Face to Face with Boko Haram

Auntie Boko Haram

Hamsatu looked around the rented meeting room in Lagos where a small group had come together in secret to explore the possibility of ending the ever-escalating violence in Borno State. In addition to Hamsatu, the gathering included a barrister, a pastor, an imam, a journalist, and an official representative from an international faith foundation, not to mention 12 members of Boko Haram, who had traveled there from their hiding places in the bush, their bus tickets and lodging in Lagos funded by the foundation. 

The meeting had been in the works for a while. It started when Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye sought Hamsatu’s help in initiating a dialogue with Boko Haram. Word of her grassroots community outreach in Maiduguri had, apparently, traveled all the way to Kaduna, where the two clergymen lived and worked.

Hamsatu had also heard of them. She was familiar with the story behind the Interfaith Mediation Center that Ashafa and Wuye co-founded in response to the violence between Christians and Muslims in their city. She knew that in the early 1990s, the pastor and the imam had each led an armed militia committed to defending his faith. And both had paid a price: Wuye lost his right hand in the fight; Ashafa, two family members.

Back then, they were mortal enemies. Literally. But they were also men of God who looked to their respective scriptures for guidance and found it in the Prophet’s example of forgiveness and in Christ’s command to “Love one another as I have loved you.” Over time, the two men made with peace with each other, and then set out to help others do the same. A worthy goal that got the attention and the support of organizations like the international faith foundation.

Yes, I do know some of the boys in Boko Haram,” Hamsatu told them at that time. “Everyone around here does.”

The clergymen’s search for a path to peace in the current conflict in Borno was what brought them to Maiduguri and Hamsatu.

“Yes, I do know some of the boys in Boko Haram,” Hamsatu told them at that time. “Everyone around here does.”

She went on to say that the members she knew — kids from the neighborhood — probably weren’t among the group’s leaders. But she did know of another woman in the area, Barrister Aisha Wakil, reputed to have a close association with Boko Haram, including those higher up in its chain of command.

“They call her ‘Mama Boko Haram.’ I’ll reach out to her and get back to you.”

Barrister Aisha Wakil, also known as “Mama Boko Haram” (Photo provided by Hamsatu Allamin)

When they connected, Hamsatu and Aisha found an easy bond in their common purpose. And at a meeting in Maiduguri that set the stage for the one in Lagos, they met with the pastor, the imam, the journalist, and the four Boko Haram members Aisha brought.

“This is Hamsatu,” the barrister told the four. “She is like a sister to me. If you trust me, you also trust her. None of us here will do anything to harm you. We’re just looking for a way to end the cycle of violence we’ve all suffered from.”

“Mama, we want peace too,” one of the boys offered.

Barrister Aisha’s eyes — the only feature visible beneath the black burqa she always wore — smiled.

“And now Auntie Boko Haram here,” she continued with a nod to Hamsatu, “has brought some visitors she’d like you to meet.” With that, Hamsatu introduced the clergymen to the boys, along with the reason the imam and pastor had come to Maiduguri.

Imam Ashafa, a Quranic scholar, reminded the four of the Prophet’s injunction to settle conflicts through discourse and mediation. The discussion that followed opened the door to negotiations that would eventually bring 12 representatives of Boko Haram’s high command to the room in Lagos where Hamsatu now sat.

She looked over at the 12 — her kinsmen — and thought back to the sense of pride she felt growing up as a Kanuri. For centuries, the tribe had been known far and wide for its devotion to Islam and learning, and for its love of ceremonies, celebrations, and peace. The Kanuri were thought of as a gentle people. But with Boko Haram, their name had come to be associated with death, destruction, and acts of depravity.

The members who came to Lagos, no doubt, had had a part in some of that — if not directly, then at least through their allegiance to Shekau. In most people’s eyes, the boys of Boko Haram had turned into monsters: caught up in a darkness so deep, light could no longer reach them. But even as Hamsatu wondered how things could have gone so wrong, she still saw them as Allah’s children, capable of repentance, restitution, and even redemption.

