24/08/2019 – Hajia Hamsatu Allamin is the Founder and Executive Director of Maiduguri-based Allamin Foundation for Peace and Development. In this chat with Vanguard, the winner of the 2016 Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice’s Women Peacemakers, says the foundation focuses on re-integrating ex-wives of Boko Haram, seeking justice for victims of rape and rehabilitating former child soldiers. Allamin who retired from public service after over 30 years as an educator, says the real Boko Haram insurgents are willing to lay down their arms but corrupt politicians, kidnappers, security agencies, hired assassins; all have turned Boko Haram into a money-making venture.
Early days of Boko Haram
In the early days of the insurgency, before the declaration of state of emergency, there were no reporters there; no international or local NGOs were operating. That was when I decided to know whom these boys were. My aim was just to know them. People were relocating because of the violence and I knew someone had to do something to stop the violence, so I started going to communities where these boys were being recruited from. It was very risky; sometimes I would sit with them and their guns.
Attack on soldiers
At that time, they would go and attack soldiers, come back and disappear into the community and then soldiers would come with gallons of petrol, spray it on houses, set them on fire and arrest the youths indiscriminately. They did not know the members of the Boko Haram so to them, all of us were Boko Haram members. That was when I started this. It was very risky. Sometimes the Boko Haram boys would ask me: ‘Who are you? Are you not also a product of western education so where were you when they were perpetrating this evil on us?’ Eventually, they became used to me and started telling me their stories and I listened keenly. They were violent quite all right but even then, when they sit down and give you their side of the story, you see reasons in what they’re doing. Whether the reason is acceptable to you or not is another thing. That is why I believe in the power of dialogue. When you see something happening, engage the other party, sit down together and dialogue to understand why that person is doing what he is doing and then possibly address it and you reach a compromise.
Strange kind of marriage
Even when a state of emergency was declared, these boys were still kidnapping girls within Maiduguri. They take them from their houses by night and keep N2,000 at the parents’ door and tell them ‘’we have married your daughter.’ What can these hapless, wretched parents do? It was called Auren Markas (marriage of the Markas). Markas is the facility where Mohammed Yusuf, their late leader’s mosque was established). You never heard this in the news. When state of emergency was declared, about 60 of such girls were rescued from their den but nobody did anything about it.
As they left Maiduguri, they started the massive abduction of women and girls in response to what they called government’s arrest and detention of their own wives and children. It was only then we got to know that their leaders’ wives (the wife of the late Mohammed Yusuf, the wife of Shekau himself, their children and others) were actually kept in military detention centre in Maiduguri. So they went and attacked Bama and arrested some family members of some police officers. Shekau brought out a video and said to the world: ‘Since you have started arresting our women, wait and see what will happen to your own.’ He then showed the picture of the women with their children in the enclave of the extremists. Only then did the world come to the reality of the situation because even when they abducted the wives of police officers, nobody spoke about it, nobody knew. It was then we knew they were responding to the attack on them and it gradually became a prominent feature of the extremists. For some of the boys who joined later, a motivating factor was getting access to women because they could easily get access to women and girls who under normal circumstances, even in their dreams, could never go near them. So as they were dislodged from Maiduguri, they settled in Kirenowa, Marte Local Government as their headquarters. In Kirenowa, we got reports from the locals that they had abducted young girls and women in the villages. It became very rampant but officially, you never heard of it.
Abduction of 500 boys, girls
One of the largest abductions occurred in a local government headquarters in Borno where about 500 young boys and girls were taken in one fell swoop and today, there is no official reference to that abduction. I struggled to get the parents of the victims so that we can know their names and do something but nobody said anything. We only got the information six months after it happened so you see the kind of society we live in? The abduction of the Chibok school girls was what opened the eyes of the world. A few days after it happened, we got reports that the girls had returned but their parents and relatives started reaching out to us, telling us that the girls had not been found. Professor Hauwa Biu and I came together, supported by the British Council and an organisation I worked for, about 13 of us like-minds, locked ourselves in one studio and issued the first press statement that these girls were actually abducted and had not been found. It was that statement that was circulated to all embassies and international media which gave impetus to the Bring Back our Girls campaign.
