Michele Obama didn’t know Hamsatu Allamin. Neither did Malala Yousafzai, Amy Poehler, Justin Timberlake, and scores of other celebrities. But because of a press conference Hamsatu, a human rights activist, spearheaded in her home city of Maiduguri, Nigeria, in April of 2014, those celebrities and millions of people all over the world came to know of the abduction by the insurgent group, Boko Haram, of 200+ girls from a boarding school in Chibok, a village in Borno State. And thousands subsequently took to social media to demand the girls be returned to their homes.
Word of their kidnapping had reached Hamsatu the morning after it happened through a phone call from an associate who lived in Chibok. The Nigerian government’s initial response to the incident ranged from obfuscation to denial. Rumors replaced information. Hearsay doubled as news.
A full four days after the girls were taken in the middle of the night from their dormitory, little was officially reported on the incident and nothing was known about their whereabouts. Those whose daughters had disappeared wondered why their country’s security forces hadn’t been able to quickly find hundreds of teenage girls, a cadre of insurgents, and a convoy of vehicles in the expanse around Chibok — a lonely landscape dotted with thorny bushes and scattered trees.
Against the backdrop of virtual silence on the matter, Hamsatu contacted a colleague in Maiduguri’s civil society — Professor Hauwa Abdu Biu — to help coordinate a press conference to draw attention to what had happened in Chibok. The two hoped that the publicity would create international pressure on the government to do more to find the girls and to dialogue with the insurgents to end the rampant violence that threatened the future of their country.
That was the plan that brought together 18 women leaders from Borno State to stand in solidarity before members of the media and listen as one of their own, Professor Biu, read the statement she and Hamsatu had worked on together:
Women Peace and Security network under the leadership of the Borno outreach of BAOBAB for Women Human Rights and other concerned women in Borno State wish to condemn the abduction of female students of GGSS Chibok as well as other females from Dikwa and other parts of the North Eastern States by suspected members of Jamaatul ahlil sunna Lidaawati wal Jihad. Such acts are inhuman and capable of affecting the efforts of enhancing girl child education and development in the state and the country at large.
This idea of invading schools and causing havoc on the lives of future leaders, particularly future mothers of Nigeria, is a way of violating international humanitarian law. Women in Borno State condemn in its totality such acts of violence as attacks on schools deny children their rights to learn in a safe environment there by jeopardizing their future.
We also condemn all other attacks in the form of bomb blasts and serial killings all over the country in its entirety and commiserate with the families of all those that lost their lives during the unfortunate incidences. While calling on the sect members to please release all those in their custody without harming them, and as a matter of urgency lay down their arms and embrace dialogue, we wish to assure them of our motherly support towards rehabilitating them when the need arises.
While commending the efforts of both Federal, Borno State government and other security personnel as well as the Borno youth volunteers toward addressing the current insurgency attacks in the state, and bearing in mind the attacks on schools, we wish to appeal for the provision of adequate security to all schools so as to have safe learning environment to enable building a promising future for the country.
National and international media outlets picked up the story, and the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme, the British-sponsored nongovernmental organization Hamsatu worked for, helped spread the word, as well. Before long, people all over the globe — from those in the upper echelons of power to those with family and friends on Facebook and Twitter — took up the cry of the mothers and fathers of Chibok: Bring back our girls.
Hamsatu’s connection with that story and others involving Boko Haram started long before that hashtag trended. The path to her advocacy began decades earlier, the day her father announced she would go to school ... .
Narrative title photo: “Bring Back Our Girls” mural in West Vale, England (Photo by Tim Green on flickr )
Section title photo: Michelle Obama holding a sign for #BringBackOurGirls (Wikipedia)
Becoming Hamsatu Allamin
Early Lessons / To Begin Again
Sitting sideways on the crossbar of the bike, Hamsatu gripped the center of the handlebars as her father, pedaling hard, navigated the winding, narrow roads of Maiduguri. They were on their way to Gamboru Jr. Primary School where Hamsatu would begin her education.
The morning sun, shining through the feathery leaves of the neighborhood’s many neem trees, cast dappled shadows on the hard-packed route. Looking down, Hamsatu saw the steady rise and fall of her father’s black boot — part of his uniform as an inspector at the local slaughterhouse. She smiled at the sight of her own small feet, dangling in red rubber sandals, bought especially for this day.
She’d been looking forward to it ever since she’d overheard her father telling her mother that it was his decision that Hamsatu — their firstborn daughter — attend school.
“Why?” Hamsatu’s mother had asked. “Why can’t she just stay at home, like I did?”
In the Hausa tribe Hamsatu’s mother was from, girls were typically given in marriage at the age of 12 or 13. For women in that time and place, book-learning seemed superfluous for a life spent cooking, cleaning, bearing and raising children. Many children.
“The world is changing,” Hamsatu’s father answered. “Our daughters will go to school.”
