Barrister Aisha Wakil is an Igbo woman married to a Kanuri man. She is reputed to be extremely close to some leaders of the Boko Haram, a feat she achieved while undergoing her conversion to Islam. As a matter of fact, Boko Haram leaders reportedly call her “Mama” because she knew them way back while studying the Qur’an to become a Muslim. She is also the only lady on the Kabiru Saminu Turaki committee set up by the Goodluck Jonathan government to make peace with the Boko Haram insurgents. In this interview by BODUNRIN KAYODE in Maiduguri, she speaks on what the insurgents said needs to be done to end the lingering war.
Your interest in the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) led to your involvement in activism. When did you and others back off from getting a solution to the Boko Haram insurgency ravaging the North East?
According to an Igbo parable, when you climb up and fart, it confuses the people. They will not know the direction to go. These people are ready to come out. When I tell them to come out, they would complain, ‘Mama, we have worries. Some people do not want us to come out’. Who are they? I would press them further and they would insist that ‘they’ would not allow them to come out. Who are they? ‘Mama, you will not understand. If we come out of the bush…’ What did they say you should be doing in the bush? What about your own lives? God gave you life and you have to make use of it. ‘When they come, they give us money, dollars, etc. Sometimes, some of our comrades die and the money will disappear. We don’t know what happens. Mama you will not understand’. Does it mean you will never come out or surrender? I used to ask in seeking peace. ‘If we can get the proper leeway to come out, we will’, they always tell me. I think some people are really benefiting from the Boko Haram insurgency and so they do not want this war to end.
Why did the committee set up by the previous government fail to get them out of the bush?
I wouldn’t know what is in the people’s minds. Saminu Turaki had special hatred for me. He exhibited it when we were inaugurated. Brigadier-General Sabo, Sheikh Lemu, many elder statesmen like Professor Bolaji Akinyemi and several others were happy about what was going on but Turaki never opened his mouth to say ‘Aisha, I am happy you are in this group’. He was unhappy about my presence. He was never happy I was in the committee. We were divided into several groups. I belonged to the Contact Group. In that group, if we briought in the boys, all the contacts must come and meet. Belonging to the Contact Group meant you must have contact with them. But the first time we started functioning, it was a contact with 11 or 13 of them, led by one Tash Ali ‑ I may not get the pronunciation right. He came and brought people, even those not in the Contact Group, to review them. I went back to the hotel and called them to know if that was their group. Nobody called me because if they called, I would pick up the telephone and confirm who was original or fake since that was an initial challenge. In the Contact Group, we are supposed to bring in the boys so that all of them would come and meet.
That very night, he came to the meeting, I went back to my hotel and left the other members to continue the profiling. I was in my room when one of the boys, Umar Ali, Shekau’s bodyguard who is now late, wanted to know if a particular group was at the meeting point. He said those who came were not the real guys, but a fake Boko Haram group. According to him, they came to impersonate the real guys. They were angry that they used fake guys for the initial reconciliation meeting. The following day, Shekau went online and you know what went on.
When we finished the meeting, I called another bodyguard who spoke English language. He said that what we were doing was an eyesore because Shekau would never make peace with these kinds of people because they started with a fake faction. Why did we not ask them for the authentic group? he asked me. They said they knew we travelled to Lagos with Baba Sani, Ak47 and Aba Goro. ‘We knew you went to see members of the Tony Blair Foundation in Lagos and we allowed them to go with you. We knew when you went to see Sambo Dasuki who selected those who went with you’, the bodyguard told me. I said that we were in the Contact Group and we were doing our job and that they needed to calm down, instead of getting angry with me. I was not the only one who was involved. Kabiru Turaki took Maruwan round to shake hands with all the members in the Contact Group, while his face was covered so that he was not shown.
One of the members refused to shake hands with Maruwan; he called him names. ‘Why bring him to the hall?’ he asked. Then Shekau started boiling from his point in the bush with another online salvo. I had to calm the situation down. There was another committee, including myself, Steven Davis and Ambassador Hassan. Hassan said if Shekau agreed to turn up for peace talks, they suggested that I escorted the big man and other big names like him out of the bush to the conference table. But they said no, they were not coming. The whole thing was haphazard and we were not making much progress to get the desired peace. I was in a wheelchair at that time because my blood pressure was mounting and so, I travelled to Dubai for treatment.
