 girls were reunited with their families. And by May 2017, Boko Haram militants released 82 girls from captivity. However, about 112 girls remain missing and 13 are presumed dead, according to a 2018 report.

Ezekwesili co-founded the #BBOG movement that mobilized a global protest for the release of the Chibok girls. The movement later transformed into a formidable social movement organisation that has withstood the harsh Nigerian civic space. But the success of this movement occurred at great personal cost to Ezekwesili.  

The kidnapping of the Chibok girls occurred on the threshold of the 2015 presidential election, and Ezekwesili's online advocacy was viewed through the prism of partisan politics by some. Her personal integrity was not only questioned but shredded. Some alleged that her #BBOG was merely a front to gain political capital. 

Reno Omokri, a former presidential aide, accused Ezekwesili of being used by the then-opposition party, the All Progressive Congress (APC), to “undermine” the government of President Jonathan, thereby paving the way for APC’s “rise to power.” 

Supporters of former President Jonathan and the Peoples’ Democratic Party spread “all manners of falsehoods” online against Ezekwesili in 2014:  “I was actually being insulted, maligned…” said Ezekwesili in a live Twitter video broadcast on April 14, to mark the sixth anniversary of the abduction. 

Ezekwesili was falsely accused of being bitter for not gaining a ministerial appointment under Jonathan. According to her, some of her online attackers thought “that the reason we kept on with the advocacy of Chibok girls was that I wanted to be made a minister.” 

“How could I want to be made a minister when I rejected the request to be a minister way before the Chibok girls were abducted three years later? How could I?” Ezekwesili said in the live Twitter video broadcast. 

She became a 2018 presidential contender, but later withdrew from the race. 

Live on Twitter, Ezekwesili recalled her grief: “It was a very sad thing for me to bear the thought that children who went to school were so killed and brutally murdered to the point where parents could not recognise their children.” 

But her grief and rage was eclipsed by the political maligning she endured to get the #BBOG message out. 

#ArewaMeToo and NorthNormal 

On February 3, 2019, a young woman named Khadijah Adamua found the courage to tweet about the physical abuse inflicted by her ex-boyfriend. Adamua, who lives in Kano state in northwest Nigeria, had previously blogged about her horrific experiences. 

Fellow Nigerian Fakhriyyah Hashim tweeted her support for Adamua with the hashtag #ArewaMeToo: 

#ArewaMeToo became northern Nigeria’s version of the global #MeToo movement. (Arewa is the Hausa word for “North”) — igniting a storm of online discussion on rape and other forms of gender-based violence.

Violence against women is rampant throughout Nigeria. However, Relief Web asserts that between November 2014 and January 2015, northeastern Nigeria, especially Borno State, recorded the most violence against women. In the Muslim-majority north, discussions about these taboo topics are difficult, often forcing victims into silence

The online rage of #ArewaMeToo propelled the NorthNormal offline protests in Bauchi, Kano, Niger. Sixteen days of NorthNormal protests occurred in November last year across eight northern Nigerian states and Abuja. They were largely positive and state legislators “were receptive of young indigenes” for taking “the baton to push for the VAPP,” Hashim said. 

However, in Sokoto State, “government played a role in harassing and arresting NorthNormal campaigners,” Hashim said. The police manhandled a local leader of the movement. Thereafter, protests were banned by the Sultan of Sokoto, head of Nigerian Muslims.   

According to Hashim, NorthNormal grew out of the #ArewaMeToo hashtag, and has two objectives: advocating for “the domestication of the Violence against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP),” and championing the conversation on “various forms of gender-based violence and rape culture across northern Nigeria.”

The Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015 was signed into law on May 23, 2015. Under the VAPP Act — an improvement on the provisions of Nigeria’s penal code — acts of violence against women are punishable offences. This includes rape, spousal battery, forceful home ejections, forced financial dependence or economic abuse, harmful widowhood practices, female circumcision or genital mutilation, and/or child abandonment. 

In Nigeria, rape is punishable with life imprisonment. A minor can face up to 14 years in prison. In cases of gang rape, offenders are jointly liable to 20 years imprisonment without the option of a fine.

However, Section 47 of the VAPP Act stipulates that this legislation applies only in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. NorthNormal and other organisations have been campaigning for all 36 state legislative assemblies to domesticate this act. 

Backlash against advocates 

One year after sparking the #ArewaMeToo movement, Hashim told Global Voices that although their advocacy exposed the “rot within society,” it also took its toll. 

Hashim experienced major online harassment when her group confronted “an alleged serial abuser of minors” who works at the finance ministry as part of their online advocacy. She told Global Voices: 

We launched a campaign against him [the serial abuser], demanding that he be sacked by the minister; some people did not like that so they orchestrated an online targeted harassment campaign to delegitimise ArewaMeToo.

According to Hashim, harassers attempted to delegitimise ArewaMeToo by “associating ArewaMeToo with LGBTQ [lesbians, gay, bisexual transgender and queer people] and “their strategy worked as online harassment gained momentum,” Hashim said. 

In Nigeria, gay marriage is illegal and under Sharia and penal legal codes, sodomy and lesbianism are punishable in some states. 

By associating Haashim's movement with LGBTQ rights, online trolls distorted their message and framed #ArewaToo and NorthNormal as illegitimate. 

However, Global Voices was not able to independently verify tweets that pinned Hashim's movement to LGBTQ rights.

Still, Hashim posts messages of hope on Twitter:

Fakhriyyah Hashim, co-founder of #ArewaToo and NorthNormal (Image used with her permission).

She said all these experiences helped her grow a “really thick skin”:

In my experience of being loud on political Twitter for good governance, I’ve grown a really thick skin, but even that didn't prepare me for the amount of backlash we got through ArewaMeToo and NorthNormal. Though I mustered all of that and did not retreat to any cave, I did begin feeling demoralised about Northern Nigeria’s governanace and response to sexual violence…After every episode of attacks, we did gather more strength and energy to push back because the backlash made us see how society enforced the culture of silence and if we allowed our lips to be sealed then that would be the real tragedy. 

Sadly, Hashim and Ezekwesili still struggle with the excruciating “lack of empathy” that characterises discourse about gender-based violence on- and offline. 

According to Hashim, this “deliberate maligning of a cause that only seeks better for victims of sexual violence” is incredibly difficult to grasp. 

This article is part of the project, “the identity matrix: platform regulation of online threats to expression in Africa”. These posts interrogate identity-driven online hate speech or discrimination based on language or geographic origin, misinformation and harassment (particularly against female activists and journalists) prevalent in the digital spaces of seven African countries: Algeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, Tunisia and Uganda. The project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

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