Hajiya Aisha Wakil, known as Mama Boko Haram because of her closeness to the members of the sect, tells KAYODE IDOWU that the insurgents are tired of fighting
What is the relationship between you and the Boko Haram members?
People started calling me Mama Boko Haram when insurgency was at its peak in Borno State and the insurgents were bulldozing Maiduguri, killing and maiming everybody in the process. It was during that period that I was invited to a women’s conference where the participants pleaded with the terrorists to stop the bombings. Somewhere along the line, I referred to them as my children, and my sons. I also asked them to see me as their mother. That was how people started calling me Mama Boko Haram.
My relationship with the group started before the insurgency. My husband is from Shehuri North in Maiduguri, which is very close to the house of Mohammed Yusuf (a. k. a Shekau), the founder of the Boko Haram sect. I also had an Islamic teacher who was also my spiritual father known as Baba Fugu. His daughter, Amina, a friend of mine, married Yusuf. So, I was very close to Yusuf because of my friend, Amina, his wife. Yusuf was a young man who was just preaching and encouraging Muslims and non-Muslims to be closer to Allah and live peacefully together.
You were initially not a Muslim and you are also from Enugu State. What can you say about your new found faith and love for the North?
Anybody can come to the northern part of Nigeria and make it his or her home. I got married to a northerner and I have three kids.
Some people allege that you do not have any link to the Shekau’s faction of the Boko Haram sect. What is your reaction?
If those people know the real Boko Haram, they should tell us who they are. Did they ask Shekau and he told them that he did not know me or that he had never heard about me? Or did they ask members of Shekau’s faction and they denied me? Shekau is a kind person, if he does not know me, he would have come out to say it. If he does not have a good relationship with someone, he will come out to deny the person publicly.
What can you say about the fractionalisation of the group now? How many fractions does Boko Haram have?
I really do not know. I know we have Habib’s faction. There is Mamman Nur’s faction. There is Shekau’s faction. There are other smaller groups like Bukar Mainok’s faction, among others.
Do you have a relationship with all these factions? Can you link someone up with them?
I will not answer that question for security reasons.
Do you really think that the Federal Government should hold dialogue with the sect and listen to their agitation?
What are they agitating for? Is it the continued killings or is it their mode of prayer that they want to force on everybody? Is it reasonable? Is there any compulsion in Islam? Do you force someone to be a Christian? Nobody can force anybody to accept any religion, principle or ideology. I don’t know what they are agitating for. If I know clearly, I would probably know what to say.
So what is your understanding of the group then?
My understanding of the group is that they are young people who claimed that they were provoked. They said nobody listened to them and that they had to transfer their anger and vent it on innocent people. That is the only thing I can say about them. They were angry. When I heard the rumour about their intention to revolt, I called Mohammed Yusuf. He told me that they were betrayed. Up till now, I do not know what the betrayal was all about. He said they were angry because somebody made them angry and they wanted an apology. They said the trouble started when security operatives shot their members because they did not wear crash helmets. As if that was not enough, they said some security personnel shot at them during the funeral procession of one of their members killed by police bullets.
How exactly are you mediating between the sect and the government?
I am still appealing to them, telling them to embrace dialogue because there is no way they can stay inside the bush and expect anybody to listen to their request. It is when they come out of the bush and sit face to face with the government that we can iron out the contentious issues.
You were once declared wanted by the Department of State Services. Why and how was it resolved?
They said I knew where Shekau was and that they wanted to get the Chibok girls out and resolve the whole issue and that I was not releasing the information at my disposal. I was not arrested; I went on my own to meet them. They heard me, I told them that I was not hiding and that I wasn’t hoarding information in my quest for peace. I also told them that even when I went to the bush to meet with those guys and someone asked me about the trip, I always revealed the details of our interaction. But if you ask me where they were, I will not tell you that; I will tell you I do not know. Actually, I do not know because they usually take me there in a blindfold inside a car with strict instructions that I should bow down my head throughout the trip.
They would deliberately drive round for hours until they are sure that I have become drowsy and possibly slept off. How do you expect me to know where they had taken me? It is also the same process when they are bringing me back. As a matter of fact, what is the purpose of telling the DSS where they are? Can’t they go and look for them? Sometimes, when I go to them in the bush, I spend about three days, and at times, a week. It is a pathetic situation. You see them sometimes shedding tears, anxious to be reunited with the society. They usually confess that they are tired of the life they are living. Anybody who knows my history will know that the boys, when things were still good, were staying in my house. In those days, if you came to my house, the gate was always opened to everybody. I never discriminated against anyone. We were living together, and even whenever I was going somewhere around in Shehuri North then, they would carry my handbag and call me mummy and asked what I had for them.
They would tell me what they wanted to eat and I would give them money to go to the market. We would prepare the food and eat. They were like kids to me. Some of them, I did their circumcision when they were boys of just seven years old. So they grew up seeing me as a mother.