Turaki came and was speaking as if he was the key negotiator. I complained that I was the key actor whom they respect but Turaki refused to respond on this matter. He went on ignoring me and lots of mistakes were made in the process of taking off. Actually, I advised the soldiers not to touch the boys or injure them in any way during the peace process. This is because I was free with them; I have known them for a long time. They arrested a boy who told them it was Aisha who brought them. Saminu Turaki knew about the moves. Turaki refused to get the boy released. And our agreement was that if they were arrested in any way, they should be released; they would come to us, but Turaki did not effect the release of the boy and he was in custody for a month.
The day I returned from Dubai, I saw somebody around me, low and behold, it was the boy. I took him from the soldiers to Turaki who ordered his release. Turaki took us to a room and begged boy, saying, ‘Mallam, since we started the process, it has not been easy getting pass through the first stage which is the identification of the real insurgents we should be dealing with. Please could you get the real core Sheikh Shura and Amir for me?’ He agreed. We went on a week’s break and then the boy came back to say, ‘Walahi, Mama, they do not want to come out. I tried my best’. I asked why? He said they rejected the members of the committee and called them drunkards and fornicators who did all manner of wrongs against their faith. He said they said they were not real Muslims ‘and so how do we deal with such filthy people like Turaki?’
I called them to order and told them not to judge anybody, but to focus on the peace which we were trying to build. I went further to do my personal profiling of some of them and took them to the hall for the committee to see. When I took them there at about 1.30 p.m., they were obviously not comfortable after Turaki asked some specific questions. And when the people were not comfortable, you would notice this everywhere in the hall.
He was the one going to look for them in the bush which I did with my own resources so that the process could be jumpstarted. At times, we travelled far, very close to the Republic of Niger, to go get them to join the peace cause. Turaki told them a lot of things and the commotion escalated. They were never with peace of mind. ‘Mama, if anything happens to us, we will all die’, they warned me for risking myself in the peace process. These boys don’t trust easily. Sometimes if I was going on a peace mission, they held my husband and three children as surety; to be sure that no trap was set for them. That was how much I used to risk my life for the rest of Nigerians. So, I asked all of them to calm down that day. Kabiru said they should all swear by Allah if they had not killed anybody, but I found that ridiculous. How could they uphold such an oath at a time we were looking for peace?
All of us were here. A security man was around. Turaki came with three SSS personnel, but I never knew something was amiss. So, I said they should be patient. I said one of them should go with us and talk to them. The security man also assisted in calming them down. Turaki was very hostile and was jeopardising the process. We were distant from each other. Turaki was furious, asking too many questions. Indeed, there was a setup. Yes, he wanted to put it on my head and God did not allow this damning thing to happen to me. He said they should arrest me in that charged atmosphere at the Banquet Hall in Abuja. One even said he would deny it ever happened. They wanted them to leave the hall and go into a special room to confess. God knows what they planned to do to them. They all had to deny that they were for the cause of the insurgents and that was how the process started hitting the rocks. Turaki mismanaged the process.
Look, if we had reached the level of truth and reconciliation, they would have easily mentioned their roles, but that was not necessary at that initial stage when the real kingpins were yet to come out. At about 1.30 a.m. that day, the boys started filing outside to enter their buses to return to the bush. Then, Kabiru told the security people to arrest me. They locked me up in seclusion and also Dr Aba Yerima and his wife; they locked all of us up. Before morning, my fingers were swelling up; I could not get my hypertension drugs. One of the security members of the Committee for Peace and Dialogue came and asked what happened. They asked me a lot of questions and said I should be patient and thankful to God. That was why I never had a record from my side. They were all happy with the development. They started calling their groups all over the Lake Chad, including Niger Republic and were informing themselves about what happened in that year – 2013. That was the main cause of the jeopardy to the peace process. That was why we did not make any progress.
Has there been any attempt by President Muhammadu Buhari to set up another committee for talks with the insurgents to start in earnest?
