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A Conversation With Hamsatu

The following is an edited compilation of questions and answers between Woman PeaceMaker Hamsatu Allamin and her peace writer, Sue Diaz, during the 2016 residency.

Hamsatu, help us understand the roots of the current conflict by explaining the British colonial policies in northern Nigeria.

Before the partition of Africa by the European colonialists, Africa was made up of nation states. Some are Islamic caliphates, like my own area, which is the Kanem-Borno Kingdom, which was the gateway of Islam to northern Nigeria until the Europeans came mainly for slave trade. Then later, they found other economic benefit. Hence the scramble for Africa. They partitioned the continent into countries —  like the current geographical division you are seeing.

When they came — a place like my own, being the gateway of Islam to Africa (as far back as 9th century) — had established rules, systems, and government structures based on the Arab-Islamic culture. In fact, we were the area that was the great center of Islamic education. So, when the colonial rule finally took up, the British colonials found it convenient to allow these structures to function as they are, particularly in northern Nigeria — unlike southern Nigeria, where there were no established systems (except the Yoruba and Benin Kingdoms).

So, for us, they called it “indirect rule,” where our traditional institutions, including education, were left intact, maybe because of convenience. The local institutions were responsible to them indirectly, while in the south they set up administrative structures where they ruled directly. In fact, when the colonialists came with the Western education, they found it difficult to implement it or impose it on my people, because even governing them, they do it indirectly. So therefore, the people there feel that the Western education that came with the colonialists and then the Christian missionaries is just meant for people without religion, especially those living in the uphill areas.

Hence with independence in 1960, the southern part of the country was more educated, more advanced, more enlightened, and more informed because it was ruled directly and the people there accepted Western education — unlike my own area, the north.

Our post-independence political actors focused on tribal and religious politics, rather than focusing on human resource development — that is, integrating Western education with our own traditional Islamic education. The people then grew with the perception that Western secular education is a system of disbelief (kra krdibe), hence it is not meant for them. Nobody ever cared to address this negative perception, which subsequently became the narrative and extremist ideology of Boko Haram (“Western Education is forbidden”).

Without education there is less development. Hence my area is the most undeveloped in the country with these negative tendencies that oppose Western education.

Also, the patrimonial politics is a factor. Because people are unenlightened, without voices, the government that exists just governs us in a negative manner, with the result of poor governance, not focusing on education and then development.

And with this bad governance, there is a kind of institutionalized corruption that involves massive stealing from our defense and development budgets, with consequent weakening of all architectures and mechanisms. And because of the lack of focus on human development, there is a large army of unemployed and illiterate youth.

So in the 1990s, a group of youth — mostly from rich and influential families — started advocating against the injustices that were being perpetuated by the so-called technocrats, which they said are products of Western education. Therefore, if this is what the product of Western education will perpetuate on us — injustices, poor governance, human rights abuses — then to hell with it. Western education is completely haram (“forbidden”), they said. Let’s seek alternative in Sharia.

Politicians chose to use this negative extremist ideology for political gains because they saw it gaining sympathy and gaining followers in the society. Hence they said they are implementing the Sharia. Of course, which is not an ideal Sharia, it is a political Sharia. An artificial one that could not serve the purpose.

So this is the genesis of Boko Haram in my area.

Is it correct, then, to say that the original Boko Haram wasn’t just against Western education, but against the injustice that seemed to come with it?

Yes, because all those in political power were the product of Western education. So, the youth said, “If this is what they can offer us, then to hell with it. Let’s go back to Sharia and seek alternative in Sharia.” So they started preaching, advocating, gaining followers and sympathy from everybody. Many youth abandoned their education, tore up their certificates, and joined the movement.

In Western media Boko Haram is portrayed as a discreet group hidden in the bush, perpetrating kidnappings and atrocities. Who is Boko Haram in the communities where you work?

In fact, the first members of Boko Haram were children of influential families: rich. If you like, you could say that I, too, am a Boko Haram, because if anybody from my area tells you that he doesn’t have a relative — near or distant — who is a member, he is telling a lie. This negative ideology has infected almost every family in Maiduguri and then all of us are, in fact, vulnerable to be lured into that ideology.

For those from well-to-do families, what is their rationale for joining?

Some key Boko Haram members, who were from very rich families in the early days, were arrested by security agencies and here are some of the reasons they gave:

“I want the comfort of the new caliphate.”