Frustration, anger, as boys marry 10 women
Violence continued and as counter-terrorism operation advanced, Boko Haram became stronger, and took over more territories. They were abducting women and girls, marrying them and turning them into sex slaves. One boy would marry eight to 12 women. We started coming to terms with these stories when the counter-terrorism team started taking over occupied territories. As they advanced, the insurgents run and leave the girls. Because of the gender-based violence meted on them, some of the girls decided to come back. As they return, there is nowhere for them to stay because their communities had been taken over or are no longer existing so they come to IDP camps. Some of the rescued ones are taken to detention facilities by the military where they are screened and released to government who, after keeping them for a few weeks in the rehabilitation centre, send them to IDP camps in their states of origin. During one of my researches in the IDP camps, I came across these girls. They were in a terrible situation, all living in frustration, anger and dejection. Many of them were rejected by their own families, some of them were pregnant and some had babies. At first, they didn’t want to talk.
Opening up to me
Being a mother and a grandmother, I started following them up and gradually, I narrated the story of how I got used to certain of their members, then a kind of trust was built between us and they started opening up. In spite of the fact that the whole world is living in our community, nobody is doing anything directly with regard to these girls because they may not even know; they just know them to be abductees or wives of Boko Haram; nothing else is known and there is nothing much you can do over what you don’t know. Few months after I started interacting with them, some of them gave their testimonies in camera. They said: ‘Six months ago, we told Mama Hamsatu our story and today, we have not heard it from anybody.’ So they were happy I could cover them. They started telling me their stories. The first time I heard their stories, I was sick for over two weeks, I needed psychosocial support myself. Their stories were heart-rending. A 12-13-year-old girl would tell you she has been married to three different fighters, all of who had died and finally, she was strapped with bombs and sent on suicide bombing mission. One said she was living with her husband who was ideological and after his death, she was forced to marry others and because she refused, she was sentenced and strapped with bombs. I heard how these very young women were made to slaughter fellow women. It was terrible!
Some said they lived like dogs. They were kept in a closed place so that when the fighters come back, it will be the place they go to relieve tension. One told me that when the women were allocated to fighters, coincidentally, one of the fighters was an almajiri who worked for her and as he recognised her, he said: ‘Mama, I am not going to hurt you, I am so, so person, do you remember? So at night when you hear your fellow women shouting, you also shout but I will do what I can to rescue you.’
These women’s stories would honestly unsettle you and nobody was doing anything to help. When I told people the stories, they would look at me with disdain and ask what I was doing with such women. So I told my international partners, International Civil Society Action Network, that I wanted to start something; they asked if I had any idea and I said yes. They gave me a small grant and with that, I selected 30 of the young women; about 17 have babies, seven are HIV positive and five survived suicide bombing. Each had a unique problem. I created a social network for them to interact among themselves because in the camp, they dared not speak to one another otherwise people would say ‘Boko Haram wives are plotting something.’ Even when their children play with others, people would come and take their children and tell them not to play with ‘Boko Haram children.’ They were not allowed to use the water facility as others would say Boko Haram wives should not take water from there especially in the two camps in Maiduguri so a separate borehole was drilled for them and they called that borehole ‘Water facility for Boko Haram wives.’ As I brought them together, I got some female scholars who I organised and sensitised on what I wanted them to do. First, we documented the stories and then they took the girls on one-on-one psycho-social counselling; telling them they can regain their confidence, rebuild their self-esteem and be healed of the trauma. We told them that if any woman calls them Boko Haram wives, they should stand their ground and tell them that anyone could have been a victim under the circumstances. I discovered that these girls didn’t know the basic religious practices. I got the scholars to take them twice weekly through the basics – performing ablution, saying the prayers etc. Their indoctrination was religious; de-radicalisation must have a religious message in it. Gradually, I introduced them to income-generation activities, how to run businesses, save money and how to organise themselves with little economic support.
After that, I gave each of them $50, about N17,500 to start a little business within the camp setting. They now openly tell people that they are survivors. In the whole of Borno State to date, even at the Protection centre working group, no organisation can claim that it is making intervention with this kind of women apart from our organisation. We added another 30 girls to make them 60 and the 60 have come out successfully. Out of the 60, only one went back to the bush because when I first met them, they could not open their eyes to look at people. Some of them wanted to go back to the bush, some wanted to commit suicide, but now, none of them wants to die. They said they are happy because they have met people who are willing to accept them so they are willing to pick the pieces and start their lives again. Now, I don’t go looking for them, they are the ones who bring their cohorts. I don’t have the resources but we don’t reject them. At least, we teach them the basic things in Islam and then keep them in the network pending when resources are available. Now, people are struggling to take over. They say they want government to assist them to engage with these girls and others while when we started, there was no government, no local individual but us doing it. I spoke with certain Islamic scholars and asked them to look into Islamic history if there is anything that can be done to women with this kind of profile. I set up another committee of six Islamic scholars who did their research and came up with a guideline. In my international networking, I have been asking people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Pakistan about strategies or guidelines for engaging with these women. How do they engage them, what do they do with them? Nobody could give me an answer. However, these scholars have come up with a small pamphlet on the guidelines for engagement, where the larger society, immediate family, civil society organisations, members of the same religion, and everybody have a role in the rehabilitation, re-integration and de-radicalisation of this kind of women.