The dialogue that afternoon was candid and revealing. No one was afraid to speak up, least of all Hamsatu.

“This violence has got to end, for your sake and ours,” she told the 12. “How are any of you benefitting from the way you’re living now, hunted in the bush like animals? The path you’re on leads nowhere. Surely you can see that.”

She urged them to take that message to their comrades so serious peace talks with the government could begin.

“If the government is ready to do this, we’re ready too,” one of the boys said. But he added a caveat: Boko Haram would only negotiate through an international mediator.

“We don’t trust the Nigerian government,” the boy continued. “They’ve betrayed us in the past, ended up killing some of our members who had approached them in good faith. We’d be fools to trust them again.”

The government, it turned out, had its own ideas for moving forward with a peace process – or at least appearing to. With much fanfare and publicity, the president set up a commission comprised mostly of elite from all over the country who also loved fanfare and publicity. Not a single international mediator among them. Nor any Boko Haram members with the authority to work out an agreement.

The violence in northeast Nigeria didn’t stop; if anything, it got worse. Certain now that the government wasn’t serious about peace, and suspecting that perhaps officials had their own corrupt reasons for keeping the conflict unresolved, the boys of Boko Haram continued to act as if they had nothing to lose. And Hamsatu, discouraged but undeterred, continued to pray all was not lost.

Rumors and Risks

Hamsatu smiled at the name of the caller displayed on the screen of her cell phone: Maigada — a Hausa term meaning “head of the house.” That was the identifier she chose on her phone for her second husband, Alahaji Sani Nashe, though it was more a sign of respect than the absolute truth. Since their marriage in 2009, they’d maintained separate residences. He in Kano, where his work was based and his extended family lived. She in Maiduguri, for the same reasons. Neither wanted to uproot, but both wanted very much to be husband and wife.

Answering the phone, Hamsatu bypassed the formality of a “hello.”

Ranka Yadatde!” she said. Ever since they had become a couple, that Hausa phrase — “May you live long” — had become her special name for him.

In between occasional trips to be together, they talked or texted often, typically just to say, “How’s your day?” But that wasn’t the reason for this call.

“Hafsa, I just had an interesting conversation with your sister, Dije. She and the rest of your family are worried about you.”

“Worried? Why?”

He told her that Dije had said that rumors were flying in Maiduguri that Hamsatu had become a member of Boko Haram.

“Well, I hope you set her straight.”

“I did. I told her there is no problem. That you haven’t joined Boko Haram. And that you’ve shared with me how you and Barrister Aisha have been talking with members of the group to try to find a way to stop the violence. I told your sister, ‘Someone has to do it,’ and that I’m proud of you for having the courage to take it on.”

“And what did Dije say?” Hamsatu asked.

“She was so relieved, Hafsa, she cried.”

Hamsatu’s advocacy was no secret to her husband and her children. They knew the risks she was taking, but they also knew they were hers to take.

In one instance, a local connection told Hamsatu that if she’d like to speak with the one-eyed Ba’a Kaka — an infamous Boko Haram commander from the neighboring state — it could be arranged.

“What? I thought he was dead!” Hamsatu said. Previously, the media had reported that Ba’a Kaka had been killed by security forces. But now Hamsatu learned that wasn’t true. He had gone underground, only to re-emerge, incognito, in Maiduguri.

She was able now to talk with him by phone. In the course of their conversation, Ba’a Kaka let it slip that two large-scale attacks were being planned. He wouldn’t say where. And when Hamsatu entreated him — as a fellow Kanuri and a Muslim — to call them off, he said, reluctantly, he’d look into it and get back to her through their intermediary. The next day that man reported to Hamsatu that Ba’a Kaka said the attacks couldn’t be stopped, but that she should tell her family and friends to stay away from Damaturu and Bama in the next few days.

