Suspected Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is seemingly a man well informed about Western celebrities, despite being rabidly against many things Hesperian, especially their education curriculum.
He is also quite media savvy, his awful-quality videos notwithstanding. The militant leader over the weekend moved fast to pull the rug out under celebrity teenage girl rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai, who had arrived in Nigeria to lend her considerable moral weight to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
Releasing a video where he ridiculed the campaign, Shekau mockingly coined his own Bring Back Our Army slogan in reference to his fighters who are incarcerated in Nigerian jails, as he sought to take advantage of her limelight.
Malala’s visit on her 17th birthday coincided with the three month anniversary of the abduction of more than 200 girls taken from a school in the Chibok area of north-eastern Nigeria in mid April.
The Pakistani teenager represents the very things Shekau abhors: empowered women and western education. She became a celebrity in 2012 when Pakistani Taliban militants shot her in the head for campaigning for girls’ education.
The closest thing to a star teenage human rights campaigner there is, she travels the world from her Britain base, where she had life-saving treatment, sharing her experiences and urging governments to help more girls go to school. She is such an international figure that she has a day named after her by the United Nations, which falls on July 14, her birthday.
But despite Shekau’s best efforts, she reclaimed the headlines following a reported $200,000 donation from her charity towards the education of Chibok girls, Nigerian media reported Monday.
Malala over the weekend met some of the traumatised Chibok girls who escaped, affected parents and also campaigners. She, significantly, also met Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan to press for a more concerted effort towards the release of those still held. Jonathan is not known to have met any of the girls’ parents yet, or the activists battling to keep the issue on the national agenda, but he apparently agreed to meet them after their meeting, Malala told journalists.
Nigeria’s Daily Trust had reported that she was accompanied by a posse of foreign journalists most of whom were however locked out of the meeting.
Key ministers such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who hold the Finance docket and a key voice of the Safe Schools Initiative, and education minister Nyelso Wick also attended the meeting, as did national security chiefs, the paper, which headlined Malala as having “stormed” Aso Rock, the seat of the Nigerian presidency, said.
The debate had already started over what what practical purpose of her visit to Nigeria would serve, aside from bringing her moral gravitas to bear on an issue that has in recent weeks threatened to quietly peter out.
Western diplomats say that the chances of the girls’ release are bleak, and while Shekau in his latest recording repeated his offer of a prisoner swap, the opposition to this—including by the army and Western governments - makes it near impossible.
A military operation to free them is also seen as too dangerous, which the presidency confirmed after the meeting.
As such the best chances for the girls appear to be from isolated deals with Boko Haram factions, a process that could take years, or from escaping from their captors.
But while she has a powerful life story, Malala’s visit has been met with bemusement by Nigerians who wonder why she is wasting her time in the country, when her native Pakistan is also not safe. The real issue appears to be that many Nigerians are embarrassed that their government is reaching out to a teenager following its difficulties with the brutal extremists, and that her visit was an uncomfortable mirror to the situation.
Malala is the latest in a line of celebrities who have weighed in on the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which while well meaning, raises the question of just how much they have achieved on the ground.
For most, especially the Hollywood cast, the support has been restricted to being photographed with supportive placards and chanting through megaphones. The long list includes actresses Salma Hayek, Eva Longoria, Demi Moore, Whoopie Goldberg and Angelina Jolie, with even Kim Kardashian not being left behind.
Actors Wesley Snipes, Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Jamie Foxx Ben Stiller have also weighed in, as have musicians Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy, Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys, among others.
Some have taken it a notch higher, with Russian model Irina Shayk, who is star footballer Cristiano Ronaldo’s girlfriend, attracting flak for posing topless with only a #BringBackOurGirls placard covering her bare torso.
But the campaign has also received support from the political high profile corridors, including US First Lady Michelle Obama, British PM David Cameron and CNN star anchor Christine Amanpour.
However, Mall bucked the “clikctivism” trend and headed to Nigeria, joining a select few others, including US Congresswoman Frederica Wilson who was in Nigeria last month, and has introduced bills condemning Boko Haram and urging more support from the United States.
It would seem though that the greater value of Malala’s visit to Jonathan is in public relations. His government has come in for sustained criticism over its inertia in rescuing the missing girls, some of it self-induced - such as when it claimed it knew where the girls were, before backtracking.
Authorities are already shame-faced after they tried to cover up a Boko Haram attack at a Lagos gas facility as a leakage, before Shekau claimed the car bombing that killed at least four people.
President Jonathan recently admitted the violence in the north-east was “stressing” for the country, and acknowledged the problem required a holistic approach.
But as time ebbs by, the failure of a breakthrough becomes more glaring. Where many were livid they are now becoming resigned. And it is with this in mind that Abuja is looking to solidify the insurgency as a regional threat and relieve the pressure on the administration, and will court any international support that helps buttress this narrative.
Even from a 17-year-old.