How Bring Back Our Girls went from hashtag to social movement, while rejecting funding from donors

Ayo Ojebode, of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, introduces his new research on a fascinating social movement, part of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability research programme

In a world where movements appear and fizzle out just as they are getting started, Nigeria’s Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) movement is an exception. Meant to be a one-day march in 2014, it has now entered its fourth year and is waxing strong. What’s more, it has done so partly by rejecting funding from foreign aid organizations and supporters. Why?

The BBOG movement erupted in April 2014 following the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls from Chibok Secondary School, Northeast Nigeria, by the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency group. The group organized a public protest on 30 April in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. It was meant to be a one off, but then something happened.

A man from Chibok, an abductee’s relative, knelt and begged the crowd: “don’t leave us; if you do they (the government) will forget us”. On the spur of the moment, former minister Oby Ezekwesili announced: we will stand with you until your kids come back! Since then, the BBOG has met every day at the Unity Fountain in Abuja. It has also staged some 200 protests within and outside Nigeria.

Not a flash in the pan

There were many reasons to expect the BBOG movement to live up to its initial aim and be short-lived. One is that it was taking place in a fragile and conflict-affected setting, where the pressures of daily survival make social causes a lower priority for many people. Government helplessness, especially in the face of insurgency, makes membership of pressure groups frustrating.

Another reason to expect the BBOG movement to be a flash in the pan is that its focus was not a recurrent issue but a one-off one: pressure the government to rescue the abducted schoolgirls and bring them back alive and safe. That it was women-led is also not a particularly helpful factor.: in patriarchal and male-dominated societies, women-led movements and protests, if they happen, tend to be shortlived.

Yet the movement trudges along.

Elastic circle of concern

Although the stated aim of the BBOG movement is to pressure the government to confront Boko Haram and bring the abducted Chibok girls back home safely, it keeps redefining and extending what this really means.

When some women were abducted in Bassa, the BBOG printed their photos on large placards and staged a protest – “bring back our girls and the women”. When lecturers of a university were abducted while on fieldwork, the BBOG staged a protest: “bring back our girls and the UNIMAID lecturers”. When Boko Haram allegedly killed a large number of soldiers, BBOG staged a march, “bring back our girls and don’t bury our soldiers secretly in mass graves”. The list goes on. The Movement then extended its concern to include demand for good governance – shorthand for everything from the provision of safety and security of citizens, to better healthcare, better infrastructure and a better economy.

In Nigeria and indeed in most fragile and conflict-affected settings, most of those who join protests are those who have personal stakes: an abductee’s relative, owner of a threatened roadside business, residents of a neighbourhood marked for demolition etc.

By constantly redefining the circumference of their focus, BBOG increases the number of those who have personal stakes and, therefore, willingly join marches or protests. Yet, by keeping the Chibok girl’s abduction at the centre of their discourse but then weaving other contiguous issues around it and extending it to good governance, BBOG demonstrates a single-mindedness and doggedness that endear them to both local and foreign supporters.

The BBOG operates a surprising funding policy: they have so far refused funding support from both foreign and local donors. The leadership argued that once there was money, there would be a struggle for it among them, and their focus would be shifted from pressurising government to sharing money. They also feared that once people (especially politicians) gave them money, they could be seen as being partisan. (There were allegations at the start that they were being used by the opposition to harass the government.)

Relying heavily on donations from members and in-kind support, the Movement does not even have a bank account. They do, however, solicit international news makers (such as Ms Michelle Obama) to openly identify with their cause.

A lot is being said about the shrinking civic space in conflict-affected and authoritarian settings. However, a closer attention to the strategies of civic actors may reveal two things: one, that the civic space is not really shrinking but changing, and two, the creative ways in which civic actors are responding to these changes – the creativity that explains their resilience.

This post is based on research by Ayo Ojebode (University of Ibadan, Nigeria), Dr Fatai Aremu, Dr Plangsat Dayil; Dr Martin Atela & Prof Tade Aina, commissioned by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR)

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23 Responses to “How Bring Back Our Girls went from hashtag to social movement, while rejecting funding from donors”
  1. Ken Smith

    “Relying heavily on donations from members and in-kind support, the Movement does not even have a bank account” , really intrigued by that sentence. Do you mean donations of money from members and if so where does it go ? into the bank accounts of other members ? into a a big pot ? I don’t see how you can have transparency without financial transparency and can’t have that without a bank account.

    • Kolapo ABAYOMI

      BBOG Movement in Nigeria is actually a new face of civil engagement. It structured itself differently from a conventional civil movement. Its resource mobilisation strategy is based on ‘On the spot needs’. It’s members usually donate in kind (free media patronage, satchet water, publicity materials like customized shirts, cash for fuel and etc.). This process is open and understood by its members. That may explain why there wasn’t a concern for bank account.
      I am very sure the author will have more on this to share. It’s actually a puzzle that needs to be unraveled

    • This is how it goes. First our demands are basic and we do not need much money. What is most needed is empathy and sacrifice which of course cannot be bought. Let’s take for example we are going on a march we need banners to be made, water, Tshirts etc. Members aretold these are the things needed. One member can buy a carton of water another two. Someone else would decide to buy 5 T-shirts or 20. Same with the banners and placards to be held.
      Later we scrapped T shirts because of its expense and ask people to wear Red.
      The in kind donations comes mostly from media. We have never paid a dime for our story to be published nor for the live coverages we have gotten in the course of our advocacy. We have had events at places where we were not charged.
      It’s not an expensive advocacy in terms of money.
      We do not collect or raise money and kept somewhere. We operate on a need basis. If we need something we tell member these are the things needed and we contribute to buy.
      We insisted that we would put our money where our empathy is
      It’s expansive in terms of mental and physical wellbeing, psychologically, emotionally, empathy and sacrifice one has to make daily coming Out to demand #BringBackOurGirls. The cost of being attacked not just by citizens but also by the government

    • Edith Chundung Yassin

      The biggest donations are time and dedication. How do you put that in a bank account? We have a set of core values- Hope Unity Motivation Affability Nationalism Integrity Transparency Equity Empathy Discipline Sacrifice- HUMANITEEDS this is our currency.

