Former World Bank vice president Obiageli Ezekwesili, and a former Nigerian cabinet member, is one of the leaders of the #BringBackOurGirls movement. Photo: Getty
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Why is there such a culture of misinformation surrounding the case of Nigeria’s kidnapped girls?

The tragedy of the two hundred girls kidnapped in Nigeria won’t be as high-profile a story as individual western kidnap victims – and the Nigerian authorities aren’t helping.

Two hundred or more girls have been kidnapped in Nigeria. In most countries, even where the government demonstrates contempt for the electorate, the authorities would be going into overdrive, making all the right noises, mobilising every conceivable resource – leaving no stone unturned might be the mantra. It’s the type of tragedy that, handled well, might even secure another term in power.

The Nigerian government appears, in contrast, unmotivated by such petty concerns as appeasing the electorate. There is national fury at the ineptitude of the authorities’ response to the recent kidnapping. Despite an increase in the budget for such purposes, there remains an absence of any coherent strategy to tackle security in the country. In the face of Boko Haram’s escalating five-year extremist uprising, this is extremely worrying for Nigerian citizens.

A culture of misinformation surrounds the case. Nigerian commentators are appalled that nobody even seems able to agree on the number of girls that are missing, with figures from between 100-234 flying around. It is hard to get a sense of the facts.

The day after the abduction, the military claimed to have rescued the majority of the girls. It later transpired that they had done no such thing, but that 40 girls had – without any support from the authorities – managed to escape. Rumours are now starting to emerge that the girls may have been smuggled into Cameroon and sold for less than £10 each into forced marriages with militants.

Even in the west, we know that black lives are not valued, and black female lives even less so. We saw this in the stark contrast between media coverage of the racist murders of Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin last year. The subsequent outrage at this, where it existed, seemed to be concentrated among black women, and to take place online, outside the traditional halls of power.

Similarly the reaction to the Nigerian tragedy is happening largely on Twitter, and seems to be concentrated among Nigerians, other Africans, and members of the African diaspora. Nigerians are demanding that the government, and the world, take the issue seriously.

The trending hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, is advocating for government action and an international response now. While many of the tweets focus specifically on this case, others are taking it as a metaphor for the wider state of play. The case is symptomatic of what is happening in the country generally, and demonstrates the apathy that Nigerian leaders have towards ordinary Nigerian people.

Yesterday, approximately a thousand protesters marched to present a letter to the National Assembly in the nation’s capital Abuja. A speaker from the House of Representatives appeared, in the rain – a significant gesture in a country whose leaders are famed for their dismissive attitude to the hoi polloi – to address those gathered. However, while this may be “polite”, it remains inadequate in the absence of any meaningful action.

While the UK and global news media are waking up to the story now, the response has been slow, and relatively insignificant in comparison to what we might have expected had these events unfolded elsewhere.

The lack of interest shown by Nigerian politicians might be read in the same way that the limited coverage in the western media, and the absence of an international response, can be understood. The intersection between race, gender, and class has created a perfect storm of inaction. The Nigerian elite exhibits a similar attitude to the poor as that shown by the west towards black and brown lives.

While for a privileged few, involvement in the Nigerian state comes with all the trappings of power, for most, Nigeria remains an illusory façade of a nation, failing to provide any of the structural mechanisms, safety, or support networks, which the citizens of a functioning state might expect to enjoy.

The victims here are not rich, western or white, they are not from Kent, or even Korea, but from Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria. We have become almost immune to stories of death and violence from such parts of the world. Despite the horror that so many are missing, the fact that there are over two hundred almost desensitises us further to what is happening.

These girls are nameless, faceless victims. Their tragedy will not be humanised in the way that the high-profile stories of individual, western, kidnap victims are. Paul Gilroy advances the term “infrahuman”, to describe those bodies marked by race, whose alterity condemns them to worthlessness.

The lives of a nameless mass of infrahumans are not worth that of one European individual. The barbarity of the temperate zones in which the infrahuman resides, condemn them to short, brutal, lives. Such media representation of the infrahuman allows us to ignore the histories of the former colonies, and the role of Europe in the production of overseas theatres of violence.

Thus reconfigured, the structural problems that plague the British invention that is Nigeria are claimed to be the natural order of things, testimony of the barbarity and ineptitude of its people. But Nigerians have had enough. Perhaps this will be a tipping point, sparking real change in the country.