Women willingly going to Boko Haram Empire/The Daula
When this pamphlet is published, we will widely disseminate it so that others who want to make similar engagements can take it from there. As we speak, Boko Haram is still abducting and marrying girls and where they are not abducting, the women are now taking themselves to Boko Haram camps. Every week, these girls bring me report that these women are now going to the Daula (empire in Arabic) within the Lake Chad region where a lot of economic activities take place. Some of them get employed, they say it is better for them rather than stay in the camp where food is not enough and they are stigmatised. They come back and start campaigning and seriously, many women who have nothing to do with Boko Haram are now going there. I believe when they go, they can marry them, radicalise them and they become something else. So the problem is not yet over. For us who are from that part of the country, we are part and parcel of that society so we look at it as a responsibility to see the little we can do and then gradually, we get the support to continue. Now, with the new government in power, we will start reaching out and then government can partner with us so we can scale up what we are doing to make a difference in the lives of the girls.
Why does Boko Haram attack both Christians and fellow Muslims?
Religion is the most convenient platform to convince and win people’s sympathy, hearts and minds. In fact, if there is anything that can divide Nigeria easily today, it is religion because that is where people become sentimental and the funny aspect of it is that they do not care to have a deeper knowledge of their religion, they just take to myopic sentiments. So, the one with little religious knowledge can arrogate that knowledge to himself and then start to influence others with his negative perception of the religion. I agree with the saying that the greatest challenge to any religion is the presence of ignorant followers who will interpret the religion according to their ignorance and the whole world will see that religion in the image these ignorant people portray. When a society with young minds and millions of illiterate, idle, unemployed youths and young minds yearning for knowledge, is it not even a shame for the society that these girls I come across don’t know the basic practices of their religion?
The society has failed to provide for them and they consider, western education consider as forbidden. In fact, that was where the narrative of the extremists emerged from. Therefore, in this kind of situation, any scholar who emerges and starts preaching, will get followers because the society has failed to give them the right type of knowledge and then that person who gives the wrong knowledge is never sanctioned; he freely operates, recruits followers, indoctrinates them and nobody can tell you that Boko Haram is really Islam. It is far from it. Initially, some of these girls told me they were impressed with the ideology and then I ask them how and they said: ”We are going to change the whole world,’ to them the world is just their enclave because some of them had never left their villages. I realised the potentials of the women; the insurgents give them responsibilities.
How do you think these things can stop?
It can stop. Even the boys are tired of fighting. They are very young boys living in the bush, killing. Is that a way of life? No! But then, every avenue for ending it has been closed for now except the kinetic military approach which will not end the problem. Look at Government saying they have decimated Boko Haram, they have finished Boko Haram, and look at women now transiting in large numbers every week to the Daula, where are they going to? And shamelessly, this day, they will say they have killed this number, and I ask, who are those you are still killing when you said you have finished them? So people are playing on other people’s intelligence without facing reality; why can’t we face reality? Those who want to come back, let them come back and hand over their arms. Believe you me, if Government does that, you will be surprised at the number of people who will come out of the bush to surrender their arms. They can then be taken into rehabilitation. If not that they were protected to be perpetrating violence, who are they? It is very easy to bring it to an end if government is willing. People just want to go and negotiate, then bring back few girls, celebrate and enjoy their money, leaving the poor boys wretched in the bush, hungry and hounded and killed every now and then.
A woman is given responsibility to be in charge of fellow women, including slaughtering them! So she feels she has power; so radicalisation and cruelty are empowerment to them. It is an indictment on the whole society that has failed to give us the right knowledge as far as even to the practice of the basics of our religion is concerned. So the young man yearning for knowledge is now willing to absorb whatever trash comes his way. That is why we should intensify the campaign against this word, ‘Islamic’ because the Islamic State, IS, has taken an identity that is not theirs and people are looking at them as Islamic so even children in developed societies like the UK and US go to join them thinking that this is Islamic State but when they get there, they find all these atrocities but by then, it’s too late for them to leave. Now, Boko Haram has become Islamic State of West Africa, ISWA, that word Islamic is just being used as an identity to get legitimacy and sympathy for whatever they are doing. Which Islam tells you you can marry up to 12 or more than four wives? In Islam, if you kill one life, it’s like you have killed the whole community of Muslims. There is a verse that says that there is no compulsion in religion. Another verse says “Fear your Lord who created you from a single soul, from that single soul, he created his maid, from the two of them he created several men and women in different colours and race so we can understand each other, not to fight each other.”