Hamsatu was aware of other differences between her mother and father. Her father, a member of the tight-knit Kanuri tribe that made up nearly the entire population of Maiduguri, was the son of a renowned Islamic scholar, and an Islamic scholar himself. He grew up in the home where he now lived with his wife, children — Hamsatu, the oldest — and his aging mother, who was also a Hausa. Theirs was a compound gifted years ago by the emir to Hamsatu’s grandfather because of the depth and breadth of his knowledge of the Quran.
Hamsatu’s father was fluent in the language of the Kanuri, but at home they all spoke Hausa. It was the only language the little girl — now on her way to a school full of Kanuri children — knew.
Hamsatu lifted one hand off the handlebars to pat the head scarf that covered her hair, intricately plaited in a style called zanan yawo, unique to the Hausa culture. She leaned lightly against her father’s chest. His arms, firmly on the handlebars, enfolded her like a hug.
She looked up at him. The hue of his skin, the set of his eyes, the line of his lips — all so much like her own, people often said. Unlike most in their community, neither Hamsatu nor her father bore the tribal markings on their cheeks of the Kanuri tribe. Scars that told her world, “If you don’t have these, you don’t belong.” His mother, who’d lost several children early on to sickness and accidents, couldn’t bear to have her youngest child — Hamsatu’s father — put through the pain of that tradition.
Hamsatu loved her father, even when he scolded her if she neglected to say the daily prayers he’d patiently taught her in accordance with the Quran. Or when she mischievously snuck some extra bites of the kola nuts he’d set aside. Or when she overfed and accidentally killed a passel of newly hatched chicks, playmates of hers in a make-believe tea party gone wrong.
Up until now, Hamsatu had had few playmates. Her world had essentially been circumscribed by the thatch fence that surrounded the family compound. And her grandmother was extremely protective of this child who’d been named after her.
“Come, Chiwuna, sit,” she’d say, using a term of endearment for Hamsatu that meant “namesake,” and patting the cotton cover of her bed. “I’ll tell you a story.”
“Yes, Na’am,” Hamsatu dutifully answered, settling in for another re-telling.
The happy thought of finally having friends her own age fueled Hamsatu’s excitement this morning. And when the bike slowed through the shade of the mango trees near the entrance to the school, Hamsatu felt her heart racing.
With her father signing the admission paperwork in the school office, Hamsatu was escorted by a teacher to the first grade classroom — a structure made of mud bricks and roofed with corrugated metal, much like Hamsatu’s house.
The familiarity of that bolstered her a bit as she shyly made her way into the room, past the stares of the 20 or so children already there, sitting on the ground. And as she sat down to join them, a collective murmur coursed through the room, followed by muffled laughter as a boy with scarred cheeks and forehead — like most Kanuri children — mockingly whispered, “A Hausa girl is here. A Hausa girl is here.”
And even though Hamsatu didn’t understand all the Kanuri words he was saying, she heard the term “Hausa” and felt the derision with which it was said. That moment marked the beginning of a kind of covert hazing of the Hausa girl by the children she had once hoped would be her first friends.
At recess no one played with her. She ate her lunch alone. Kids taunted her about the millet mixed with yogurt they knew to be a traditional Hausa staple, a dough called fura. “Dough-eater,” they sneered in low tones as she walked by.
Hamsatu told no one what she was enduring. Not her teachers. Not her parents. She didn’t want to continue going to school, but she knew how important education was not only to her father, but also to their religion. The Quran, her father had explained to her, begins with the words, “Read. Read in the name of the Lord who created.” The Prophet Muhammad himself emphasized the importance of learning. “Seeking knowledge is the duty of every Muslim,” he had said.
Every night before another school day, Hamsatu struggled to hold in her tears until she was sure the grownups were sleeping.
Hamsatu came to know all too well that her Kanuri schoolmates viewed her — with her smooth, unmarked face, her completely covered hair, and her Hausa accent — as some sort of alien, some sort of “other.” But what could she do, except do her best to get good grades and make her father proud?
One day, as Hamsatu sat in the classroom, quietly working to do exactly that, a boy popped up and snatched the scarf off her head, revealing for the first time the plaiting of her Hausa hair, so different from the braiding that peeked out to frame the identifying scar on the foreheads of the Kanuri girls.
The teacher came rushing when she heard the children’s hoots, shouts, and cruel laughter spilling into the courtyard.
“Enough!” she said, standing in the doorway.
The commotion stopped.
“What’s going on here?!”
The children squirmed in their places, sliding their eyes in Hamsatu’s direction.
This time her tears didn’t wait.
“Who did this?” the teacher, seeing Hamsatu’s bare, bowed head, asked.
All eyes slowly slid in the direction of the perpetrator — a boy named Loskurima, the tell-tale scarf crumpled beside him.
