OOTC: To Change Our Country, We Have 15 Lessons To Learn from BBOG (I), By Chude Jideonwo
BBOG is the ultimate demonstration of the capacity of a people bound together by a common vision, a definite mission, and a determined capacity.
You know the tragedy already. The world does. And it’s one we are yet to recover from: 276 Chibok girls kidnapped from their schools under the watch of a functioning Nigerian government, and just under 200 of them yet to be recovered as we speak.
Now, this is the point at which many of us will re-live our shock on how 1036 days after, in a state that is not failed, we still have these girls missing.
Then we remind ourselves that the Chibok girls are not the only victims of this state of affairs. Hundreds of boys and girls, men and women, have been kidnapped by the terrorists of Boko Haram since its 2009 resurgence; many of who remain un-named, untracked, and un-accounted for.
But the Chibok girls are at the top of our minds. We have been unable to forget them, and because of them we are unable to, as usual, dismiss the uncomfortable fact that fellow Nigerians are living in a war zone in which lives have been disrupted, families have been dislocated, and futures have been dislodged.
The singular reason for this is the #BringBackOurGirls (BBOG) group.
Because of BBOG, we have been unable to forget the Chibok girls. We have been unable to move on from that point in our national conversation. We have been unable to get to a place of comfortable ignorance.
This has happened because BBOG proved to be a completely different kind of group, wholly unlike anything Nigeria had ever seen before, or even after it. And because, ultimately, BBOG has been that most rare of Nigerian occurrences – an effective advocacy.
It has been effective in focusing global spotlight on the missing girls. It has been effective in wooing and winning public and media support. It has been effective in commanding and sustaining stakeholder attention, especially that of the government.
And most importantly, it has been successful in actually bringing back our girls.
In a society lacking in and disdainful of institutional memory, I am aware of the heartening amount of scholarly research undertaken, at least in the last one year, on the phenomenon that BBOG has become. Generations of change makers interested in understanding the context, culture and imperatives of affecting outcomes in this particular civic space will do well to pay close, and grateful, attention when that body of work hits the body politic.
In the space between now and then however, it is useful to establish a framework within which to understand the success of BBOG as a movement, and its imperative as a model.
I will outline them as the 15 disciplines of the #BringBackOurGirls movement.
The Discipline of Standards
There has been a clear marker from the beginning of the movement, from the first protests in Abuja, as Obiageli Ezekwesili, Hadiza Bala Usman, Bukola Shonibare and others stepped on the streets to demand an institutional response to the matter of the missing girls – they demanded that all the girls be rescued, alive.
It looked like only a slogan then. Not so much today.
That demand made clear a marker on the sanctity of human life, and that nothing lower than the restoration of the girls the way their parents deserve to find them, would be accepted. That standard has neither been discarded nor lowered since the first demand, no matter how hard it appeared the request was, no matter how wide the Sambisa Forest is, no matter how much time had passed since the girls were taken. The sanctity of human lives. Now and alive.
The Discipline of Focus
It is a miracle, to be clear, that the BBOG movement is still standing today. That its unpaid members and leaders are still standing tall and strong, and that they continue to maintain global credibility. Because typically, no movement in Nigeria, save for a military coup or an election, has lasted this long.
But the miracle is heightened by the fact of all that have been thrown at the campaigners. They have been attacked by those who detest the moral pulpit of Ezekwesili and cohorts because it speaks to their own lack of action; they have been attacked by those who interpreted the movement as an political gang-up against Goodluck Jonathan; they have been attacked by those who view every civil action in Nigeria as hypocrisy; by those who are waiting for Jesus himself, complete with celestial perfection, to lead any popular movement; those who are irritated that the movement did not pack up when Jonathan was sent packing; and now those who feel it must treat Muhammadu Buhari differently from his predecessor.
But one of the more resonant criticisms has always been this question: why the singular focus on the Chibok girls?
Many Nigerians have been kidnapped; why the disproportionate attention on the Chibok girls?
In response, BBOG has, from the get go, ignored the noise. It came into being because the kidnap of the Chibok girls was one kidnap taken too far, and it has stuck with that purpose.
The understanding comes, no doubt, from the fact that no one person or group can change the world, and these ones had chosen their corner. To be effective, they must stick with that corner.
Of course, there has always been an immediate, and rational response to this criticism: That the girls from Chibok clearly stand as a signpost for all the named, nameless and faceless who have been abandoned by the Nigerian state; a indicator of the limits beyond which we cannot allow ourselves to go as a people.
But, remarkably, BBOG desisted from making this point for itself. Because it is unnecessary.
What was (and is) necessary is its mission, from which it would not waste time on debates and arguments, and on dissipating energy.
The focus has been iconic.
The Discipline of Clarity
When trivial people ask the campaigners to go over to Chibok themselves and rescue the girls, the response has been a beauty of precision: we are an advocacy group, not a military organisation.
That sense of clarity has always been the most effective thing about BBOG. They have an unnerving clarity about who they are, what they stand for, what they want, the viability of their demands, and the solutions they seek.
This is what BBOG is: An advocacy organisation focused on ensuring the freedom, alive, of the missing Chibok girls; doing this by confirming the identities of each of the girls, tracing the timeline and chain of reactions involved, making clear actions, responses, and markers of success.