    • Jide Babalola

      I am a journalist in Abuja, with ‘front row seat’ to witness BBOG. They only contribute once in a v long while and you won’t believe how little it is. It tends to be for an immediate expenditure like transporting plastic chairs from a part of the city to Unity Fountain where they do sit-outs.

  2. Omeghie Okoyomoh

    Willing group members pay for any identified needs so there is no need for money to be kept aside, although I believe they place on emphasis on donations of items rather than money.

  3. Ayo Ojebode

    @John Magrath, @Ken Smith Your observation is quite valid. Our interviews and participant observation showed that the BBOG truly have minimum needs. Those who attend daily sit-outs pay their transport fare from their homes/offices to the Unity Fountain; some trek long distances. During marches, members of the Strategic Team donate money to print placards, some bring water, others announce/tweet/text/WhatsApp something like this: “If you are coming from Utako to the Fountain and you need a ride, join me in front of Mama Nkechi restaurant at 3pm and we can drive down together”. @Omeghie Okoyomoh is quite right.

    • Ayo Ojebode

      BBOG is led by a core team called Steering Committee. They meet to decide where to decide and make plans regarding the activities of the movement. I think there is no money; so there can not be a bank account. We put this question to the different members of the team in our interviews at different times and the response is similar. And then we thought: why is it difficult for us to believe that a movement can run on volunteerism? Maybe our “materialistic” background was standing in the way of comprehension and belief.

      • I don’t find this strange either, I must confess.

        And maybe that is because it is quite similar to the concept of “Harambee” that we have here in East Africa – when a child needs to go to school or something needs building people contribute what they have within their means – if they have some extra bricks lying around they bring those, and if they have some cash they bring that and the project goes ahead.

        No need for putting anything aside or even accounting, really – people give out of the fullness (or emptiness) of their hearts towards a shared cause.

        What Harambee is predicated on, however, is that those who get help this time help others next time, and so an honour system keeps things running

      • Ken Smith

        It’s not materialism it is transparency and accountability. From the comment above “It’s members usually donate in kind (free media patronage, satchet water, publicity materials like customized shirts, cash for fuel and etc.). This process is open and understood by its members” Is there an open transparent list of who has donated media patronage for example ?

        • Transparency and accountability are certainly important; that said, I wonder to whom you feel they need to be accountable to that they are not currently accountable to. It would seem to me that the members of the movement are not concerned, and nor are the communities that they serve – perhaps the researchers can throw more light on this.

          • Ayo Ojebode

            Guarding against abuse in traditional settings vary from place to place: the old Oyo empire had the Oyomesi Council meant to check the excesses of the imperial majesty, the Alaafin. In contemporary Nigerian settings, community-based associations — even without bank accounts — do monthly report (financial reports) to “the house”, that is, every community member present at the monthly meeting. I feel giving accounts/guarding against abuse could get more complicated where there are immense cash. In these settings, every coin is stretched to the breaking point in serving the interest of the collective.

  4. Busola Oluwajulugbe

    The African communal system comes into play here I believe. It is easy for the BBOG members to donate materials or support the vision with funds because they see the girls as their own. This is how the group was birthed in the beginning. People coming together to advocate the return of the girls because according to them ” your daughter is my daughter” so Bring Back Our Girls!

  5. Kolapo ABAYOMI

    @Ken Smith, media patronage is a kind of support not donation. If you can try browsing the name or hashtag, majority of the national and international media publications will be cited. Maybe a background check on your part may also reveal why and how could a local movement, BBOG Movement, enjoy such patronage without mightier networks and payments.
    What I think is that all the contributions, cash or kind, were contributions of various blocs including an individual towards the realisation of the common course, #BringBackOurGirls, with no excesses for bank or store. This is an interesting pattern that calls for background check. Like I said earlier, its activities is different from a conventional movement; this is a new face similar but unique in its formation, strategy, funding and etc as claimed by the Author @Ayo Ojebode.

    • Ken Smith

      “What I think is that all the contributions, cash or kind, were contributions of various blocs including an individual towards the realisation of the common course” – So people do contribute cash ?

  6. Kayode Adebayo

    To me,it seems there is a spiritual,not religious,angle to the decision of the BBOG movement,concerning money.Money,they say,is’the root of all evils’.The movement, probably,recognised the fact that with money,especially in large quantity, large enough to produce another ‘millionaire’,there could be a shift in the focus of its activities. In this regard,the observed effect of the influence of’too much money’in MASSOB,and IPOB,can be used as a gauge of the fact of the decision.
    The corollary is that with money, especially donated by’money-bags’the leadership of the movement will lose focus,and the first objective of the movement will be defeated.