“I see,” she said ominously. “OK, then. For now, get back to work, children. We’ll deal with this tomorrow.”
The next day, a bell was rung calling the entire student body to proceed to the courtyard for a morning assembly. The headmaster, teacher, Hamsatu, her father, and the boy who took her scarf stood before the gathering group of about 100 students and faculty.
When everyone had finally shuffled into place, the teacher talked about what had happened in her class the day before.
“Now, do you see this person here?” the teacher added, gesturing to the man in the black boots standing beside Hamsatu.
The children nodded.
“He is her father,” she said. “And he is also my brother.” She used the term “brother,” not literally, but to make the point that they were of the same tribe. Kanuri. In effect, she was telling the children that Hamsatu, the daughter of a Kanuri man, was also a Kanuri, in spite of her Hausa hair and everything else.
“So, if anyone here ever dares again to call Hamsatu a ‘Hausa girl,’ that student will be flogged.”
First, Loskurima was ordered to apologize publicly to the Hamsatu.
“I’m sorry,” he squeaked, eyeing the whip made of hippo hide the headmaster was holding.
Then he was told to drop to the ground and lie face to the sand.
All eyes in the crowd watched the supple rod rise. They heard it whistle through the air and land with a thwack on Loskurima’s lower back. Then again. And again. Six times, in all.
Hamsatu watched solemnly as this all played out, flinching ever so slightly each time the whip met its mark.
Things gradually got better after that. But the incident and its implied message would stay with Hamsatu all her life.
The teacher didn’t say, “Children, let’s do our best to welcome this stranger — a Hausa girl — into our midst. Let’s share with her what we know to be true, but also be willing to listen, learn, and in the process, make this world we all live in a little larger.” That would have reinforced what Hamsatu’s father had told her the Prophet had said: “Seek knowledge even if it is as far as China.”
What Hamsatu and her classmates were hearing now was that the only way to gain inclusion in their world was to be a Kanuri. She knew that to be Kanuri was also to be Muslim. Some Kanuri even went an extreme step further, believing that if you weren’t one of their tribe, you couldn’t possibly be a real Muslim.
Hamsatu knew, firsthand, what it felt like to be an outsider. And at the tender age of 6, she also came to know — in an elementary way — that when one’s worldview is defined by the divisions inherent in the labels “Us” and “Them,” all sides suffer.
To Begin Again
Standing in the hot, cramped kitchen a few weeks after delivering her third child in as many years, Hamsatu called for her in-law’s kids to help her with preparations for the evening meal that would break the Ramadan fast. Bone tired and still weak from the birth, Hamsatu felt increasingly overburdened by the traditional responsibilities of being The Woman of the House, the overseer not only of her immediate family’s well-being, but of everyone’s under that roof — several of her husband’s siblings and their children, as well.
Hamsatu was frustrated, too, at the circumstances that had brought her to this moment: an arranged marriage at age 18 to an honorable man, but one old enough to be her father; babies arriving in rapid succession; day-to-day societal pressures at odds with what she’d hoped for in life; and the overarching desire to act always in accordance with her Islamic faith and all that her father had taught her. Coupled with the full load of college coursework she had just completed to earn a degree in English and education, it had all become too much.
She called out again, louder this time. Though everyone was at home, no one bothered to respond, until finally her shouts could no longer be ignored.
“What’s the matter with you?” her husband snapped, arriving in the kitchen along with everyone else in the house.
Hamsatu told him, and a heated argument ensued — a litany on both sides of expectations neither could fulfill. Hamsatu knew her husband had done everything he could to make his young wife happy: grudgingly allowing her to continue her education, even buying her a car to get her to class after the birth of his first child. But his efforts weren’t working any more, if, in fact, they ever had. The pressures of her role in the extended family, her in-laws’ view of her as an interloper, her immaturity, her feeling of helplessness, her hopes for the future — all these things could no longer be denied.
Back and forth they argued, two people in the grip of cultural forces and their own maddening inability to make things right for themselves and each other. In the heat of the kitchen and the moment, Hamsatu’s husband did something he’d never done before. He grabbed her roughly near the neckline of her loose-fitting gumaje and yanked her toward him. Now their faces were so close, they could feel each other’s breath. Neither blinked.
“Let me go,” she whispered evenly. And it was clear she wasn’t simply referring to the fistful of fabric he held in his hand.
Seconds passed in a minute that seemed like a millennium.
“OK then. If that’s what you want, I divorce you.”
With the pot of rice still simmering on the stove and her in-laws speechless for a change, Hamsatu was out the door, running in the moonlight, back to her childhood home.
Only her month-old son arrived at the house on Abba Amsta Nglaiyama Street with Hamsatu that evening. She left her other two children with their father and her in-laws — quite possibly, for good. Her situation felt so bleak, Hamsatu found herself willing to do even that.