There is no ambiguity in anybody’s minds about any of these.
The Discipline of Empiricity
Nigeria has never been a nation of precision. Our government doesn’t have proper records for its citizens; data is antiquated in many spaces or limited to for-profit desks.
Our media have, in turn, reflected this distinguished chaos. How many times have three news stories about the same tragedy, sometimes from the same paper, had three different number tallies for its victims?
Into that chaos came the matter of Nigeria’s missing girls. The first service BBOG did us was to insist on precision in numbers, and then aid the eventual calculation: 276 girls were missing.
That desire for empirical evidence has defined the campaign.
The movement has delicately tracked the changing numbers as girls have been found, holding government accountable when it has claimed that girls from other parts of Nigeria were from Chibok, coordinating with the community on direct verification with the community. And it is from BBOG that we have a running tally of how many girls remain to be rescued: 196 as at today.
In making demands on the military, they have demonstrated a facility for strategy, terminology and pattern. And they have drawn from that the authority to be listened to because they come armed with the knowledge that effective engagement requires.
When people have claimed the girls were kidnapped by A, married off to B, and flown away to C, BBOG has refused to be distracted.
Where there is no evidence to the contrary, they have stuck with the last know locations of the missing girls. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo declared that the girls would never be found, and they ignored him. As if he didn’t matter.
Because he didn’t (and doesn’t) matter. All that matters are the facts.
This has earned respect, avoided distraction, and enabled efficacy.
The Discipline To Be Unreasonable
The one plea that those comfortable with the status quo often demand from activist movements is to be reasonable, by which they often mean to move at a pace dictated not by the urgency of action but by the comfort of the negotiator. The one error these movements can make is to fall for the blackmail.
BBOG knows where the banana peels lie.
Like Jonathan, the Buhari government has treated the protesters as high-impact irritants.
Jonathan did this from a place of incompetence, Buhari does it from a place of entitlement: this government believes that, unlike its predecessor, it has (initially) treated the campaigners with deference. And for that ‘goodness’, it expects breathing space. It also believes that, since it didn’t lose the girls, it bears no direct responsibility. It sees itself only as a friendly partner trying to clean up another’s mess.
It cannot understand why the protesters will not afford it an extended runway of goodwill. And its supporters, many of who actually agreed erroneously with the Jonathan government that BBOG was a tool of the APC, also cannot come to terms with it.
In response? BBOG has turned up the heat.
The reason is simple to those who pay attention: the target of its campaign has always been the responsible party who can find and return the girls. And that party is the Nigerian government.
Once Buhari came into power (and especially since rescuing the girls was a focal point of his campaign messaging), he automatically took responsibility for the asset and liabilities of the government he is now in charge of. And in that case, as government is a continuum, it is now the machine that lost the girls two years ago.
That might be literally unreasonable, but in terms of the philosophy of democratic governments, it is entirely judicious.
The Buhari government, like all governments, serves at the pleasure of its citizens. The citizens owe it no special concessions. It just needs to do its job.
In refusing to give this government and the one before it (and hopefully none after it, since we pray the girls are soon found) any breathing space, BBOG has shown remarkable discipline.
Nigeria’s peculiar breed of irresponsible governance demands no less. We have learnt with the #OccupyNigeria and other popular citizens action that once you relax the pressure, governments revert to type – passivity and mediocrity.
No Nigerian government deserves patience. Especially not this one that campaigned on a promise of urgency.
BBOG has made that irreducible minimum – results or nothing – abundantly clear.
The Discipline of Organisation
It looks like a rag tag team of young and old gathered together under a tree every week in Abuja to organise for their demands. But do not be deceived.
Without the benefit of an office, of funding, in fact of anything but a determined group, BBOG is one of the most developed change organisations Nigeria has seen in its history.
The biggest miracle is in maximising a small base to achieve maximum global impact.
Ezekwesili has constantly spoken at recorded public events on the need for advocacy institutions to move from ‘noise’ to ‘voice’; being able to organise frustration and agitation in a way that earns respect and achieves targeted outcomes. With BBOG, she has walked that talk, role-modeling behaviours through her co-leadership that others can only learn from.
At the start of the protests, she whipped dramatists like now-Senator Dino Melaye into line when he tried to corner the movement; they disavowed and excluded those who either attempted violence or even considered violence as a viable tool and when the writer, Elnathan John complained publicly about the regimented structure of the movement (a strict set of demands, orderliness in front of the villa, programming of speakers and representatives), the response was simply that movements cannot be allowed to derail via the wanton, reactive passions of its frontliners.
In response to government letters, it has issued its own with detail and restraint. In response to government pronouncements, it has issued its own releases. In reaction to propaganda, it has armed sympathisers with its version of events. And it has managed to coordinate several stakeholders – media, community, partners, international institutions and Malala – with deft strategy.
In this century, an organisation doesn’t need an office, or titles.
If that has been the defining philosophy of scholars of modern organisations, then BBOG is the ultimate demonstration of the capacity of a people bound together by a common vision, a definite mission, and a determined capacity.
Chude Jideonwo is co-founder and managing partner of RED.
Office of the Citizen (OOTC) is a syndicated essay series. Part 2 of this piece will be published on Wednesday.