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In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 female students gathered in Chibok to sit for high school examinations. The international community responded with outcry and condemnation. At the time of the abduction, female empowerment and education in the developing world was widely discussed in the United States. The story and efforts of a young charistmatic Pakistani activist, Malala Yousafzai, drove interest in the topic, and Chibok fed into those concerns. First Lady Michelle Obama joined many celebrities in an international “bring back our girls” campaign. In Nigeria, the Jonathan administration, at first, did not take action. The Nigerian first lady characterized the kidnapping as a hoax. But Nigerian civil society, led by former education minister Oby Ezekwesili, among others, successfully pressured the Jonathan administration to take action, though to little avail.
In the five years since, some girls have escaped and some have been rescued by the Nigerian security services. But 112 remain in captivity. The kidnapping has largely disappeared from the western public’s attention. The five-year anniversary in April was marked by no celebrity tweets. Meanwhile, Boko Haram seems to be gaining strength in northwest Nigeria.
How to account for the fading of international interest in Chibok? Part of it is compassion fatigue. Even though the girls were mostly Christian, the western churches are now largely silent, unlike their activism during the “lost boys of Sudan” episode in the late 1980s and 1990s, when celebrities kept their attention focused. By contrast, celebrity interest in Chibok has waned. It has not helped that the re-integration of rescued Chibok school girls has proved to be difficult and expensive. Further, the Nigerian government downplays Boko Haram and more or less continually claims that its destruction is at hand—assertions too often uncritically accepted outside Nigeria. Meanwhile, Boko Haram morphs into factions, some of which have links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State, and remains deadly. Nobody really knows how many have died in the fight between the Nigerian state and Boko Haram, though there are credible estimates of more than thirty thousand. And the killing continues.