Somehow she’d move on. As a divorced woman, she wouldn’t need to ask for her husband’s permission to get a job. Nor her father’s. According to Islamic tradition, she was free. The very next day, she headed to the Civil Service Commission, filled out an application, gained an interview, and was quickly offered a teaching position and a path to self-sufficiency.
But the community was still buzzing with the news of the divorce. Because Hamsatu’s husband had only said the words “I divorce you” one time, not three, the possibility remained — again, according to Islamic tradition — for a reconciliation. Local elders and her husband’s relatives soon began lobbying for the two to get back together. One by one and in groups, they called on her father — the situation discussed at length and without Hamsatu’s participation.
It wasn’t long, though, before her father broached the topic with her.
“We must talk,” he said, striding into the room where she and her mother were sitting.
Hamsatu understood the predicament she’d put him in. People would lose respect for him as a man and a father if he allowed her to live with them when her husband was willing to take her back, as he’d indicated through the steady stream of emissaries.
She thought back to all the times her father been her champion — not just encouraging her to continue into higher education, but also secretly helping her to fund it. She remembered, too, how he taught her the prayers every good Muslim knows, and the pride she saw in his eyes when he heard her recite them perfectly. Back when he had insisted that she marry before she’d begin her college career, he justified it as a means for her to avoid the temptations he said too often befall young women on a campus. And because she had no doubt that he always had her best interests at heart, Hamsatu acquiesced.
Now he told her he understood and sympathized with the challenges of a marriage like hers. But he urged her — pleaded with her, actually — to consider what would become of the children, her little ones, if their mother didn’t return.
Blinking back tears, Hamsatu acknowledged that the unhappiness she’d felt in recent years had had an effect on her ability to be the kind of person and parent she wanted to be.
As a follower of Islam, Hamsatu believed her destiny was pre-ordained. That before she was born, Allah had decided whom she would marry and how many children she would have. Through this difficult conversation she was having with her father, Hamsatu began to see that instead of the new life she’d started envisioning, she was being offered a second chance at her old one — an opportunity not to run from her destiny, but to make peace with it, do whatever she could to quell the conflicts that roiled within her, and continue to honor her father’s wishes.
Tears streamed down both their faces as Hamsatu arrived at a decision: In order to move forward, in good faith, she would go back.
Section title photo: An overcrowded classroom in Maiduguri (Photo provided by Hamsatu Allamin)
Early Outreach and Advocacy
Konduga Days / The Power of Persistence
A metal box, holding the fancy silver halters befitting the horses of a village chief, landed with a rude clank in the back of the old pickup.
So, it’s come to this, Hamsatu sighed, watching as the last of her family’s belongings was loaded in for relocation to a smaller residence down the road from the main compound in Konduga, where she’d lived for nearly two decades with her ever-growing family and a sizable retinue of villagers in service to its chief, her husband. The locals called that central compound “the palace,” even though, with its free-roaming livestock and clusters of buildings made mainly of mud, it was hardly the stuff of fairy tales.
Hamsatu thought back to the beginning of her life there, when word came to their home in the city that her husband’s father, a village chief, had died, and that role was now his to fill. She wasn’t at all happy with the turn of events. It had been hard enough to make peace with her decision to return to her troubled marriage, let alone face the prospect of moving her children — a fourth now on the way — to an isolated enclave some 25 kilometers southeast of Maiduguri.
In Konduga, life hadn’t changed all that much in the centuries since the sultans. To get by, most of the men there prayed to Allah that their hardscrabble family farms would produce enough to feed their many wives and children until the next rainy season.
Hamsatu hated the idea of moving there, but trusting in Allah, made up her mind to do everything she could to make the best of it. And now, looking back, she was glad she did. Glad for all she accomplished during those years. Early on, as the chief’s wife, she’d managed to continue her education by commuting to the city to earn a master’s degree. She even had a book published based on her thesis, which led to a promotion to head the community school, which led to contacts with other working women in Maiduguri who shared a passion for making life better — not just for themselves and their children, but also for all those who hadn’t been blessed with the same opportunities.
As the back of the flatbed truck continued to be filled, Hamsatu watched the movers heave and hoist. And in memory, saw again scenes from the past 17 years.
Hamsatu hears the celebration before she’s officially part of it: the rhythmic pounding of gambas, the trill of the wooden flutes, the jubilant shouts of the crowd keeping pace with her husband — their new chief — as he rides on horseback to the gate of the family home. Tradition dictated that she wait there to welcome him after the turbanning ceremony that established him as the leader of Konduga. The white robes of his office flutter in the wind. His head, crowned with a brimless red hat — the mark of royalty — is swathed in the turban he received that morning in the ceremony officiated by the Emir in front of the palace. In one hand, her husband holds a long red spear, another mark of authority. He punches the air with it as the procession he’s riding in arrives at his house. And the crowd’s cheers reach a crescendo as he leans down to transfer the spear — as tradition dictates — to his wife. Accepting it and all that it signifies, Hamsatu holds it high above her head, allowing the joyful noise of the day to quiet her misgivings about the family’s new life in Konduga.
