Nicknamed 'Mama Boko Haram' by locals, Aisha Wakil recently spoke to Pulse on her relationship with the terrorist sect and efforts aimed at restoring peace to the northeast.
Barrister Aisha Wakil, Ahmad Salkida and Ahmed Bolori were recently declared wanted by the Nigerian Army after the Boko Haram terrorists released a video showing some of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls.
Barrister Wakil, 48, recently spoke to Pulse Senior Associate, Goodness Adaoyiche in Maiduguri on her relationship with the Boko Haram terrorists, her efforts aimed at securing the release of the Chibok girls and restoring peace to the northeast. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Who is Aisha Wakil?
I am Barrister Aisha Wakil, working with the National Human Rights Commission.
It was reported that you are from the south and formerly a Christian. Where exactly are you from and what informed your decision to convert to Islam?
I always tell people that I am a Nigerian but if you want to know where exactly, I am from the East, Enugu state to be precise.
What attracted me to embrace Islam is what attracts a fly to perch on a particular place. That is the behavior – My husband. He is a very wonderful man and so I had to follow him and abide by whatever he wants. The belief in the South is that wherever you marry is your home and a woman does not have a religion until she settles somewhere. So, if your husband is a pagan, Muslim or Christian, you have to join him. The most important thing is that you are going there to be a good ambassador who will represent your family and the women folk.
What is your relationship with the Boko Haram sect and why the name “Mama Boko Haram”?
This name “Mama Boko Haram” started from day one. When I came here in 1989, some of the boys had reached circumcision age. I helped in circumcising them. In the morning, the tradition here is that after circumcision, you’re expected to kill a chicken for them then use fire or hot water on their penis. So I did all that for them.
The tradition in the south where I come from is that a woman covers where lives and it is a deep tradition and a big recommendation to parents that when you go to your marital area, you marry everybody in the house but sleep with only one person which is your husband. That was exactly what I did.
So that relationship grew and they began to call me ‘mama.’ Their parents told them that I helped in circumcising them and they would cover their eyes because they were always shy. So I became their mother in the area where we stayed before moving here – No: 74, Sheguri north.
When we moved here, I still go to see them every Saturday and Sunday to cook, eat, dance, sing and they will recite the Quran for me. Some will follow me to this my house. When they were so many, I had to put up all these structures in the compound to accommodate them. After some time, they started calling me “Yan jun ma” (meaning beloved mother). All these happened long before Mohammed Yusuf came.
So when Mohammed Yusuf came, my relationship extended to him and his father-in-law. Like it is my tradition, every evening, I cook for people within and outside my home. So every evening, they all troop in ere to eat. From “Yan jun ma,” they started calling me “Amira” and later on they came up with the name "Mama Boko Haram.”
Due to your closeness with the boys at the time, did you notice any change in their behaviour?
Kids that grew up with you, you must notice a change and been a mother to them, I was very observant. First, I noticed a group of three that always except themselves from the others. They were scarce for three months. I asked the others about them but none of them knew where they were. But one told me that they had gone somewhere to come back soon.
When the three boys came back, they were reserved. They were no more the talking and play type. And so I knew something was wrong.
When I questioned their whereabout, they told me that they went for training on how to kill and shoot humans. Initially, I laughed over it because I thought it was a joke because a typical Kanuri person does not know how to kill a chicken. They call people to help them slaughter their animals during Sallah. Sometimes I find it difficult to believe that such person can slaughter a human being.
At what time did you start noticing some of these change in behaviour?
That was in 2009. But I cannot remember the particular month of the year.
How old were they?
Some were 17 others were 20 and 25. Between that age bracket.
How did it spread to the other kids?
Well, I do not follow them to their Markaz; that is their headquarters where Mohammed Yusuf built a large mosque for them. These boys go to listen to Mohammed Yusuf's teaching with others. The usually go by 3pm and come back home by 10pm daily just like the other kids.
I remember asking them if it was just the three of them who went to learn how to kill and shoot humans they said no, that they were many. I asked who took them and where but they refused to tell me.
You were part of those nominated to hold peace talks with the leadership of the Boko Haram sect during former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. What were the demands of the group at the time?
They demanded that their Markaz which was destroyed should be rebuilt. They also said the federal government should compensate them by granting them amnesty and forgive them so that they can live like every other normal human being. That was really what they wanted then.
Why did the negotiation fail?
I really do not know but one thing we must understand is that sect never accepted the leadership of that committee. They do not like Kabiru Taminu Turaki. And when they do not like you to head or lead anything, it becomes very difficult to come to an agreement with you. Even Shekau did a video then saying that he doesn’t like Turaki and they would do his magani (drug) for him – which means they were going to kill him.
