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By Shehu Abubakar and Ibrahim Sawab
Maiduguri — Barrister Aisha Kalil Wakkil is a lawyer and human rights activist with the National Human Rights Commission. The senior legal officer has, for over five years, been into peacemaking between the Jama'atu Ahlil Sunnah (Boko Haram) and the federal government. In this exclusive interview with the Daily Trust on Sunday, Barr Wakkil, who claims to be a very close confidant of Boko Haram foot soldiers, spoke on several issues.
How did your mediation initiative between the federal government and Boko Haram start?
Nobody asked me to do it. Such a quality is in my nature because I love peace so much. Where I come from in the Southeast, we live in a very peaceful atmosphere, especially in my family. We mediate a lot where there is any problem. Now that I am a Muslim and Islam is a very peaceful religion, with all its teachings, this Boko Haram development doesn't really make sense to me. Why should such a wonderful religion experience this kind of a thing? But I also know that anywhere there is smoke, there must be fire. Something must have happened for these children to start behaving like this.
Do you really know them well?
Yes, they were children I knew a long time ago. The first time I visited Maiduguri around 1989 was when some of them were circumcised. I witnessed the circumcision. That is to tell you how young some of them were - and still are. I witnessed the growth of most of them. They were very wonderful children. As time went on, most of them began living in my house because my house is always open to all the children in that area. That was how I got to know most of them. Then they were not Boko Haram and Jama'atu ah-lil Sunnah members.
So at what stage did they become extremists?
It is surprising how these children turned out to be what they are now. I keep on saying there is certainly no smoke without fire. Something must have triggered those innocent-looking children to grow up behaving the way they are behaving now. You needed to see them growing up. These were children that would come to my house, play around and help in watering my ugwu plant. We would cook together and they would help clean my kitchen, my room and the entire house. Sometimes when I start talking about them, I shed tears. Those children prayed, and still pray a lot. I have a mosque in the house and they would always go in and pray. Anytime I went to Shehuri north, whatever was in my handbag would not follow me back because they would finish it there. They all called me Mama.
At what stage did you start noticing changes in their character?
It all started with a rumour. I began observing they would go out in the morning and return in the evening. During the fasting period, they would not return until around 11 or 12 midnight. I also remember they would go to Muhammad Yusuf's lectures to listen to his preaching. Sometimes, they would come back to tell me, "Mama, see what we read today", and I would say, "thank God, this Muhammad Yusuf is really trying o." I didn't observe anything strange about the teaching.
Soon, the children began to be conscious of themselves. They always wanted to do one thing or the other to remain busy. It was then that the rumour started that they were planning a war. When I heard of it, I went straight to Muhammad Yusuf because I had been very close to him. His father-in-law, Alhaji Baba Fugu was my Islamic spiritual father and the entire family knew me very well. When I realized that Muhammad Yusuf was frequently being arrested, detained and released, I went to Baba Fugu and asked him why his son-in-law was always being detained? But I learnt he was always preaching things government didn't like and insulting them.
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One day when he (Muhammad Yusuf) returned, I went to his house to see him. I tried to enter the house but was not allowed in because I had a policeman in the front seat of my car. It was Shekau who saw the policeman and refused to allow me to go in to see Yusuf. I was angry and asked Shekau whether he didn't recognize me and didn't realise how close I was to Yusuf. I sent a message to Yusuf that I was angry and would never come to his house again. When he got my message, through his father-in-law, he rushed to my husband's office and told him that he heard I was in his place but his boys refused to allow me in. He explained I wasn't allowed in because of the policeman they saw with me. When my husband told me, I asked Yusuf to come over. He did and bowed down saying, "Mama, please forgive me." He was a very humble boy. I advised him that whenever he was preaching he should avoid insulting government. After about a year or two, I started hearing the rumour again that they were planning to fight. We used to speak on phone most of the time.
How did you learn of the rumour?
Those boys in my house suddenly disappeared for about a month; I did not set my eyes on them. I was tensed up and started asking people where they were, but nobody could tell me. Eventually when they returned, one of them told me he had something to tell me. He said, "Mama we went for training." When I enquired from him what kind of training that was, he simply confided they would be fighting a war. But then, I just laughed it off because I did not take him serious. Jokingly, I asked him what he knew about war. But looking so serious, he replied that, "Mama, I swear, our guns have already arrived in Maiduguri and that included AK47s. When I asked him again what he knew about any AK47, he just told me it was the gun they would be using to fight the war. I then asked him where they trained and he respectfully replied, "Mama, I will not tell you this one."