“Come, join me,” Hamsatu says, gesturing to the ground in front of her mat. The woman tentatively approaching her had been told by others in the village that the new chief’s wife is different — very different — from previous women in that role. Hamsatu, they say, doesn’t lounge inside all day, ensconced in flowing robes, waiting for supplicants to make their way through guards and protocols to bow and address her.
Instead, she comes out on her veranda to sit and chat with those seeking guidance from the chief’s wife on how to get along with the co-wives in their households, or what to do about a lazy son, a recalcitrant daughter, an overbearing mother-in-law.
“I’m so happy to see you,” Hamsatu continues. “Please, be seated.”
The woman eases herself down, and with her legs tucked beneath her, bows deeply before sitting face-to-face with the Number One Woman in the world of her village.
“Now, tell me, dear, how is your family? I hope things are well with you and your people?” Hamsatu says, offering a straw plate piled with kola nuts to further put the woman at ease. Then she leans in and listens. Listens in a way that seeks not just to hear, but to understand what’s it like to be this woman. What it’s like to live hand to mouth, as so many in the village do; to dream sometimes of a better life, but to wake up too many mornings hungry.
Why not? Hamsuta thinks, when the idea comes to her to form an association of women workers. In an earlier role as secretary of the Association of Women Civil Servants in Maiduguri she’d seen the impact an activist organization like that had on the lives of people there.
Why not here in the village? the chief’s wife thinks.
So, she heads out to talk with women where they work about her idea, and in the process, connect the mostly-Muslim community with those of the Christian faith in a common cause. The group starts out as a simple support system aiding local families — with food, necessities, and small gifts — when they’re bereaved or yet another baby arrives. But as the women’s trust in each other grows, so does the scope of the group’s purpose and outreach.
Under Hamsatu’s leadership, they band together to run a cooperative farm with a mango garden attached, given to the group by the local government. With the money they earn from it, they fund more projects. By also tapping into several government-sponsored programs, they’re able to provide needed capital to reactivate local poultry farms and start groundnut oil-extraction businesses. And thanks to a grant for a ready supply of clay, the women skilled in making pots are able to craft and sell their creations all year, even when seasonal downpours turn the land beneath their feet into a slippery sludge.
Hamsatu overhears a servant telling the chief about a strange young woman sitting motionless under a tree near the village school.
“She just stares into a bowl she holds in her lap. Doesn’t say anything to anyone,” the young man reports.
“How long has she been there?”
“Nearly a week, sir.”
As the chief ponders what to do, Hamsatu jumps in.
“Bring her to me.”
“What are you saying?” Hamsatu’s husband says.
“Bring her to the compound. We can at least give her a place to stay for a while,” Hamsatu answers, remembering the Prophet’s words, “Whosoever alleviates the lot of a needy person, Allah will alleviate his lot in this world and the next.”
Hamsatu meets with the woman later that day. Their conversation, such as it is, yields little more than her name: Ya Jalo. Hamsatu believes that if there is a cure for the confusion and fear she sees in Ya Jalo’s eyes, it can only come through kindness.
And it does. At first, most of the villagers want nothing to do with Ya Jalo, fearing that the fact that she’s mentally challenged has something to do with the devil. But over time, after seeing the chief’s wife — of all people — working with her in the compound’s kitchen, stirring pots, chopping onions, they’re willing to do the same, and more. In fact, a young man, one of the chief’s own guards, eventually comes to love Ya Jalo enough to ask for her hand in marriage.
Hamsatu remembers others, too, who came to the compound through all sorts of circumstances, and ended up becoming part of the family: A bright-eyed girl whose parents disowned her when she spoke up and said she wanted to accept the admission into college she’d earned, instead of going through with the wedding and the celebration her parents had already bought a goat for. Three boys from a wine-making tribe that lived on the farthest fringes of Konduga — young men who were drawn to convert to Islam by the preaching of the Islamic scholars and imams from nearby Maiduguri. And more. Many more. Outsiders — outcasts, even — whom Hamsatu embraced and aided. In a word, loved.
So much has happened here, she thought, as the tailgate of the pickup, slamming shut, brought her back to the moment at hand: the imminent move precipitated by a power grab that saw her ailing husband marginalized as a community leader. The ouster was a tale of backbiting and betrayal, masterminded by a man, a distant relative, her husband had always treated like a son. Nothing about it felt right. Still, Hamsatu couldn’t help but be grateful for the deep joy she had come to know in Konduga, through 17 years of service to the people there, and Allah’s plan.