Apart from the committee leadership issue, was the Goodluck Jonathan administration ready to meet their demands then?
Well, because of the leadership issue which really hampered the whole negotiation, we did not really discuss all that. But it is part of the recommendations which we tabled on that committee floor.
Some Nigerians are of the view that you are not ready to assist the government with useful information that would end bring an end to this whole issue. What is your reaction to this allegation?
You know that announcement by the Army was not right. If the person who did that announcement had consulted the Chief of Army Staff, he would have heard what I was doing with them. They said they’re going to get back to me so I am waiting for them.
In Islam, I’m not allowed to talk to men so freely without my husband’s permission. So I was sending Ahmed Bolori to talk to them because some of the Boko Haram commanders expressed willingness to come and negotiate with the government. They wanted to see and hear from the security so that they will be confident with the government but due to the protocol in the army, we couldn’t go far.
The security knows my house, they come to pick me for meetings and so they would not have declared me wanted. They also have my phone numbers; they could have called me. But I feel the whole thing went the way Almighty Allah designed it to go that period.
Recently, it was reported that a new leader of the group had and this is believed to have caused a division within the sect. Some security experts have also expressed worries that this would affect further negotiation with the group. What is your take?
Like I always tell people, a journey of 1000 miles starts from your toilet because you must first take your bath. I do not believe the emergence of a new leader would hinder anything because they are human beings like you and me.
Some time ago, one of the groups said he was willing to surrender before this new guy (Habib) came. I know him as Habib, not this Barnawi they call him. When I asked, they confirmed that he was supposed to be the leader and that he (Shekau) was only standing in for Habib.
The other group which is Shekau’s are also humans and we must get someone who knows both groups. It’s not difficult, the government only needs to start. They have said that they want peace and all these to end.
What do Boko Haram group really stand for? What is their reason for all killings?
They said the government shot them because of the crash helmet. They did not want to use the crash helmets because it was disturbing their turbans which they believe was very clean. The felt the crash helmet was unclean. The federal government failed to organize a proper workshop to tutor them on what the helmets was for. So when they were shot for not wearing that helmet, they were carrying their dead members to bury and the soldiers still shot at them, they became angered. The government also failed to apologize to them. Even when I apologized to them, they refused to listen. They said I was just one person. And that was how the whole thing started.
Even this Boko Haram they call them, I find it difficult to call them same. They started as Yusufiyans (those who listen to Mohammed Yusuf’s teachings). During the war, they said they were Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād (that is those who fight for Allah). And all of a sudden, I began to hear Boko Haram, and I asked them why the three names? But they told me that they were Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād and that is what I call them but the world calls them Boko Haram.
Tell us more about the refusal to wear crash helmets and how it prompted them to start this whole terrorist attack. Why the need for them to wear crash helmets?
Before the directive to wear crash helmets, a lot of motorcycle riders here do have terrible accidents which sometimes shatters their head. That was what prompted the government to introduce the use of helmets; which was a good but proper workshop was not carried out. Due to the belief of the people here, they did not know the make-up of that helmet and that was why they refused to use it. No one told them whether it was ‘haram’ (forbidden).
Were they motorcyclists?
Yes, most of them were Okada riders which usually results in traffic. Mohammed Yusuf did a wonderful job. Assuming this thing did not happen, he would have been a hero. Yusuf preached to them that idleness was not the best. He gave them money to start businesses, he bought Achaba (motorcycles) for some of them, married wives for them, gave them houses and so the boys loved and respected Yusuf so much.
Do you think their actions over the years justify the stand of the sect?
There is no action that pours blood that is justifiable. I do not believe their actions are justifiable; if I do, I would sit down and tell them to continue and I am behind them. But I hate what they are doing even till tomorrow. I told them to settle whatever they have with the government because the poor masses should not bear the burnt. They should come out and tell government their grievances and they would listen but going to kill, bomb, is not good and I do not like it.
Why did the army declare you and two others wanted?
Following what I read, the army said we have links with Boko Haram and we were hoarding useful information. But I am not hidden since this issue started in 2009. All the security forces know me; they know what I am doing with the boys.
During the former administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, we had an agreement. If Boko Haram members come to my house, I will call the security people and alert them, and ask him to talk to them. Then the man will start preaching to them and my sons (Boko Haram) will start crying in my house. The man will tell them that their mother’s compound (my house) was a safe haven for them but that they should not go back to the bush to fight. The man will tell them that the military does not enjoy killing them because they are brothers. You are the sons of Nigeria but is we meet you in the bush shooting at us, we will not mind whether you are from mama or whoever, we will hit you back. My sons will tell the officer “na’ji na’ji” (meaning I have heard).