Nigeria has so much potential, if only this could be harnessed, and allowed to develop. I remain suspicious of outside, particularly western, intervention, in Africa. To succeed, Nigerian transformation must be indigenous, and start at grassroots level. If nothing else, the response of ordinary Nigerians to these painful events shows us the capacity that exists within the country for the masses to mobilise, and, crucially, make their voices heard.

Sign the petition asking the world not to forget the kidnapped girls here. Emma Dabiri tweets as @TheDiasporaDiva

kerim44 at Wikimedia Commons
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Xenophobic graffiti at a London Polish centre is a dark sign of post-Brexit Britain

The centre's chairwoman says an incident of this kind has never happened before, and police are treating it as a hate crime. 

Early on Sunday morning, staff arriving at the Polish Social and Cultural (POSK) centre in west London's leafy Ravenscourt Park were met with a nasty shock: a xenophobic obscenity smeared across the front of the building in bright yellow paint. 

“It was a standard, unpleasant way of saying ‘go away’ – I'll leave that to your interpretation,” Joanna Mludzinska, chairwoman of the centre, says the next morning as news crews buzz around the centre’s foyer. The message was cleaned off as soon as the staff took photo evidence – “we didn’t want people to walk down and be confronted by it” – but the sting of an unprecedented attack on the centre hasn’t abated.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Mludzinska tells me, shaking her head. “Never.”

The news comes as part of a wash of social media posts and police reports of xenophobic and racist attacks since Friday’s referendum result. It’s of course difficult to pin down the motivation for specific acts, but many of these reports feature Brits telling others to “leave” or “get out” – which strongly implies that they are linked to the public's decision on Friday to leave the European Union. 

Hammersmith and Fulham, the voting area where the centre is based, voted by a 40-point margin to remain in the UK, which meant the attack was particularly unexpected. “The police are treating this as a one-off, which we hope it is,” Mludzinska tells me. They are currently investigating the incident as a hate crime. 

“But we have anecdotal evidence of more personal things happening outside London. They’ve received messages calling them vermin, scum [in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire]. It’s very frightening.” As one local Polish woman told the Mirror, there are fears that the referendum has “let an evil genie out of a bottle”. 

For those unsure whether they will even be able to stay in Britain post-referendum, the attacks are particularly distressing, as they imply that the decision to leave was, in part, motivated by hatred of non-British citizens. 

Ironically, it is looking more and more likely that we might preserve free movement within the EU even if we leave it; Brexit campaigners including Boris Johnson are now claiming immigration and anti-European feeling were not a central part of the campaign. For those perpetrating the attacks, though, it's obvious that they were: “Clearly, these kind of people think all the foreigners should go tomorrow, end of,” Mludzinska says.

She believes politicians must make clear quickly that Europeans and other groups are welcome in the UK: “We need reassurance to the EU communities that they’re not going to be thrown out and they are welcome. That’s certainly my message to the Polish community – don’t feel that all English people are against you, it’s not the case.” 

When I note that the attack must have been very depressing, Mludzinska corrects me, gesturing at the vases of flowers dotted around the foyer: “It’s depressing, but also heartening. We’ve received lots and lots of messages and flowers from English people who are not afraid to say I’m sorry, I apologise that people are saying things like that. It’s a very British, very wonderful thing.”

Beyond Hammersmith

Labour MP Jess Phillips has submitted a parliamentary question on how many racist and xenophobic attacks took place this weekend, compared to the weekends preceding the result. Until this is answered, though, we only have anecdotal evidence of the rise of hate crime over the past few days. From social media and police reports, it seems clear that the abuse has been directed at Europeans and other minorities alike. 

Twitter users are sending out reports of incidents like those listed below under the hashtag #PostBrexitRacism:

Facebook users have also collated reports in an album titled Worrying Signs:

Police are currently investigating mutiple hate crime reports. If you see or experience anything like this yourself, you should report it to police (including the British Transport Police, who have a direct text number to report abuse, 61016) or the charity Stop Hate UK.

HOPE not hate, an advocacy group that campaigns against racism in elections, has released a statement on the upsurge of hatred” post-referendum, calling on the government to give reassurance to these communities and on police to bring the full force of the law” to bear against perpetrators.

The group notes that the referendum, cannot be a green light for racism and xenophobic attacks. Such an outpouring of hate is both despicable and wrong.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.