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The emergence of ‘hashtag advocacy’ in Africa’s AOR

20 May 2014 | Catherine Kihara Marine Corps Base Quantico

The reaction to the terrorist group Boko Haram’s kidnapping of approximately 270 girls from a school in northern Nigeria on April 15 has seemingly transformed from another harrowing episode of terror to an international outrage fueled by direct global grassroots appeals to release the girls. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign can be safely characterized as the first social media mandate for international intervention in Africa. 

What we see beneath the #BringBackOurGirls headlines is the new face of Africa in the digital age. It is evident that the widespread use of information technology and social media exerted pressure on the Nigerian government and the international community to act. The continent has embraced technology — even in rural areas, where there is limited access to electricity. In Africa’s remote environments, more and more people are connecting to the internet via mobile phones. In fact, many established news outlets across the continent are competing with social media — particularly Twitter, which also is accessed via an SMS platform. In September 2013, the world got seemingly continuous updates on the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in Nairobi, not via CNN, but through Twitter forcing the Kenyan government scramble to control the message through the four-day operation. 

The typical African story is full of gloom and doom, from hungry children in war-ravaged nations to the plight of those living with HIV/AIDS. IT and social media are quickly changing that narrative. Although the Nigeria kidnapping and the Westgate Mall attack involved the typical African elements of victimized children, explosive violence and terror, the stories were notable to the rest of the world because of their new context—girls going to school, shoppers at an upscale mall in a stony Nairobi neighborhood. Africa is now closer, online shopping on Amazon from Abuja is now a reality and members of Africa’s diaspora in the west connect daily with their families on the continent via Skype. According to a 2013 Africa Telecom market report, 8 of every 10 Africans are now connected via a 2G (or better) voice and SMS service. Although the use of smart phones is limited to Africa’s upper middle class, rural communities can still access the web via modified message exchange platforms, allowing them to post tweets and use certain apps with ease. The use of the mobile phone has introduced a cultural shift and has changed how farming is done, how business is conducted, how HIV drugs are administered and how elections are run. In Mali’s 2013 election, the populace was encouraged to use SMS to report voting irregularities. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the radio was the most popular technology for news and entertainment. Because of its wide broadcast reach, the radio was also used to topple governments in several countries — and to mobilize Hutu militias in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Today, the mobile phone is the most effective communications device, transforming text messaging into effective “narrowcasts” for targeted public service announcements, especially during looming crises — natural or man-made. 

Yet the new medium isn’t always the constructive message: mobile phones are also in wide use by transnational terrorist organizations, criminal groups and militias who use it to plan and coordinate attacks. However, #BringBackOurGirls is a great example of how one community has utilized technology to effect positive change in an ethno-culturally variegated country like Nigeria. Boko Haram has been attacking communities and kidnapping women and girls in northern Nigeria since 2009 but the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls might just change that. News reports indicate that the Nigerian government was slow in responding to the incident, and that President Goodluck Jonathan took 19 days to make his first public statement on the kidnapping. There’s a Yoruba proverb that says that The bell rings loudest in your own home. It will be interesting to see how African governments respond to this new form of advocacy, one that may at times expose their vulnerabilities. #BringBackOurGirls has highlighted to the rest of the world, how Boko Haram operates and in the process, changed our perceptions of Africa.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Center for Operational Culture Learning or the United States Marine Corps. This piece was created at the CAOCL. The center is located on Marine Corps Base Quantico and provides regional, culture and language training programs for Marines of all ranks. For more information about CAOCL please visit

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