The Power of Persistence
Early every workday at the offices of the State Primary Education Board in Maiduguri, the tattered old men arrived. Some settled in on a couch in the hallway, muttering to each other — their thin shoulders sagging, their gray heads bowed. Others sat in the shade near the building’s carport — their hands, upturned and idle, resting on their knees. Every now and then, a passerby would be moved to drop a cash note or two — unsolicited — into their palms.
It was easy to mistake them for beggars, but on her first day in her job as Director of School Services, Hamsatu learned that these old men were retired teachers who used to work in the primary schools in Borno State. For 35 years, they’d taught their community’s children how to read and write, add and subtract. Encouraged them to do their best. Prepared them, as much as possible, for success in secondary school and later life.
Many of those teachers now made their way around town on rusty bikes — their only means of transportation. And they’d gamely wave to any former student honking a “hello” from a shiny new sedan.
Not only were such luxuries out of reach for the retired educators, so were many of life’s necessities. As primary school teachers, they didn’t receive a pension. After their mandatory retirement at age 65, their income disappeared.
Civil servants and teachers working in secondary education, on the other hand, were assured of a lump-sum gratuity and a monthly pension from the state; and the federal government funded the retirement checks of educators at the college level. But teachers in the state’s primary schools were employees of their local governments, none of which had found a way to provide for them in their retirement. All they were likely to receive at the end of their decades of service was a “thank you” and a “goodbye.”
“You mean to tell me they get nothing in their old age? Nothing? That these public servants are allowed to go to their graves destitute?!” Hamsatu asked her colleagues that first day on the job. Their nods were confirmed by the conversations she soon had with the old men themselves. Some had taken up their usual posts that day with new hope that this new director could somehow help. Typically, they came to the Education Board more in resignation and solidarity than expectation. It was, at least, someplace to go.
Solving this pension problem wasn’t one of the duties of her new position. But even though she didn’t have that mandate, Hamsatu decided to take it on anyway. As a former secondary-school teacher, she wouldn’t gain anything from it, yet to her, the issue was personal. In between her other responsibilities, she began studying the matter and looked to the southern region of Nigeria for possible solutions. She knew that secular education there was highly valued. And she learned through calls, conversations, and dogged research, that it was also well funded, including pensions for teachers — even those at the primary level. Hamsatu viewed that as nothing less than society’s moral obligation to those who educate its children. The “why” of it all. And now she was determined to find a “how.”
With a small bundle of file folders clutched to her chest, she headed up the stairs to present her boss with the pension findings she’d gathered in her first months on the job.
“Yes, I know it’s a problem, Hajja,” he agreed. “But realistically, there’s not much we can do. This department is only allotted funds to pay the salaries of active teachers. Without due process, nothing more can be done. I’m sorry, but this is a job for the legislature, not us.”
Hamsatu sat with that for a minute.
“Well, what if I were to write a memo from the Board that would bring it to the legislature’s attention?” she said. “It could get things started, couldn’t it? What do you say?”
With a world-weary sigh and a wry chuckle, the veteran administrator answered, “Sure, why not? Go ahead. Can’t hurt to try.”
And that was all Hamsatu needed.
That night, Hamsatu sat on the floor, hunched over a spiral notebook. Pen in hand, she worked, crafting the memo that would not only bring the pension problem to the attention of members of the Assembly, but also outline in clear detail how it could be solved. Drawing on her research in those file folders, she offered specifics on everything from government avenues for funding to plans for implementation.
The light overhead flickered, but didn’t go out, as it often did. She’d prepared for a probable power outage by making sure she had a flashlight nearby. She would finish this tonight, she vowed, no matter what. With the floor around her littered with first, second, and fifth drafts, she finally fell asleep, just as the neighborhood’s guinea fowl were waking up in the baobob trees.
Late in the afternoon the next day, Hamsatu was still waiting for her assistant to format the final draft on the office’s computer, when her boss peeked in to say, “Have a good evening, Hajja. See you tomorrow.” She’d hoped to have the memo finished before he left, but now he was out the door.
No matter. As soon as it landed on her desk, she tucked it into a presentation folder and dashed out to the parking lot. Instead of going home, she drove to her boss’s house for the first time, surprising him while he relaxed, sitting with friends on a rug on his porch.
She apologized for the interruption and quickly got to the point of her visit: his signature on her memo, so she’d be authorized to take it to the House of the Assembly.
They both knew that with an election just days away, things at that governing body were uncertain. Soon outsiders might be in, and current insiders, out.
After taking a few moments to review the two-page document, he looked up.
“Well done, Hajja,” he said, signing his name. “I hope it passes.”
Next stop: the offices of the legislature, a few minutes away. It was after hours, but Hamsatu took a chance that the Speaker of the House would still be on site. He, too, had once been a teacher and they had known each other in their earlier careers. As Speaker, it would be his job to present the memo to the Assembly and shepherd it to a vote.