How come you were doing circumcision?
It is not that I was the one cutting their foreskin. They used to bring the person doing the circumcision but I would carry the children while the pain lasted. And when they removed the foreskin, we would slaughter a chicken for the boy in order to calm him down. I assisted in the healing process too.
What was the relationship between you, Ahmad Salkida and the third person declared wanted with you?
Salkida was a friend to Mohammed Yusuf. Though I never knew him, I heard from Mohammed Yusuf that he had a journalist friend and that, one day, he would introduce me to him. I was then looking forward to the day that the meeting would take place. He (Salkida) used to follow him around. They were really close.
I have never met with Salkida but shortly before they declared us wanted, I spoke to him on the telephone. I drew his attention to what was happening to his friend’s group made up of young men who I refer to as my children and I asked him how we could resolve the problem.
He expressed his dissatisfaction with how the whole thing was handled by the security personnel. I told him that we cannot just give up like that. I then advised that we do something. That was all. We did not speak again until we were declared wanted and we met at the DSS headquarters. I also visited him when he returned from Dubai. That was the first day we actually had an opportunity to discuss. Bolori, who was also declared wanted, is a poor Kanuri boy. I engaged him to help me interpret whatever people say in Kanuri language. I used to take him along whenever I want to talk to the Boko Haram boys. That was the relationship between us. When we went to meet the Chief of Staff (to President Muhammadu Buhari, Abba Kyari), I went with him and that was it.
Do you think that a peaceful resolution of the Boko Haram war is still feasible?
I believe in God and I pray a lot. I believe in prayers. If we pray, these kids are not more powerful than God. I do encourage people to also pray about it. There is one adage in Igbo that says if you drag a stick and the stick drags you, you leave the stick and run for your life. They (Federal Government) keep telling me that they have dragged the stick (Boko Haram insurgents) and that the stick has dragged them and it is now for them to leave the stick. But I keep telling them that this is not a stick but human beings and we have to continue to drag them. These are Nigerians, our children, our brothers and sons. We cannot just leave them like that, because leaving them like that would create more problems. I believe it (the insurgency) will end; they (the insurgents) wanted it to end. Anytime I talk to them, they always ask me when the war would end and would also seek to know how it would end.
Are you advocating an end to this military solution?
The shootings and killings have never solved any problem. Very soon, it will be 10 years since the war started. Scores of soldiers have died in the process. I had to involve myself in the peace process when I saw people coming from all over the country and even white men to fight war. Some say only a fierce battle could end the war but I am of the opinion that we should not continue because of our kids.
They planned to bomb St. Augustine’s Church on December 24 last year. One of them called me on that day to find out whether I had travelled. There was a pickup van loaded with explosives in front of the church. I told the caller that I had not travelled and I immediately rushed out and saw the boy that was to carry out the suicide mission. They had already prepared him for the exercise. He had already been given the injection and prepared him for burial. The boy was just moving and murmuring. I quickly called the (Boko Haram) boys and told them that I can see a vehicle parked and that a boy was moving towards it. They told me that the boy was the suicide bomber. They asked why I did not travel again and I told them that my brother, a reverend father, visited Maiduguri and that we would be travelling together after Christmas.
I instantly told him that I was right inside the church (targeted for bombing) with my brother because I brought food for him. I told them that I was not ready to leave the church, daring them to do their worse. They were then confused and asked what I wanted to become of the boy they had prepared for the suicide mission, and I asked them to send the boy away to the nearby bush; after all, he had taken the oath to die, so he should go and die alone. They asked me to leave the church premises but I told them that I wouldn’t go until they had diverted the boy away. After some time, they told me the boy had left and one of them said, ‘I can see your car driving out’ but I didn’t go with my car. This is to show how God works. God planned this. I do not know where a black car came out from that made them to believe I was around the place. So they drove the pickup van away. When I did a follow-up, I learnt that the boy had died because he had taken an oath and they had given him an injection preparing him for death. If you take the injection, you can never be yourself again. I then warned them that on no account should they target places of worship for bombing again.
Do you agree that the Boko Haram has been technically defeated?
They do not have that energy anymore. If you look very well, that energy is no longer there. They are gasping for breath and looking for a way out. They are always asking for the road. They are looking for the road to come out. They want trusted roads and not betrayal. If you sit with them and talk, they will tell you. They hardly trust anyone and they say they do not want further betrayal and are willing to remain where they are until they get Allah’s help. They have, however, told me that they trusted me because I meant well. I have taken some of those that were declared wanted to certain quarters to negotiate and the outcome of the negotiation was good.
Why do you think there are still bombings in the North-East?
Maiduguri in particular has become what they call Makkah, the headquarters of the North-East, and that is why we are experiencing bombings unlike Bauchi, Adamawa and Yobe, where there are pockets of bombings.