“This nation is openly against Islam and Muslims, especially since [Goodluck] Jonathan was our former president. And this country makes me sick, I simply cannot sit here and let my brothers and sisters get killed by infidels.”

“Not only is education harmful, living in this land is haram.”

To them anybody who does not believe in their ideology is an infidel. That’s why you’ll also hear them say they are ready to die for their cause.

So this is Boko Haram for you and the kind of ideologies it believes in. Now looking at this, you can see that these kids do not even know what they are following. So, there is lack of awareness, ignorance, poverty, and unemployment because of the poor governance. I can also see that the quest for knowledge of Islam drives these youths, but there is an absence of dialogue and regulatory mechanisms for Islamic preaching. People are allowed to set up shanty settlements and say just what they want in the name of preaching Islam.

What role did politicians and the state play in the insurgency?

Instead of the government focusing to address these issues by adopting educational and awareness-raising programs around these issues, promoting family cohesion and support for teenagers, providing decent living conditions for the youth, pursuing equitable distribution of wealth through good governance, and promoting tolerance and a culture of dialogue and moderation in Islam, etc., the politicians used this extremist ideology for political gains, aligning themselves with the members, enticing them by saying, “We will implement the Sharia you want if you vote for us.” That was around 2009. In fact, being aligned with politicians boosted the morale of Boko Haram, and they grew in membership and strength. But when they saw that the state wasn’t implementing the Sharia that was promised to them, they began to revolt against the state. They refused to obey anything. To them, honestly, whatever the state wants, they are not going to be part of it, because it is not Sharia.

This subsequently led to violence in June 2009. Their leader, Muhammed Yusef, was killed and then later they resurfaced under a new leader, Shekau, and started the targeted killing of security agents. They established their headquarters in the outskirts of my hometown of Maiduguri in 2011. At that time Boko Haram would sometimes go house to house at night to homes where there was a grownup daughter. At gunpoint they would go and place 5,000 naira [about $15 US] at your doorstep and say this is the dowry of your daughter. “We have married her.” And then they’d take away people’s daughters.

So even taking these daughters became a point of attraction to many young men. Many poor youth who wanted to marry, couldn’t, because our marriage rites are very expensive. So, as members of Boko Haram, they found a place where they could easily get wives without sweat. Many of them were attracted to that, and before you know it, their community grew in Maiduguri again.

What was the government’s response?

The state responded to the escalating violence, targeted killings, and abduction of girls by setting up of what they called a Joint Task Force (JTF) among security agencies.

But when this JTF came to Maiduguri, they didn’t know who Boko Haram was, couldn’t identify its members. As I told you, they are embedded within us, living in the same community (mostly in their parents’ homes) with us. When they attack members of the JTF, the soldiers would go after all of us: burning our houses, violating our women, arresting our youths indiscriminately in the name of fighting Boko Haram. And then they went ahead to even arrest the wives of Boko Haram commanders. At that time, we saw another escalation of violence to which the federal government followed with the declaration of a state of emergency on the three northeastern states: Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe.

With the state of emergency came more deployment of troops and equipment. But the community didn’t give them any cooperation, because the JTF were even worse in terms of violating human rights. This boosted the morale of Boko Haram. Many families were aggrieved because of the atrocities and mismanagement of the situation by the state actors. More began to join Boko Haram to take vengeance on government and security forces for the human rights violations and the abuses perpetrated on us. So Boko Haram reached its peak in 2013 and rather than helping the situation, the JTF in fact aided recruitment of Boko Haram members.

How did the community respond to the actions of the JTF?

To stop this violence, I said I must go to these communities where Boko Haram is heavily recruiting and start engaging with their mothers so that we can come up with a way of stemming the tide of the violence. I said we, the people of Maiduguri, have to start going after those who kill. People said, “Are you mad? How can someone go after someone carrying a gun?” I said, “This is the only way we can save ourselves,” and this is what loyal youth did — taking up sticks and weapons and going after Boko Haram themselves. This is how the society started engaging for peace, even though it was a mess.

So our youth in Maiduguri who took up arms to defend called themselves the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) as a  self-defense mechanism, because the state has failed to protect and defend us. Of course, the CJTF youths were able to force Boko Haram out of Maiduguri, to the bush.