Well, I learnt that Saminu Turaki and his team have been on another one they call the Continuation Committee but it looks like I have been excluded. I went to Timbuctu, the forest behind Kano and brought out that Boko Haram group for this peace process, yet nothing happened. It is painful, indeed. That was the biggest opportunity we had to start the peace process. Anyhow, this peace process will start again if they want it. There was also jealousy because Turaki wanted to wear the red cap and so he created so much bitterness against me and all my moves.
Was Senator Shehu Sani also part of your committee?
No, he was not. Sani was not in my group. I don’t know much about him. I have never seen him. Sani was never involved with us.
If President Buhari asked for your advice on how to end this bloodshed, what would you tell him?
I would tell them to calm down and use diplomacy. In Maiduguri today, there are some mallams and sheikhs Boko Haram members listen to. Whatever those people say, they will listen. I have gone to meet those sheikhs and they said the government was not doing things the right way. They used to say, ‘Mama, we know you and we know you mean well. They should do it without making too much noise’. Look, the Boko Haram group has agents everywhere and they hear things, so they know how people feel. They no longer call me on phone; they use their own methods to communicate and pass intelligence. And when you sit down, they would tell you they need this peace more than we think. Since I was declared wanted, they no longer look for me boldly in achieving the peace process, especially when the military declared me wanted. They used to tell me they wanted peace more than the rest of us and I believed them. Many of them are tired. In fact, two of the factions want peace; Barnarwi wants peace. He is the grandson of Baba Fuku, the grandfather of Mohammed Yusuf who was my Islamic teacher. You see the connection now. Their sister, Amina, would cook for me when I was being tutored after conversion. The Boko Haram members will surely talk peace if this government wants to commence the process and I am ready to help any day.
But why did the military declare you wanted and what happened when you turned yourself in?
When I was declared wanted, I was surprised. I wondered why I should be declared wanted dead or alive along with Ahmed Salkida and Ahmed Umar Bolori. That day was 14 August, 2016. The first thing I did was to go on the social media. I made a post to my numerous friends who wanted to know if I was the same Aisha Alkali Wakil. It was a heat, a real heat. I was calm because I knew it must be a mistake for them to make such an announcement. I went by myself to the Defence Headquarters, Abuja. Nobody came for me; I went and I reported myself to them. I was eager to go and meet them. I was received when I told the pretty lady at the entrance that I was wanted by the military. She asked, ‘How did you know; who told you?’ I said it was everywhere. She asked for my name, I gave her. She asked me to sit and wait. After some time, some men came with two pretty ladies. They searched me and drove me to their headquarters; the Military Intelligence Headquarters. From there, after several hours, I was driven to the Command Guest House. There, I was asked to put in writing, everything I knew about the boys. I started writing by 9.00 p.m. and finished at about 4.00 a.m. To be honest with you, I was treated well. They gave me whatever I wanted to eat or drink. I don’t eat much. They made sure I relaxed; they talked to me to relax me.
After my writings, I was asked questions upon questions, based on what I wrote. They treated me with respect and told me that if I needed a doctor I should let them know, because I told them I was hypertensive. The big oga in charge of interrogation told them to allow me sleep without any disturbance because I was tired. The following day, at about 8.00 p.m., I was taken to the SSS Headquarters. There, I met Ahmed Umar Bolori. I nearly broke down when he called me. On hearing his voice, I turned and wanted to hold him – poor boy. I was stopped by the security. From there, we were taken to our different places to sleep. I was given my clothes, but they brought a new mattress for me, slippers, soap of my choice, good cream, new bed cover. I was given food of my choice and I was treated like a princess. I was locked inside a very clean, air-conditioned room. When I needed attention, a pretty lady attached to me would rush to open the door to attend to my need.
They asked me the way forward and how to arrive at peace with Boko Haram. There was nothing like accusing me of harbouring terrorists; no one said a thing like that. They were just seeking ways of finding peace with the insurgent group. I was not asked to report weekly; only at the SSS I was asked to get someone to take me so that any time they needed me they would get me via the person. I went there from Monday to Wednesday. There is more to it. The military guys are doing their best, while the bad elements are obstructing the peace process. The Boko Haram boys are divided in various groups. Half of them are tired; they are looking for what they call ‘hanya’. If I understand the slang, it means the ‘road’. Force won’t solve this problem. The military has no intention of killing anybody. They said they have to do what they are doing to save lives and properties of civilians. They have urged the boys to come out. Yet, killings, bombings, etc, are going on. One thing is certain, peace must come; the boys will surrender and they will come back home. When and how, only Allah knows.