I, thereafter, called Muhammad Yusuf and told him what I had heard about a war imminent. He asked who told me but I replied I wouldn't tell him and he should just answer me yes or no whether they were, indeed, planning to start a war. One good quality about these boys is that they don't lie. Yusuf said, "yes, ma." When I asked him why, he said it was because of acts of maltreatment over the crash helmet against his followers. He said, "They killed our people and nobody is doing anything", and that government had betrayed them and so on. I asked him what that betrayal could be and whether we could address and stop it. It was getting close to the fasting period. He folded his hands, bent his neck and kept mute. That was his nature. He then said, "Mama, my hands are tight. I am not alone in this thing. A decision has been taken. They must fight this war unless you can go and meet the governor."
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Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see the governor until the war started. When I heard about the fight in Bauchi on a Saturday, I called Yusuf (which was the last time I spoke with him) and told him I heard something was happening in Bauchi. He admitted it, saying, "yes, we are the one." He added the war would engulf everybody beyond Bauchi. I thought he was joking. I spoke with his father-in-law on phone that Saturday night. The following day, our own started (in Borno state). I tried to reach him on phone but his line was not going.
On Monday, someone came to tell me that he saw Muhammad Yusuf at the West-End area. I rushed there but could not see him. Two days later, I saw him on television talking and the next thing I saw him on the ground. Instantly, I knew there was going to be a problem. That is where we are now.
Were you still seeing those boys living in your house after that?
One week to that incident, they disappeared again. When things cooled down, one of them rushed in to tell me that "Mama, we fought a war, we killed this and we killed that." I shouted at him that small as he was, he could go to war? But he replied that was how Allah wanted it and they did the work of Allah. He said he had come to tell me he was going back to the battlefield and he wouldn't know if we would be meeting again. He told me to keep calling his line and promised to always answer my calls so long he remained alive.
The boys left and, in a short while, became commanders in the Boko Haram group. The whole thing was very funny to me. Suddenly, they started changing fast; they no longer looked like those kids I called my children. The other day one of them came to see me in my house. When I told him to sit down for a talk, he curtly responded, "No, ma. As you are seeing me here, they have given me an assignment and I have to go and do it." When I enquired the manner of the assignment, he calmly replied it was to kill someone. There was nothing I could do. I couldn't stop them. That situation remains till today.
Were you at a point scared of any association with them and thought of cutting off all ties with them?
I have always held that even if those boys should turn to snakes, I would remain with them because I believe they will never harm me. Anytime any of them comes around, what he tells me is the story that this one has died and that one has become this and that.
When they relocated to the bush, did you ever go there to see them?
I have been there several times at different locations to see them. Sometimes, I will cook for them and take the food there. Sometimes they will be the ones to phone me and say, "when next you are coming buy suya and drugs for us", and things like that. At a time majority of them were dying before they started recruiting more and more people.
When you go to the bush to see them, where do you stay?
Whenever I meet them in the bush, we sit down and talk freely like mother and children. They will show me different bombs and ammunitions. I will ask them what they are doing with those things and will joke with them it's themselves they will bomb with them, not me. They will burst out laughing, saying "Mama has come again." Sometimes I will even stay there overnight. Their major requirements are food and drugs. There had been occasions I stayed three days with them in the bush.
How do you always find your way to wherever they are?
In most cases, they will be the ones to call to ask me to bring them food, drugs and/or money. When I inform them I am on my way there, they will start directing me, saying things like, "go out of your house, cross the road and you will see a car like this, like that. Open the rear door and sit on the back seat and bend your head down while in the car till the journey lasts."
Do you still know the whereabouts of some of those boys living in your house then?
Some are dead, some are still in the bush, while some are in jail.
Have you ever sold them the idea of dropping their guns and accepting amnesty?
Yes, I have been doing that right from day one. In the beginning, they were telling me that, "Mama, we don't like this thing that is happening to us. We are sure something is wrong somewhere. If government can call us and ask us, we shall tell them everything. Let government dialogue with us and tell us how to stop all these things and we will stop." But as time went on, they started talking negative of government. They were saying government was no more doing this and that. One of them told me, "Mama, the ocean we are swimming in is very deep. This thing has graduated from the Jama'atul Ahlil Sunnah into something else." He said "the big men in Nigeria know what I am saying," adding, "such people will not allow peace to emerge because they have their interests."
