#InnovationSeries: Social media can be a tool for self-censored advocacy

by Edwin Okolo

This feature is a part of the YNaija Innovation Special – a set of insightful stories that dig deep into the spirit of innovation, enterprise, and creativity oft-talked about but seldom told as stories in Nigerian media.

The series which kicked off with the release of The New Establishment list, our annual 50-strong list of the new school of leaders, innovators, creative and entrepreneurs, will run throughout January.

Many people do not know her name but there is scarce a Nigerian who actively uses social media who will not recognize Bukky Shonibare, her face a blank mask behind her glasses as she holds up a square of cardboard, each one denoting the number of days that have passed since the Chibok girls were abducted. The Chibok girls were students who were writing their school leaving exams in terrorist pillaged Borno state when their school was attacked and razed to the ground and the girls abducted. What followed was one of the darkest stains on the Goodluck Jonathan presidency. There was first a complete refusal to acknowledge the girls had been abducted, then outright denial which spurred wide spread protests across the country, protests that spread globally.

As the protests spread, international pressure began to build for the government to admit it had lied when it suggested the abduction was a hoax and rescue efforts to begin. It took the first lady of the United States of America lending her voice to the cause before the government conceded and the menace was tackled head on. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the #BringBackOurGirls movement was the tipping point in the battle against Boko Haram. But that story cannot be told without Adebukola Comfort Shonibare and how she turned social media into the most effective tool for advocacy.

The first time social media was used on a grand scale as a tool for advocacy was during 2012’s Occupy Nigeria movement. Spurred by a sudden policy change on January 1st 2012 that removed subsidies on fuel and triggered a freak inflation, word quickly spread via twitter and Facebook condemning the policy and calling for protests. A handful of independent political pundits took up the cause and by the end of the day thousands of people across the platforms had been rallied into a protest group called Occupy Nigeria. By the third of January, documented on the platforms, organized protests began offline across the country, documented extensively on social media. The Occupy Nigeria movement, beginning in the fashion of other digital media driven revolutions like the Arab Spring, only lasted 13 days before it was disbanded. But it had proven two things; social media wasn’t just for ‘fun’, it could connect millions of people across the world in seconds and relay information faster than conventional media without bias and propaganda. Social media could also an activist in the right place at the right time from relatively obscure to policy maker.

In the intervening years, many of the original activists who began the Occupy Nigeria movement have gone on to leverage their digital presences into cushy government jobs. Many others have taken their places, finding their own controversies to springboard into relevance and then influence, waiting for their own moment to jump from critic of the government to employee on its payroll. This is why Bukky Shonibare’s use of digital media to advocate for the abducted Chibok girls is so important.

Shonibare wasn’t at the forefront of the Bring Back Our Girls movement, though a seasoned activist. In fact while she helped organize and joined protests, she didn’t make the cause personal until November 2014, eight months after the girls were abducted. This was after the initial furore around rescuing the girls had died down and even the most vocal activists were beginning to despair that the girls would never be found. It is normal for people to lose hope, drift to other more current tragedies when an old one is not resolved quickly. Her approach was simple, with a placard and a piece of cardboard Shonibare wrote the details of the Chibok girls abduction and the number of days that had passed since they were abducted and shared it on her many social media platforms. And she did so the next day and the day after, documenting each incremental increase as simply as possible, letting the facts speak for themselves. It took a while before her persistence began to truly niggle the consciences of Nigerians but eventually her advocacy worked. A number of the girls have escaped and others have been rescued, but Shonibare continues, holding a torch for the girls still in captivity, until every single girl comes home.

What is most striking about how Shonibare has chosen to advocate through social media is that her advocacy is first and foremost self-censoring. She simplified her quest, stripping it of rhetoric and personal agendas, presenting only the facts as they are at the time. Her placards are a question posed as much to herself as it is to us. She asks herself not to forget the humanity of the girls, to not theorize the circumstances of their abduction and the horror in which they must live every day. She accuses no one, not the government, not other protesters who eventually moved on, Nigerians on and off social media who have become distracted by their own lives. She keeps the people that matter in focus. And it worked, it works.

Nigerians have begun to look at political pundits and humanitarian advocates proselytizing on social media with a mixture of disdain and distrust. Some will argue will end. But social media can still be a tool for self-censored advocacy and real change. Take a cue from Bukky Shonibare.

See other stories from the #InnovationSeries below:

– New Establishment: Mr. Eazi, Ire Aderinokun, Arese Ugwu, and more… Meet the class of 2017

– #InnovationSeries: Nigeria and the year of the Buzzfeed clones

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