This my mosque here (pointing towards the direction), And if the boys are in my house then or when I see them bombing Maiduguri then, I will go and drag them to my house and tell them not to go out. I will even threaten to beat them up. And when I cook in the evening, I give out food to even the soldiers because I like giving. I am not just the mother of the Boko Haram; I am also mother to all the soldiers that was posted here. I have all their telephone numbers and once they are around they will notify me to send their food.
When all these was going on, I decided to test these my kids, so I gave them (Boko Haram) food to take to the soldiers. When they got there, the soldiers chatted with them and gave them can drinks; they came back crying like babies. I asked why they were crying and they showed me what the military men gave to them. They told me of how the army preached to them to discourage our brothers from this thing and let them know that they are the youths and future leaders. The army encouraged them to go to school as there was nothing wrong with western education. Those soldiers will talk to them to the extent that they will be hurt. Both the soldiers and the Boko Haram boys prayed together. The soldiers will put down their guns and pray in this mosque after which they would shake hands.
My sons will come in and tell me that they prayed with the soldiers and I will ask them why they didn’t they shoot the soldiers and they will begin to regret their actions. They will tell me ‘Mama, walahi (honestly), this thing that we are doing, only God will save us because a lot of people are telling us not to stop this.’
They will tell me how they prayed together with the soldiers and our bodies will touch each other. ‘Every time we prayed together, we usually feel bad about what we’re doing.’ Then I will advise them to tell their colleagues to stop. Later, the soldiers, my husband and the Boko Haram members will sit here and chat away. But the boys will tell the soldiers that they should pray that this thing ends because they do not want to die.
I managed to establish that relationship between them and the soldiers and the whole issue was beginning to subside. I do a lot of things to establish this peace all by myself. These kids want this thing to stop if only the government can just say that they should start coming. These boys will come out from all angles. But they want to know where they are heading to. And that is where we are.
Since you went to see the army, have any member of the sect reached out to you?
No, they haven’t. I am still waiting for them.
About the abducted Chibok girls, when you heard that your boys had taken over 200 girls away, how did you feel?
Ha! I felt bad! If I had known that they were going to do that, I would have gone to the school so that they would take me along. Honestly!
When I heard, I quickly called one or two of them and they confirmed that they were responsible. I ordered them to start releasing the girls to go and write their exams before the whole world beings to hear about it. So, over thirty of them were released, some escaped, some were killed while they held back others.
It did not take long, then the noise started “Chibok girls, Chibok girls.” So they called me to ask if Chibok girls have become gold and diamond. And they decided that they won’t release anyone. The protest was so much. They told me ‘Mama, we saw Obama’s wife on television with #BringBackOurGirls placard.’ When the noise became too loud, they became bold and said they would not release them. They began to call the girls ‘Our golden Chibok girls.’ If only everybody kept quiet and just see them the same way others were kidnapped, they would have been back a long time ago.
I have released so many people that were kidnapped. I will just call them and say ‘you took my house girl or sister or best friend’ meanwhile I do not know these people and they would release them. Once their husbands come and tell me about it, I will call and order their release and even threaten to come into the bush for them to kidnap me also; and the boys would release them. And that would have been the best way to handle the issue of the Chibok girls. But with the noise, the boys began to wonder if there was something else about the girls because they kidnapped others and no one was talking about those ones. The only difference is that the Chibok girls were taken in a lump maybe that was why the noise was so loud.
Are all the girls still alive?
Yeah, they are alive but not all of them. Three died two weeks after they were kidnapped; I cried seriously. They asked if I can send something for their burial but I refused and asked them to bring the girls so we can get them. Recently, they said some died again but I do not know.
When there was an allegation that all the girls were dead, they called me and said I should tell the press that the girls are still alive. I came out and quoted them saying the girls were alive but they would start releasing them if the noise could just mellow down. Just pretend as if you have forgotten them or nothing happened and they would bring them out. But the noise is too much.
The other day, Shekau said in a video that they are shouting ‘Chibok girls, Chibok girls,’ how about the others that were kidnapped? Are they not human beings? So they (Boko Haram) now give them special treatment so that they would mix up with other girls. The situation is not good and I don’t like it.
As a wife and mother, what is your husband’s take on this? You being at the center of the whole Boko Haram issue…
You know when fire engulfs a place, people have to put it out so it does not spread to the whole place. I like mediation a lot right from my childhood. I am gifted in that. I mediate husband and wife quarrels and other issues too. When this thing started, my husband was not really in support of it because the children have become wired. But I reminded him that we all grew up together and we keep quiet, it would get worse. He knows that when I believe in something, nothing stops me except the heavens come down. I’m from the south and you know how our women do their things.