They went to Krenowa in Northern Borno, near the border with Niger, and established their first headquarters in the bush, and then later to the dreaded Sambisa forest — a place everybody came to know with the abduction of the Chibok girls. There they continued their mass abductions of women and girls, even taking over territories and declaring their own caliphate, where they administer their Sharia according to their understanding of their religion. And then take over more territories and, subsequently, the mass abduction of the Chibok girls that happened in April of 2014.

So that is how Boko Haram grew and spread.

The “Bring Back Our Girls Campaign” brought the abduction of the Chibok girls to the world’s attention. Care to comment on how it’s been officially handled?

For too long a time, there were no rescues. None. Recently one boy came out with one of the girls. He said he has married her, his wife has a baby, and then he turned himself in to the CJTF, who approached the military and started celebrating as if they were the ones who went in to the bush and rescued her.

Honestly, if I were government at that time, I would have hailed that boy. In spite of everything, even if he is a devil, it is the girls I am looking to save. I would have celebrated him. If we had done that, many more would have followed his lead and brought more girls out.

But instead, they quickly arrested him and then started taking the girl, flying her in presidential jets like a celebrity — when that is not what she needed — just trying to score political gains. Is that what the girl needs? Is that what her parents or the community of Chibok want? That is not it!

Why do you think a military approach can’t work against this group?

In countering violent extremism, technology and military power can kill the terrorists, but it can never defeat terrorism. Neither can it even discredit the ideologies, which I believe could best be done by strengthening outreach by local voices of tolerance and inclusion.

I think countering violent extremism should not be more about responding to the current terror threats. Rather, to me it should be about preventing its expansion by addressing the specific factors that enable radicalization to violence.

So the military efforts should continue, quite OK. But it has to be a stick-and-carrot approach. Let the government also support local initiatives. If government had even considered listening to some of us and our initiatives, believe you me, we could have saved some of those girls a long time ago. But they are not interested. There is no will power because of the corruption, doing everything just for the benefits to come to them. They continue looting from Nigeria’s budgets in the name of fighting Boko Haram.

It’s often said that people who speak out against the military approach to countering violent extremism or terrorism are somehow sympathizers with the extremist group. But it’s obvious that there is nothing in your approach, Hamsatu, that is apologetic or justifying of this group.

Yes, thank you for pointing that out.

Given the corruption, given the lack of political will in Nigerian politics, what hope is there for a peaceful transformation of Nigeria?

There is every hope. With the change of government in 2014, in fact there was a hope. The new president said he could change things. I will implore the international community, America and the West, to insist that their governments take up the fight against our institutionalized corruption. Unless that corruption is being fought, honestly, we cannot make headway. Once it can be fought, yes, I see every hope for Nigeria to move forward.

In assisting this fight, they should institute an investigation into the source of funding for Boko Haram. How can this ragtag group take over territories, get armed, and then perpetrate the violence that they are doing? This must be investigated.

And then, in line with that, I would want all our stolen funds to be repatriated back to Nigeria. America can lead and facilitate that, and if it can do that, honestly, I can see a ray of hope. Likewise, the children of all those who looted our resources and then stashed it in foreign banks should be repatriated back and their children be expelled from your schools in the West. Because they killed and then destroyed our educational system and then brought their children to the West and America to study: send them back, so that it serves as a deterrent and we can move forward.

As I said, we have to tailor all efforts in countering violent extremism to the specific dynamics that fuel it. This is exactly what I have done in my interventions: come up with a counter narrative that demystifies the ideologies and the narrative.

Tell us about some of those interventions and your work within communities.

With two umbrella Islamic organizations, the Federation of Muslim Women in Nigeria and Jama’atu Nasril Islam, I proposed a counter narrative.  First, I engaged Islamic scholars in a discourse on live radio call-in program where they talk about Western peacebuilding concepts like education, mediation, self-esteem, negotiation, etc. Yes, these are Western concepts, but what does Islam say about them? That is the idea behind the program. Secondly, still with the same group, we developed the content into a manual for teaching peace in Islamic schools.

By the end of six months, both our manual and radio program have clearly shown Western education and Western peacebuilding concepts are not only compatible, but also in consonance with the Islamic principles, hence transforming “boko haram” to “boko halal.”