Should Government dialogue with the insurgents?
In the early days, they tabled certain things they wanted. I heard Mohammed Yusuf talking about inequality, corruption, bad governance, etc and said all those perpetrating these on the larger society are the educated ones. So if this is what the products of western education can bring to us, to hell with western education, let us go back to the original Sharia where peace, equality, harmony and justice prevail. So to him, we should do away with everything secular, including western medicine because we have traditional medicine. He went to the extreme. After he was killed, his followers were still advocating, giving certain conditions. They cited the example of the killing of a number of their men by the Police and the injured ones (they quoted the exact number) were taken to the hospital but they were not attended to but left outside under the scorching sun of Maiduguri and people who went to donate blood to them were refused entry; these boys bled to death in the hot sun. They told me that government doesn’t value human life. If today, government is willing, they said they are willing to dialogue. The military is saying they must be eliminated but no matter what, across the world, from human history to date, no war has started with the barrel of the gun; it must have started with arguments and discussions back and forth and eventually it fails and people start killing each other and it will never end by the barrel of the gun until you resolve to start talking. This is not an international warfare, this is not a war with non-Nigerians, but government fighting its own subjects who have taken up arms against it. I see Boko Haram as a result of the failure of the system. When these boys were talking about injustice and calling for Sharia across northern Nigeria, governors started implementing sharia. Our then Governor, Modu Sheriff said he was going to implement sharia; the Boko Haram members became his supporters; they voted for him and he made one of their members the Commissioner for Religious Affairs. When the youths who are uneducated and unemployed were complaining about these failures, government failed to address the issues and when they started taking up arms, their mothers were happy. Here, when someone comes with a gun, the women in the neighbourhood gather to celebrate with the woman whose son had come with a gun because that gun is a symbol of power and resources. That gun comes with money so at least the status of that family has changed. Even within Maiduguri metropolis, women will not tell their husbands that their sons had been radicalised and had come with guns and the husbands won’t know because they are not communicating with their wives. It is a complex socio-economic cum religious problem. I can’t even call it religion because religion doesn’t have any influence on this. It is failure of our socio-economic architecture that brought about this crisis. So the solution is dialogue. When you dialogue with someone, that person can give you his perspective if you are really sincere. But Boko Haram as it is now, is like a hydra-headed monster. The corrupt politicians, kidnappers, including security agencies, hired assassins; everybody has turned it into a money-making venture. After all, what is Boko Haram? They are just a bunch of wretched, uneducated, uninformed, unexposed lousy young boys…
That was in the beginning
Even now! They just train them and give them sophisticated arms that even the state security actors do not possess. It is an unfortunate situation, it is a waste of the very nerves of our society; our youths are being wasted. They are exposed to drugs, they kill, abduct women and destroy the society’s most precious possession – women and girls whom they have made play materials. These girls will tell me: “Mama, I don’t even know the father of this child I am carrying.” So I have a lot of long-term plan for them. We need to engage seriously with the society and government. We don’t have shelter where we could keep some of those rejected completely by their families. If their families reject them, honestly, I will not be surprised; when you don’t even know what your girl had gone through; your girl may have been slaughtering fellow women and now she has been certified free and harmless and released to you and you bring her to your home and gradually, something happens. Honestly, I will not blame them if they reject their girls because it is not easy. So all these made me decide to do something and I am doing it. We are gradually reaching them, winning their hearts and minds, changing their psyche identifying their skills and those who can go to school, we see what we can do to support them and those who have certain skills like knitting, tailoring, we organise them into groups so they are now busy and they tell me “Mama, even the ‘normal’ women in the camp are admiring us now.” I am so happy seeing these girls changing so that they will not transfer some of the anger, frustrations and indoctrination on the children they are carrying. We are winning the war.
Sahel-Elite | Photo: Image juste à titre d’illustration: Hajia Hamsatu Allamin is the Founder and Executive Director of Maiduguri-based Allamin Foundation for Peace and Development