When she arrived at that government building, only one car remained in the lot. And next to its open door, stood the Speaker. Just as he was about to duck into the seat next to his driver, she hailed him.
“Hajiya?” he answered.
Once again, to the surprise of an official, Hamsatu stepped up to explain the reason for her visit and give him the memo to read. He teased her about the timing of it being politically motivated. But as ex-teachers, they both understood that this was an issue above politics.
“No guarantees, especially with the election coming up. But I’ll see what I can do,” he promised.
Distracted by the upheaval that often accompanies an election, no one in the government bothered to keep Hamsatu informed about the status of the bill. It was doubtful, too, that many of the legislators — hurrying to clear their desks — realized its full significance or far-reaching impact.
If and when it did pass, the new governor would have to sign it and then funding would also need his approval. With the advent of a new administration, Hamsatu realized that the issue might not come to his attention for a long time. Given the way the system works sometimes, she worried it could languish in the shuffle of the transition, or even get lost.
Weeks passed, then months, with no further word from sources governmental or media-related. And the tattered old men — and women, too — continued to gather at her workplace. They didn’t know about the memo or the bill. Hamsatu, aware of the uncertainties inherent in the process, hadn’t said anything about it. False hope, she knew, dies hardest of all.
I’ve got to find out what’s going on with that memo, whatever it takes, she decided at her desk one morning. Clearing her calendar and grabbing her car keys, she headed out the office door.
First stop, the Assembly, where she was told the bill had been passed and sent on to the Government House, a compound that contained the state offices, as well as the Governor’s living quarters. There she learned that it had been given a file number and forwarded to the Ministry of Justice, an indication that the new Governor had signed it.
Staying on the trail, file number in hand, Hamsatu headed for the Ministry of Justice, where she charmed a government worker into helping her locate the file.
“This is as good a place as any to start,” he said, flipping the pages of a large hard-cover notebook that tracked the movement of documents through the Ministry. It led them both to a closet filled with stacks of numbered folders — piled high in no apparent order. Together they settled in to sift through those files. One by one.
“Found it!” Hamsatu exclaimed hours later. And sure enough, there it was — the Governor’s signature in red at the bottom of the bill. The staid halls echoed with her whoops of joy.
But there was more to be done. The Solicitor General now needed to move it forward, the Ministry worker told her. Together they took the signed bill to his office, so a letter could be drafted informing the Ministry of Local Government Affairs that a bill enabling pensions and gratuities for their primary school teachers had been passed.
All well and good, except for the fact that for the money to flow, the Governor would now have to officially OK the dispersal of funds. A necessary formality.
Hamsatu checked every week with the Accounts Payable department to see if the money had been deposited for dispersal. Week after week, the funds weren’t there. The Commissioner of Local Government, she learned, was still waiting for the governor’s approval.
To Hamsatu, there seemed to be no end to the bureaucratic labyrinth. Even within her own workplace — the Education Board — key positions, including that of her former boss, were now filled by members of the opposition party, complicating matters even more. Still, determined to see this pension issue through, she decided the newly appointed Accountant General, a woman who was also the new governor’s sister-in-law, might be just the person to help make his final approval of the funding happen. Once again, Hamsatu grabbed her car keys and headed out the office door.
Greeting the Accountant General at her desk, Hamsatu offered congratulations on the election. Then smoothly segued into sharing her realization that every new administration, of course, is eager to prove to the electorate they’re able to get things done. Big things. Like the pension bill for primary school teachers that simply needed one final signature for its funding to flow.
“Once it’s implemented, it will not only boost His Excellency’s image, it’ll make life better for thousands of retired teachers in the primary system! The people who teach our children. Yours and mine. Believe you me, those public servants will thank our new governor. And with your kind assistance right now, Dear Madam, so will I.” Hamsatu smiled, raised her eyebrows, and waited.
“OK. Consider it done,” the Accountant General said. And within days, at last, it was.
A large public event marked the announcement of the new pension plan for primary teachers. On a decorated platform on the grounds of the State Primary Education Board, politicians made speech after speech, congratulating themselves and each other on this “significant achievement.” The role of the Director of School Services in making it happen went unacknowledged, then and after.
That afternoon Hamsatu Allamin was just another person in the audience. Standing with the happy throng of new pensioners and their families, she remembered the saying she’d heard so often: “Teachers find their reward in heaven.” Through the steps she had taken to get the bill passed and implemented, she had done what she could to change that adage a bit. And it was in the faces of the crowd that day that Hamsatu found her own reward.
Section title photo: Nigerian children at play (Wikipedia)
The Insurgents Next Door
The Gathering Storm / The Roots of Jihad
The Gathering Storm
They were the golden boys of Maiduguri. Good kids from good families. University students with hopes of changing the world. And then they were gone. One by one or with their friends, they dropped out of school, abandoned their studies in economics, science, engineering, or tore up their diplomas. They left behind their homes and families to follow a young man named Muhammad Ali and to preach his vision of true Islam from village to village.
