Inside Nigeria’s Information Vacuum
CNN anchor Isha Sesay tweeted on May 2 that she had arrived in Nigeria as part of growing CNN team gathered there for the network’s coverage of missing Nigerian schoolgirls.
The group of hundreds of girls had been gone for two weeks — they were kidnapped from their school in Chibok on April 15 by militants with the Islamic group Boko Haram — and the world was just beginning to tune into the story.
Wearing a blue shirt, jeans and a stoic expression, Sesay tweeted a photo of herself holding up a sign that read #BringBackOurGirls and wrote, “I’m in Nigeria for in-depth CNN coverage of missing schoolgirls. We all want answers!”
By May 6, when Mashable had some data about the popularity of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, Sesay’s tweet remained one of the most popular tweets with the tag (that is, until world leaders like Michelle Obama and the Pope jumped in). Still, Sesay has been one of the more authoritative and constructive voices in the network’s coverage of the missing schoolgirls.
— Isha Sesay (@IshaSesayCNN) May 2, 2014
Mashable spoke with Sesay this weekend during a break in her reporting from Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, to ask about her first impressions, the condition of the girls’ families, and Nigerians’ thoughts on the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. (The interview below, conducted via email, has been condensed and lightly edited.)
Mashable: As we know, Boko Haram is an ongoing source of violence in the country and has killed hundreds of civilians and school children. What was it about the approximately 300 kidnapped girls that led you to believe it would become a bigger story? When did you decide you needed to go to Nigeria?
Isha Sesay: First of all, let me say CNN has been covering this story from the very beginning. Our Nigeria correspondent Vladimir Duthiers has covered this story nonstop. As a network, we decided to step up our coverage once we realized the Nigerian government wasn’t being forthcoming with information, and that took some time to become apparent. We all know that Boko Haram has been terrorizing northern Nigeria for the last couple of years. But this attack is different, so much more outrageous — the notion that Boko Haram would abduct 200-plus schoolgirls! These are children simply trying to get an education in a part of Nigeria with one of the highest out-of-school populations.
— Vladimir Duthiers (@VladDuthiersCNN) May 4, 2014
What did you find when you first arrived in Nigeria?
When I arrived in Nigeria more than a week ago, I found people angry and feeling a real lack of trust in their government. Local Nigerians I spoke to in Lagos all seemed astounded by the lack of information about the search-and-rescue mission. Much of this feeling was fueled by the fact that the military put out a statement claiming to have rescued all but eight of the girls, which, of course, is untrue. I spoke to Nigerians from all walks of life and all expressed the same sentiments. The moment I announced on Twitter that I had landed in Lagos, my feed was inundated with messages from Nigerians, expressing the very same feelings. (People sent me messages that I was trending in Lagos and Abuja!) Once I had processed all of their emotions, I decided the focus of my reporting had to be pushing the Nigerian government for more information, for more transparency regarding their efforts to find these girls.
— Trendsmap Abuja (@TrendsmapAbuja) May 2, 2014
How is CNN, and the rest of the international media, seen by Nigerians, their families and the government?
In my time here, since we ratcheted up our reporting on this story, I have been approached multiple times per day by ordinary Nigerians who have all expressed gratitude for CNN’s reporting of this story. It’s also overwhelmingly been the same on Twitter. CNN has spoken to a number of families who lost girls in this attack by Boko Haram, and they have said if it weren’t for the international media attention, nothing would have been done by the government to find the girls.
The Nigerian government, on the other hand, does not appear happy with the increased scrutiny they are under. I have had a number of feisty exchanges with government officials live on CNN, and it is quite clear they are less than pleased.
How are Nigerians getting their news about this story? Are they on Twitter or Facebook, like people in the U.S., or are they more dependent on TV news, or newspapers and radio?
Nigerians are following this story via television, newspapers and social media. The fact the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag went viral underscores the global interest in this story and everyone is following it very, very closely.
What do the parents of the missing girls, and the community rallying behind them, think of the fact that the whole world is watching this story? Do they know about the hashtag?
Chibok, the town the schoolgirls were taken from, is very rural — it’s a very remote part of Nigeria. So I’m not sure the parents of the girls are fully aware of the part social media has played in focusing the the attention of the world on the plight.
But they are aware of the fact networks such as our own are telling the story of what happened to their children and pressing the Nigerian government for information on the search and rescue mission, as well as answers to the many outstanding questions that remain.
What’s been your toughest moment in Nigeria?
Interviewing a father who told CNN that his two daughters and four relatives were taken by Boko Haram during that April 14 attack is definitely one of the toughest moments I’ve had during my time here. He was clearly in so much pain and distress, and felt totally abandoned by the Nigerian government. He told me he just wanted his daughters back, dead or alive.
What about an especially memorable one?
I sat down with three young, bright and incredibly inspiring girls going to school right now in northern Nigeria. These are girls with hopes and dreams just like other girls around the world. They told me they will not let Boko Haram’s reign of terror and objection to western education get in the way of them fulfilling their dreams. I was so moved by their bravery and sense of confidence. The entire experience will stay with me forever.
What can you tell us about some of the families? Are they hopeful and confident their girls will be found, or is there a creeping sensation they have been traded beyond Nigerian borders and are therefore out of Nigerian authorities’ reach?
The parents who CNN has spoken to are all holding onto the hope their girls will be found and returned safely. These parents are living a nightmare. One father told me that all they do is cry in his house. The inadequate response by the Nigerian government in the aftermath of the April 14 attack had left many of these families feeling utterly desperate and despondent. But now, the international community is assisting the Nigerian government in efforts to find these girls, and families are increasingly allowing themselves to believe all is not lost.
What is a story you’ve noticed in Nigeria that has been overlooked by the media?
There is a large-scale migration underway in parts of northern Nigeria, as people move to neighboring countries to escape the havoc caused by Boko Haram. Aid agencies are struggling to deal with the continuous flow of people fleeing. I think more needs to be done on that story.
If you had to sum up your experience in one sentence, what would it be?
Despite the Nigerian government’s obvious displeasure, CNN continues to push government officials for more information about the search for missing girls.
Lastly, what would you say to younger viewers who may want to enter the TV news business? Any advice on how to wind up in your shoes one day?
This is a hard job, but definitely a worthwhile one. You’ve got to be focused and be interested in the world. So I recommend reading widely, and doing all you can to build up a body of knowledge. I always tell people to take every employment opportunity that comes your way, even if it doesn’t quite make sense at the time. I worked at Sky Sports news as a sportscaster for three and a half years; every opportunity is a building block, a chance to learn.