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Experts say there are few options available to #bringbackourgirls

Malala Yousafzai met with Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan today but it probably won't change much.

AP Photo
Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, left, poses for a photograph with Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, right, at the Presidential villa, in Abuja, Nigeria, Monday, July 14, 2014.

Three months after the kidnapping of over 200 school girls by Boko Haram, Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai met today with Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan and urged him to remain committed to their freedom. She said President Jonathan had agreed to meet with the parents of the kidnapped girls for the first time since the crisis began.

Ms. Yousafzai survived being shot in the head in 2012 by the Taliban in Pakistan. Like the kidnapped Nigerian girls, she was targeted for being female and daring to seek an education. Today she met with the parents of the kidnapped girls, vowing to "speak up for them until they're released."

She also announced her charity would provide $200,000 to local education organizations as well as a new hashtag, #strongerthan (following the popular #bringbackourgirls), telling ABC News, “We want to say that we are ‘stronger than. So I say that I am stronger than fear…I am stronger than every kind of thing that stops me from getting education.”

But hashtags and vows of determination are unlikely to do much for either the kidnapped girls or for female education in Nigeria more generally. Mr. Jonathan has been reluctant to try to recover the girls by force or to negotiate with their Boko Haram captors.

“I don’t think they [the Nigerian government] have very many options," says John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US ambassador to Nigeria. "They would resist some kind of swap for jihadist fighters, all that does is strengthen Boko Haram and all that does is encourage more kidnapping. When President Jonathan says a military operation may result in their [the girl’s] deaths, that’s altogether credible. Under these circumstances it would seem to me there is not a whole lot of room for an outsider, even one as eminent as Malala, to have much impact."

Boko Haram doesn't seem too concerned. Her visit coincided with the release of a new video from Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, who mocked the #bringbackourgirls campaign that has been backed by celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Michelle Obama. “Nigerians are saying ‘bring back our girls,’ and we are telling Jonathan to bring back our arrested warriors, our army,” he shouts, referring to a proposed swap.

Renewed attention

Still, Yousafzai’s visit has prompted renewed media attention three months since the kidnappings.

“International attention is one of the few things that can motivate the Nigerian government into some form of action,” says Darren Kew, who studies conflict and democracy in Nigeria at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Kew says that the Nigerian government will be “reticent to negotiate” with Boko Haram, but another possibility is to try and engage members of the wider movement who “could help to isolate the hardliners.”

“I think it’s possible. It might be a starting place,” he says. He worries, however, that after three months, some of the girls have most likely been married off to fighters or sold to other groups. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to get all of the girls back."

Hashtag impact?

Neither Campbell nor Kew dismiss hashtag activism entirely.

“I think it’s pushing the Nigerian government to take more action,” Campbell says. “What (that) can accomplish isn’t clear.”

Kew notes that the Nigerian government had been largely inactive until international pressure followed weeks after the kidnappings. And Mr. Shekau’s mention of the campaign in his new video shows its reach.

“If he’s [Shekau] making fun of it, that’s a sign of its success to some degree,” Kew says.

More importantly, Kew argues the #bringbackourgirls campaign has energized civil society in Nigeria to demand action. With a presidential election scheduled for February, the kidnappings could play a part in politics.

“For the first time in 20 years Nigeria has a viable political opposition,” he says. “The February election is going to be particularly volatile, both sides are going to be playing rough.”

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