The kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria on 14 April by the Islamist group Boko Haram has provoked worldwide condemnation and sympathy. Protests erupted around Nigeria and outside the country’s embassies overseas. The US, UK, France, China and Israel have all offered practical support. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted over a million times, even by Michelle Obama.
It’s easy to send a protest tweet in the west but in Nigeria the stakes are higher. A critical comment can lead to days of government questioning. On 5 May, two women leading protests in Abuja against the kidnap, Saratu Angus Ndirpaya and Naomi Mutah Nyadar, were arrested and accused of fabricating the abductions to discredit the government. Both have now been released.
It took over three weeks for the presidency to acknowledge the disappearance of the girls. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration aggressively guards information on its “war on terror” by cracking down on citizen journalism and online activism. With a general election scheduled for February 2015, Jonathan is intolerant of any criticism of his government’s record on security and corruption.
“The current government is desperate to stay in power,” Japheth Omojuwa, a veteran activist and member of the Occupy Nigeria movement, told me. “Any voice, any individual, that looks like it’s not in support of them will be blackmailed, will be arrested. They will do anything they can to shut down these voices.”
Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram dates back over a decade but has intensified in the past two years. In March, Amnesty International estimated that 1,500 people had been killed this year alone. Nigerian newspapers report that at least another 500 have died since.
Official government reports claim the army has incurred few losses in its campaign against the Islamists. Amendments last year to a 2011 law have made it a criminal offence to incite terrorist violence online, and the security services have used the act to intimidate journalists and bloggers who publish alternative accounts of the military’s campaign. Independent journalists say they are being threatened with libel actions to prevent publication of stories damaging to the government.
On 30 March, Isiyaka Yusuf Onimisi, an engineer at an electricity substation on the edge of Abuja’s high-security Aso Rock compound, which contains the presidential villa and the federal Supreme Court, heard gunfire outside his window. Aso Rock is also where the State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria’s domestic intelligence agency, interrogates suspects. In the 1990s, enemies of the military dictatorship disappeared into the SSS headquarters – known locally as Yellow House – and never came out. Today, it is central to the government’s battle against Boko Haram.
That morning, a suspected militant overpowered his guard and freed his comrades; they then staged a jailbreak from Yellow House. The resulting gunfight lasted over four hours. The media were kept away but Onimisi was, as he tweeted, “in the middle of the show”. As the government tried to play down the incident, his tweets were being read avidly around Nigeria.
Three hours in to the gun battle, he stopped tweeting. When family members tried to call him, they found that his mobile phone was switched off. A source close to the family told me that when Onimisi’s brother rang his office, colleagues told him he had been taken away “on orders from above” by men who identified themselves as members of the Directorate of Military Intelligence.
When ten days later Onimisi still had not resurfaced, his Twitter followers raised the alarm. Activists, including Omojuwa and others from Occupy Nigeria, began demanding his release. Protests were organised in the cities of Ibadan, Ekiti, Benin, Lagos, Kaduna and Kano.
On 11 April Onimisi was quietly released. He returned to Twitter, briefly, on 17 and 18 April. He did not respond to my request for an interview, but thanked his supporters. “My freedom matters,” he tweeted, “whatever happen in there end in there.” (Meaning “whatever happened in there, stays in there”.) Then his account was closed.
Even now, with the eyes of the world on the Nigerian government, its main concern is to silence critical voices. Social media might not bring back the victims of Boko Haram’s crimes, but the continued courage of critics inside the country could help force a complacent government to confront its own weakness.