But what about the Australian who was a member of your committee; have we had the last of Steve David?
I can’t say much about him. I think he was sabotaged. He got himself entangled with former Governor Ali Modu Sheriff who vowed to deal with him. Will this government bring him back for peace process? I don’t know. He is still alive; we communicate. Right now, the way forward for this war to end is in the hands of the mallam and sheikhs that brought them up spiritually. Steve is a sick man managing cancer.
But why is their practice of Islam so different?
I really don’t know the genesis of all this because even their mallams used to be worried about their kind of teachings. Sometimes, they will say they have been indoctrinated in the al-Qaeda way; a form of radicalism gotten from the Maghreb region. This Barnarwi is Habib; from his looks, he is definitely the son of Mohammed Yusuf. I know him as Habib and not what you people know him to be.
What is the level of your involvement in the negotiations for the Chibok girls? Do you have knowledge any ongoing process to get the rest out of captivity?
There are lots of moves going on They know the government wants them alive and I can tell you that they are all alive.
It is getting to one year now that the UNIMAID lecturers were captured. Is there any hope for their release?
I have been asking the same question. They are alive and they would be kept alive. Believe me, they say everything will come to an end soon and I believe that they will protect them. When I said the Chibok girls were alive, most people in the cvountry did not believe me, but you see how many have come out now.
Why do you think anybody would want Mohammed Yusuf dead, just when former President Olusegun Obasanjo was anxious to join the peace process and now have all these problems in our hands?
There was an issue between the powers that be then and Mohammed Yusuf, but nobody knew why his killing took place in this form of extrajudicial killing. He knew too much, I think. He had some secrets up his sleeves.
What do you think was the motive of Shekau to start this armed rebellion?
He wanted to institutionalise the Shariah, nothing special. They do not believe in the constitution. Even when I was interacting with them, I was thoroughly insulted by one of the boys. That was when I went to collect the list of people whom they wanted to negotiate on their behalf. The fellow who insulted me for being a lawyer and a product of boko. If you are doing a peace negotiation and you call me Aisha, the issue will end there, but if you say or ‘Mama Barrister’, you will get their attention and they will respond accordingly. As a mediator by training, I will continue to work on them to calm frayed nerves. I do hope the government will calm down and start talking, too. It is time to start talking.
What is it about your non-governmental organisation which you recently launched in Maiduguri?
It is an organisation that will operate in the entire country, not only in the North East. It will be concerned about everyone, but mostly women and young girls who are underprivileged and may not be able to make it in life on their own. I actually started by going underground to research and we found out that even the elderly men are vulnerable and so they are included. My mentor, Faulat Oluwatomisi, is a great influence on this project. She is a good friend who stressed to me, how to help out in activism for the common good. Because of my activism in humanitarian business, she came to Maiduguri and, seeing the issues, she said I must start working to help the oppressed. I am actually slanted towards Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). So, she suggested that instead of advocacy in the court, I should put my energy in this NGO, a complete care and aid foundation which we have just launched here.
We went underground to do a lot of research to get to the bottom of some of the problems of the society and came out with this NGO which will be our own way of intervention in the society. In my research, I found out that some of our major problems now are hard drugs, prostitution and hunger. Hunger is too much in this part of our country. It is not only women that are engaged in prostitution, men are equally involved in it. My friend gave me all the impetus needed to move out. Indeed, Prince Tolani Shorede and many others who believed in my cause during the consultation processes are around to support us. So, that was how we went to register it before this first launch in Maiduguri. We will do a second one for the wider world in Abuja later in 2018 and we will continue in rehabilitation, which is a precursor to peace.
Do you relate with the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) on drugs?
Oh, no. A tree cannot make a forest. Even if it makes a forest, it must burst out and its seeds will germinate to get a forest. I do hope to work with all the concerned people – stakeholders, NDLEA, the Ministry of Health, everyone. We will reach out to all sectors. NDLEA must be there to handle the issues. We will hit the ground running.