A map of northen Nigeria, highlighting the cities targeted for attack by Boko Haram, as well as Hamsatu’s home of Maiduguri (Wikipedia, based on U.N. map)

With that news, Hamsatu rushed to Barrister Aisha’s house. They agreed they had to do something. Aisha suggested they meet with some of the Boko Haram members she’d introduced Hamsatu to earlier.

“We’ll ask them to plead with their leaders,” Aisha said. “It’s worth a try.”

A meeting was quickly arranged with three of the boys. “Who told you about this?” they demanded, incredulous that information about attacks had been leaked. Hamsatu said her source was reliable. Very reliable. One of their own who had spoken to her in confidence.

“OK. We’ll see what we can do,” they said.

Later that day they reported back to Aisha, who called Hamsatu to say, “The Bama attack cannot be stopped. An advance party has already gone there. But the boys did say that out of respect for you and me, Hamsatu, the new one in Damaturu has been called off.”

Another time it was the International Committee of the Red Cross who asked Hamsatu if there was any way she could work out safe passage for their team of aid workers, doctors, and nurses to Baga, the scene of recent fighting between Boko Haram and an international force of soldiers from Nigeria, Niger, and Chad that dealt with cross-border security. The scene, too, of mass civilian casualties.

Hamsatu conferred with Aisha and reached out to their Boko Haram contacts in the area to try to convince them to let the trucks that displayed both the red cross and a red crescent travel to the area.

“The ICRC just wants to render aid to the people in Baga — on all sides of the conflict — who are injured and dying. Even your comrades. The ICRC doesn’t take sides. And, I promise you, it isn’t connected with the Nigerian government.”

After much back and forth, the boys finally said yes and relayed through Hamsatu the road the ICRC should take.

“Tell your people to take the Monguno route. We will be watching them,” they said. “And rest assured, nobody will touch them.”

In the months that followed, vans carrying life-saving supplies and medical personnel to war-ravaged Baga travelled – unarmed and untouched – a road even the military wouldn’t dare to drive.

Well aware of the perils Hamsatu frequently placed herself in the midst of, her husband often ended their phone conversations with, “You’re in my prayers. I am with you always.” When Hamsatu told him she would soon be venturing into the bush with an international mediator on a mission to bring back the Chibok girls, she didn’t just hear his concern in the words he closed with, she felt it.

“Be careful, Hafsa. Please.” And then, grasping for something more to say to somehow protect her, he blurted, “Promise me you’ll wear flat shoes. So if you have to run, you can.”

The Would-Be Rescue

They were the pride and the hope of their families and the small town of Chibok. Teenage school girls who diligently did their homework, studied for tests, and looked forward to careers someday. Maybe in medicine or law or teaching or — who knows? Bright girls confident that the books they opened could also open doors. Doors that had been closed to so many of their mothers and grandmothers.

In the spring of 2014, schools in Borno State had been shut down for several weeks under the threat of terror attacks. But the government boarding school just outside of Chibok had reopened so the girls could take their finals.

With the exams scheduled for the next day, the girls were asleep in their dormitory when gun-toting members of Boko Haram, posing as Nigerian soldiers, kicked open the doors, and herded more than 200 of them into waiting buses, trucks, and vans.

“We’re here to protect you from Boko Haram,” the men lied. “Hurry, get in.” And the girls, startled and scared, believed them.

The vehicles drove off into the night. But a couple of the girls grew suspicious, jumped off, hid for a while in the bush, and then ran to the town — their hearts, no doubt, pounding as fast as their feet on the dry Saharan sand.

In the weeks that followed the kidnapping, “Bring back our girls” became the cry, not only of the families of the abducted, but also of people throughout Nigeria and the world.

But still, no rescue.