I also work with a community-based partner, Herwa Devlopment Initiative, to promote pluralism and an alternative vision for the community by engaging with primary and secondary victims of the violence, with the aim of re-integrating them. Through the multi-stakeholder dialogues, forums with social service providers, security agents and civil society organizations, and intra- and inter-community dialogue sessions, the community is able to access social services and relate with security agencies. Their widows were empowered with life skills, and their orphans were enrolled into the nearby community school.

The perception of many people has been changed within six months of these interventions. A 40 percent increase in enrollment of children into public primary schools was recorded in Maiduguri.

My radio program has been adopted by a blogger with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., to be adopted and used as a model for women of Afghanistan, because they are also suffering from a conservative religious perspective and a lot of sexism in their areas. And then the manual I developed for teaching peace has been accepted as mandatory by the Islamic Schools Association in my state and now the Tony Blair Faith Foundation has come to adopt it, to come up with a Christian version of it, so that Christian children will be taught peace in our schools.

These are things that work. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many things. Coupled with an international focus on and aid with the local issues, these initiatives that are happening on the ground will definitely boost the image of Nigeria and turn the tide of violent extremism not only in Nigeria, but across the globe.

I’m curious to know if you had a mentor. Or what inspired you to such a peaceful approach to the problem in your country?

Yes, I have a mentor for development work, Sarah Ladbury. But on this issue of human rights and volunteerism, honestly, no, because hardly anybody can do it in my part of the country. I am a daughter of the soil, a native Kanuri. In fact, most of the early Boko Haram members are members of my own tribal group in my own region.

And then I am lucky to be a beneficiary of Western education by virtue of my father’s exposure to that education. He was also an Islamic scholar, as was his father. My father knew, from early days, that really I needed to be educated. He encouraged it, even when my mother was against it. But my father stood up to see that I got educated. So therefore, my father is my only mentor in that regard.

So being a beneficiary of both Islamic and secular education, and seeing the violence escalate and take its toll on my people (we are a minority, less than 8 percent of the population of Nigeria) and then we are the less developed, the uneducated — honestly, I just felt this is the time for me to offer anything I can. I found myself becoming a volunteer human rights defender, going to the communities, documenting their stories, sympathizing particularly with the women (who were turned widows, lost all means of livelihood and shelter, and with orphans to care for) and do whatever little that l could, for even just offering words of consolation at that time is valuable.

They therefore just see me as one of them, and they open up to me. They allow me to take pictures, confide in me. I feel that with this trust given to me, I feel duty-bound not to stand by, or even migrate (as most people had), while both insurgents and government forces kill these people as they are.

And because most of them were covering up for their wards out of ignorance and  poverty. At that time, for the women in those parts of my area and rural communities, if their sons came back home with a gun, all the women in the neighborhood would come and celebrate with the family — because the son comes with money which they have never had or seen, and now their image/status has been boosted in the society. At least they can eat well, dress well, so they support it. And then out of ignorance our youth are wasted.

As a Muslim, too, I know what they are doing is not Islam, although people have been brainwashed to believe it is Islam. It is not. I am not an Islamic scholar, but we need more Islamic scholars, both men and women, who will now come out to refute misogynist perversions of Islam. So with my little knowledge of Islam, I believe I can make a difference, by coming to interact and identify with them.

What do you want to achieve and be remembered for?

As a changemaker. Because change is dynamic. Even the Creator has acknowledged that. I think humans must work toward making it a positive one, rather than allowing the spoilers to hijack it and bring about negative change.

So that is why all my life from my childhood to my marriage to later in life, there is nothing I ever thought of doing but to try and change the situation that brought me suffering in those kinds of circumstances. As a Muslim, I believe in predestination, but as humans we have also been endowed with the faculty of thinking that, honestly, one can still do a lot to impact whatever change one wants to see in the society.

I am always seeking solutions. I am an optimist. I don’t ever believe in failure, and I don’t believe that anything is impossible. Nothing is impossible. That’s why sometimes I give myself sleepless nights looking for solutions — ideas that I can make practical and workable.

People often discourage me. They say, “You alone cannot change this situation.” But I say that if there is anything that changes the world, it starts from one person’s idea. Even the Almighty Creator Himself, when he created the world, started with only one man. And from that one man he created his mate. From the two, he created all of us — men and women in different races and colors.

So I will dedicate all my life to making change. I hope to be remembered as a changemaker.


Section Photo Title: Hamsatu with Peace Writer Sue Diaz (Photo provided by Hamsatu Allamin)



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