You know, nobody can talk about Boko Haram because everyone was afraid so I had to pick up courage because if no one tries to stop them, it would get worse.
One day, they asked me if everyone in Maiduguri has forgotten about them because I was the only person coming to them. I told them that have not been abandoned. I told them that I was coming because I knew them while they were little and they are my children. Nigerians are scared and I would not want anyone to venture it but I am different from others.
If no one has gone to them, it would have been worse. These boys need to be shown love, they need to know that they are humans created by God and if God can forgive you, who am I not to do same? The sins they have committed is not written in any of the Holy Books that it is above forgiveness. God hates the sin but once you ask for forgiveness, He will wipe the sins away. So my husband just had to agree and allow me to do my thing.
Since this started, do you still go to court or handle cases?
No, I have never practiced Law. In Law, we have what is called Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), that is what I do because not all Lawyers go to court. I am into mediation and I work with National Human Right Commission.
What advice do you have for the government?
First, I want to use this opportunity to beg my boys, my kids, my sons; the Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād to please listen to the voice of everybody in the world. Let them come out and state their grievances. The government is ready to listen to them and the whole world is watching. They should stop all these.
The government should seize this opportunity to get those that sect members still listen to because they are also human beings. Just like me, there are so many other people that they listen to. Let the government get these other people like me and we talk to them. Despite whatever they are talking about joining ISIS, they will stop. Dialogue is the best.
Do you think there is any link between the sect and ISIS?
Well, when they said ISIS was going to put in a new leadership for the sect, I called them to ask their connection with ISIS but they told me to be patient. So I really don’t know whether it is real or not. The security agencies should tell us that.
How do they feed and get other things in the bush?
Haven’t you heard that they beg farmers for food in the bush? When they are hungry, they go haywire to get what they want.
Do you think the girls will still come back?
Insha Allah (By God’s grace). They will come back. Although some of the girls are married to them, and weren’t given out. Because I asked if they have married the girls to Nigeriens or so, they said ‘Mama, how can we allow our girls to go out? We married them.’ The girls are with them and the will come back.
Recently, it was reported that the federal government was in the custody of about 800 repentant Boko Haram terrorists. What was your reaction to this?
I was shocked because when the group started, there were only 750. Now 8000 have repented. Can you imagine how many thousands were killed and how many thousands still in the bush?
They are rumors that some Nigerian politicians are instigating the sect probably to disorganize the government. What is your reaction to this?
Exactly! Yeah, it could be true because I have asked them this same question but they said ‘Mama, we’re not doing all these things by ourselves. Some people are pushing us to do this.’ Their hope was to return back home and stay in the community if a new government emerges after Jonathan.
Some people especially politicians are sponsoring them. There was a certain time they said their sponsors are now ‘showing them pepper’ because the politicians would take a trailer load of beans, cows etc and take to the boys. They said they would name the sponsors when they stop taking these things to them. I told them to do same.
Although they did not mention names, but some people are really instigating them. My prayer is that those who have hands in this Boko Haram issue, Allah will surely kill them, their descendants and family because they can’t keep their families abroad and send these boys to kill innocent people and destroy government properties. Why can’t they bring their children to come and fight? I asked them to tell the politicians to bring their kids and stay in the bush with them too. I told them that they are in the bush with ‘craw-craw’ (skin disease) while their family members are in Dubai, America, and London.
What is your relationship with Ahmed Umar Bolori and Ahmed Salkida?
The one I pity more is Ahmed Umar Bolori; he is just a small boy who is from here (Borno state). We met on Facebook in November 2015. He was only giving me the moral support to do this work. He linked me up with the Chief of Army Staff and the others and that was how my discussions with this batch of the security personnel started. The first was during Jonathan’s regime in 2011. At the times when they call me, I will call Ahmed to come and interpret because I do not speak the language. But I don’t allow him to go to the bush with me because he is a young man and anything can happen.
Ahmed Salkida was a good friend of Mohammed Yusuf. He is familiar with the organization when started. I don’t know him neither have I met him before. I only spoke to Salkida once and we discussed how we will bring the boys back to their senses. He lamented how he was treated by the security but I told them not to give up in this struggle.
Do you think the Boko Haram insurgency would be over in Borno state and Nigeria as a whole?
Yes, absolutely because there was no insurgency in Borno or Nigeria before now. Borno was not created with insurgency and anything that flies must come down. They themselves know that all these would end one day and very soon.