So when Hamsatu was asked to accompany the internationally regarded Australian negotiator, Stephen Davis, on a rescue mission that was in the works, she didn’t hesitate. She and Davis had previously worked together on a presidential committee aimed at opening up talks with Boko Haram to bring an end to the violence. President Goodluck Jonathan had asked that small hand-picked group to work on the problem out of the spotlight, when it became apparent that his larger and much-publicized peace committee was making scant progress, if any.

The new group also included “Mama Boko Haram”, Barrister Aisha Wakil. But this imminent rescue was outside its official scope, and the government would later claim that Stephen’s foray into the bush wasn’t officially sanctioned.

In the days leading up to it, Stephen had been in contact with Aisha who relayed to Hamsatu that he’d be arriving with a high-level military officer in a plane provided by the president’s office. They’d learn more about the plan when he landed in Maiduguri, Aisha said, but in the meantime, she and Hamsatu should be ready at a moment’s notice to travel where Boko Haram ruled.

“We’re acting on a tip,” Aisha said.

“Who’s it from?” Hamsatu asked.

“Don’t ask that question,” was all Aisha would say.

The next morning Hamsatu, Aisha, the military officer, Stephen, and one of his associates met over breakfast at the Pinnacle Hotel near the airport, still waiting for the rescue go-ahead. Davis reiterated that Boko Haram was prepared to release some of the girls as a goodwill gesture toward a peace deal with the government.

While they continued talking over eggs, biscuits, and tea, the military officer’s cell phone beeped the arrival of a text. “This is it!” he said, looking up from the screen and then passing the phone to Stephen. Hamsatu leaned in to get a look. The mission was on.

“Let’s go!” Stephen said.

They hopped in a Jeep and swung by the nearby teaching hospital to pick up several doctors and nurses, who’d be traveling with them in their own van to the bring back the girls they all hoped to find.

After several hours on the road, the small convoy got off it, bumping through the sand and cracked clay of the open desert in the area around New Marte, near the northern border with Niger. After a stop at a military barracks, soldiers led them to the divisional office of the local police, where an officer said he’d take them to a farmhouse where they’d find what they came for.

The soldiers didn’t continue with the convoy. Hamsatu wondered why the military officer who’d traveled from Abuja with Stephen sent them away.

As they drove toward the farmhouse, Hamsatu saw row after row of gum arabic trees and heard the police officer say, “That’s the place.” The place where they’d find the school girls Boko Haram kidnapped from Chibok? It looked like it could be. Long swaths of fabric — the kind Nigerian women wrap around their waists as skirts or pull around their shoulders in the cold or use to protect their eyes in a sandstorm — hung outside the narrow windows of the farmhouse.

Noticing that those wrappers looked fresh — free of the layer of dust that quickly settles over everything there — Hamsatu thought, Good! The girls must be inside. But in spite of the evidence of young women on the premises, the place the convoy had been led to was now deserted.

With the sun starting to set, the disappointed group headed back to the crowded barracks to spend the night. On a shabby mattress no thicker than a book, Hamsatu was drifting off to sleep when a panicked shout brought her back.

“Everybody take cover! Stay down! Boko Haram is out there, on the move.”

Those who were still up, hit the floor. But Hamsatu’s curiosity got the better of her. She made her way to a window, peeked out, and saw in the distance headlights sweeping across the flat, treeless landscape.

Among the vans and trucks, she could make out the shadowy outline of a bus. Given the events of the day, she felt sure some of the Chibok girls must be sitting on the seats inside. She imagined them reaching for the hand of the classmate they were next to — as they vanished, once again, into the night.

In an interview a year after that thwarted rescue, Stephen told a reporter that he had come close to brokering a release, only to have the handover ruined at the last moment.

Increasingly frustrated and disillusioned, Stephen said he saw the failure of that rescue mission as one more indication that powerful people with vested interests were hellbent on sabotaging such efforts. He began to believe there was blood on more hands than just those of Boko Haram.

Section title photo: Women in a Boko Haram camp (Photo provided by “cabellmon”, Flickr)

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