Weren't they ever afraid you could betray them to the authorities?
They know I will never do that. In any case, whenever we come together to Abuja for peace talks, we always move so closely until we return. You need to see us at the airport as if we are fused together. In case there is any danger, all of us will go. Anywhere I take them, we sleep in the same hotel and eat the same food. They will all converge on my room to watch television. I will tell them to look at the good things of life that they are missing and they will confidently reply, "Yes, but one day in Allah's kingdom is better than all these."
Have they ever told you if the group is factionalized, as it seems they are no more doing things the same way they started?
Yes, the way some of them are doing things has not been the same way the original group was doing it. But the original group is still there. They are still very much around. Even among them, the original Jama'atu Ahlil Sunnah is calling the other ones Boko Haram. They will say they are not Boko Haram, the other ones are the Boko Haram. I once asked them the difference between the two groups. They said the other group has deviated from the norms. They said government and politicians are buying them and using them to kill perceived opponents. They said there are people doing rituals in the name of Boko Haram. But they are all together in the bush. The whole thing is mixed up now. But once the original group stops, every other one must stop because none can stand on its own again. I once asked them about the frequent spate of bombings when it was becoming too much. They said, "Mama, anywhere we bombed, we issue a statement claiming responsibility. The ones we did not do, we keep quiet."
Were the Chibok girls kidnapped by the original group?
All I know is that the Boko Haram group kidnapped the Chibok girls.
From your close interaction with these boys, do you think they will agree to drop their arms, release every person in their custody and return to the larger society if government decides to grant them amnesty?
Let me ask you this question; are they not human beings? If they are human beings like you and I, why won't they accept the offer of amnesty? This administration is willing to dialogue with them. I am sure the president would like to ask them what happened and I am sure the children will be willing to say it. I was with them recently and they were asking me if the society will be willing to forgive them. I said why not if they will drop their arms and become good boys. If Nigeria and Nigerians can accommodate the OPC in the West, MASSOB in the East and the Niger Delta militants, why won't they accommodate them?
In all your visits to the forest to meet those boys, have you ever encountered any difficulty?
Of course, yes, I have encountered many difficulties. Once when I went out in search of the girls, there was one particular guy who nearly kidnapped the group I went with, but I just played along with him. Once you put a smile on their faces, your problem is over. God helped us and we came out of it successfully.
There was this other one that I do not like remembering. I was in the bush with them. They were asking me who to trust and who not to trust. They were eating the food I took to them and writing their names in Arabic inscription on the ground when, suddenly, one of them stood up and started insulting me. He was eating the N20,000 suya I bought for them when something came over him and he started pouring abuses on me. He said as a lawyer who went to an English school, I was not supposed to be where they were. He threatened to shoot me if I talk again. Others were just eating their suya when their boss shouted at him to keep quiet. After some minutes, one of them stood up and asked him, "Do you know the person you just insulted? What made you insult her?" He pulled his trigger and shot him thrice and his lifeless body fell down there. I was terrified. None of them cared about his corpse. They simply continued eating their suya. That was my worst moment.
There was another time I was with them in the bush. I didn't know that they had some of their men on the top of the trees we were sitting under. I just heard someone shout 'Allahu Akbar' from the tree top. Suddenly, they started firing in that bush ceaselessly for about an hour. No one was willing to tell me what was going on.
After the death of Muhammad Yusuf, did you ever see or meet Shekau in the bush?
No, I never met him.
But you were seeing other commanders in the bush who you knew during the lifetime of Muhammad Yusuf...
Yes, I was meeting others and Shekau knew I was going to the bush to meet some of the boys.
We understand Shekau is dead...
I am sorry, I won't answer that question. I do not want to discuss that issue.
How would you like to describe the new leadership of the group?
Well, it has been the same thing. They keep killing. How do you want me to describe them?
Some people say Muhammad Yusuf was milder than Shekau because there weren't many killings then. Do you agree with that belief?
Of course, that is true. Muhammad Yusuf was cool-headed. But you should also know that they are not responsible for all the killings. Some of the killings are politically motivated while others may be for economic reasons. When finally there is peace and the boys come into the open, Nigerians will hear from them. They will tell the world who and who were sending them to do what.
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