I have always told them to come down and look for their mallams for peace. They have mallams; they have elders in the area that can talk to them. They have women and other individuals who can talk to them. There are even wheelbarrow pushers that can talk to them. Government officials should come down and meet them. They are ready for dialogue but they want sincere persons, not betrayers, to lead the dialogue.
Some government officials are saying Shekau is hardened. Is he not a human being? Shekau is a human being, and if you watch him, he is always calling Allah and believes he is fighting for Allah and this Allah will touch him. Government should follow the right way and the battle will be over.
Do you think Nigerians’ condemnation of the $1bn to fight insurgency is justifiable?
If government can put any amount into the insurgency war, they should go ahead and do just that. It is important that this insurgency ends because it is affecting everybody and once this thing is brought under control, you will see things becoming normal.
What is your assessment of the insurgency war under the President Muhammadu Buhari administration?
I cannot but clap for him. At least in Borno, we are sleeping very well. If you had come to Borno when this thing started, you would not be here by now (3pm). Everywhere would be vibrating. But since (President Muhammadu) Buhari took over, we have been sleeping soundly. We are now moving around up till 10pm. We now do our shopping in the night; unlike before that everywhere would be closed by 4pm. Buhari has really tried.
A report claims Buhari paid €3m for the release of the Chibok girls. Were you privy to the arrangement?
I do not know.
Are there any ongoing plans to secure the release of the remaining Chibok girls?
Of course, government will not sleep. We will also not sleep until the remaining girls, including the university lecturers and the police officers who were kidnapped when they were carrying the corpse of their colleague for burial, are released. Nigerians are not sleeping, nobody is sleeping.
Are you involved in some of these moves to get them released?
I will not answer that question.
Do you think the North-East Development Commission can be effectively used to develop the war-torn region?
It is for the rebuilding of the damage done by this war. I believe and hope this would be achieved. But do not underrate human beings; you will still see pockets of saboteurs.
The Nigerian Army said it has incapacitated Shekau. Do you believe that?
I don’t know. Am I the Nigeria Army? Ask (Chief of Army Staff, Tukur) Buratai.
How do you think the society can heal the wound of Boko Haram?
What can society do? The wounds of World War II healed gradually and it has healed. We too will heal; what can we do? Is it to say we will not forgive and move on? We have to move on. If you fight with any Kanuri, he will tell you to be patient and once that word is used, they cannot do anything. They will look around and say the person that did this is “our own blood.” Kanuris have kind hearts. They do not hold grudges; they do not want anything to destroy their faith and life. We will heal; we will forgive. I know it may be difficult for some who had lost almost everything, but with time, they will heal.
You recently created a non-governmental organisation. What is it all about and how do you think you can assist in the healing process?
I have gone round to see what could be done to assist the people and to find out what the problem is. I have found out that because of this insurgency, many things have gone wrong; drug addiction is common among other vices. I have come to the realisation that if something is not done now, the situation could get even worse and we may have another problem on our hands. I have been able to talk to the victims and have come to the understanding that, if something is done for them quickly enough, it could take them away from drug addiction and prostitution, among other vices. I discovered that the only way out is to form a local NGO and this is what I have done. And with the way we are going about it, we are going to rescue some people from damage, or at least, complete damage. I am working with the Borno elders and I believe with the assistance of all, we will help heal the wound.
What assistance are you receiving from stakeholders?
It is just to help out, to help internally displaced persons and non-IDPs, victims of insurgency who are not in camps but are worse off than IDPs in camps. My NGOs will go down to uproot them and help them. I do not have problems with stakeholders. They are even rooting for me. One of the elders here, Alhaji Abba Mustapha, even said ‘Aisha is a daughter, a Kanuri born somewhere who later traced her home and made a return’. And this is shared by almost all Kanuri. They believe I am one of them. It is only that I cannot speak the language. I am happy the elders are supportive, the traditional institution and government are equally supportive.
What is your final word?
To insurgents? I cannot but continue to beg them. What is it they want that they cannot come out and say? What is it that is hurting them for eight years, and they cannot come out? They preach to us to forgive; if you see them, they continue to say forgive. Do not hold anger against your brother overnight. What are they holding there? I am begging them, they should come out. The military does not have the intention of killing them. Nobody has the intention of killing them. The military has to do what they are doing in order to save civilians and property. Security want them to come back home for we are not fighting war. Enough is enough. They said if they come up, they want to go for training. Whatever you want, come out and government will provide for you. If government asks that you contribute money to establish them in business, won’t you do it? Nigerians will do that; we need peace. Government should look for those they are listening to and talk to them. They will come out. Shekau is a human being. Barnawi is a human being. Nur is a human being. Mainok is a human being. They should talk to them; they will come out.