“Why would they do that? Throw away the opportunities that come with college to live like paupers and preach? Why?” Hamsatu heard her friends and neighbors — parents of those boys — ask each other and her as they gossiped in the marketplace, mingled at ceremonial occasions, or visited each other’s homes to share their frustrations and their fears.
“Why would they turn their backs on everything dear to them — family, home, education?”
The answer, Hamsatu realized, was within the question itself.
Institutionalized corruption, spread by patrimonial politics in their society, was an open secret in Borno. People who had bribed their way to high-level positions in all sectors too often awarded jobs to their relatives and cronies. In the system as it was, a good-for-nothing nephew was likely to be given preference over a top-of-the-class college grad.
Muhammad Ali tapped into a growing sense of disillusionment among his classmates at the University of Maiduguri, arguing that in a society that was true to the Quran, inequities like that would not only disappear, they wouldn’t happen in the first place. Offering a kind of utopian vision, he lured scores of disaffected youth to join him in addressing injustice by living and preaching the Quran — or his interpretation of it — to the poorest of the poor in and near northern Nigeria.
Hamsatu was well aware that — but for the grace of Allah — she, too, could easily have been one of those mothers asking “Why?” Back when the second oldest of her six sons was in high school, his circle of friends included Muhammad Ali. On weekends that group of teenagers often hung out at the compound in Konduga. Riding horses. Talking. Joking. Requesting seconds of Hamsatu’s hibiscus soup. And praying. She was impressed, then, with the quiet piety of Muhammad Ali. He told her that his father had died when he was little, so he was raised by his grandmother in Saudi Arabia, who brought him back to Maiduguri for his high school years. Hamsatu would overhear him, fluent in Arabic, translating the Quran for her son and his buddies. And when it came time for their daily prayers, they looked to him to lead.
After high school, Muhammad Ali and most of that group went on to the university. But not Hamsatu’s son. He enrolled in the local polytechnic, found new friends there, and didn’t have much contact with his former classmates.
News continued to arrive from the north about Muhammad Ali and the commune he founded dedicated to practicing strict Islamic Shariah law. In conversations with each other, parents in Maiduguri lamented:
“Those boys have no means of income now — and if they keep this up, they never will!”
“I know. My son says he gets money for food by doing all kinds of menial jobs!”
“Our son convinced our daughter to quit school, too, and marry one of his cohorts!”
“Convinced? More like brainwashed.”
And so it went. Hamsatu couldn’t help but feel relieved her son was still at home, continuing his classes at the polytechnic. But she also felt the worry of the mothers of Maiduguri. In that close-knit Kanuri community, the families next door were more than just neighbors.
“Those boys are my sons, too,” Hamsatu would say.
Worry turned to grief when word arrived from the north that there had been a clash over fishing rights at a community pond. What should have been a minor matter between authorities and the boys — now more than 70 strong — had somehow escalated; police there arrested several of the group’s members. The others later mobilized to fight this perceived injustice by launching an attack on the police station to free their “brothers.” In the clash that ensued, policemen were killed and several members of the group — including Muhammad Ali — also lost their lives. But the idea behind the commune still lived in the survivors, and the decimated group carried on, armed now with a cache of weapons — booty from their police-station battle.
Enter Muhammed Yusuf, a charismatic young cleric who emerged to take control. Under his leadership, they started promoting a version of Islam that makes it haram — the Arabic word for “forbidden” — for Muslims to take part in activities associated with Western society.
Muhammed Yusuf gave the group an official name: Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād or Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad. The society called them “Yusufiyas.” They called each other “Brother.”
But the world would come to know them as “Boko Haram.”
The Roots of Jihad
Muhammed Yusuf brought Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād back to Maiduguri, where he set up the group’s headquarters, complete with a mosque and Islamic school, not far from the street where Hamsatu lived. At the same time, he also instituted a kind of recruitment program by inviting Islamic teachers all over Borno State to send him their five best students for a period of Quranic study. Every time they recited the entire Quran by heart, they’d be rewarded with 5,000 naira, he said — an attractive sum, especially for those from the most poverty-stricken areas.
In addition to a small livelihood, membership in Boko Haram offered discontented young men a sense of shared purpose, religious instruction in their own language, a strong father figure, and even, in some instances, wives. Like others in the community, a number of girls had come under Muhammed Yusuf’s spell, and willingly exchanged their school uniforms for burkas, husbands, and a new — better, they were told — way of life.
“Where does he get all his money?” parents in Maiduguri wondered. No one knew. And it made a lot of people uneasy, including Hamsatu.
In her bedroom in the apartment she now rented in Maiduguri, Hamsatu tossed, turned, and listened in the dark for her son, Muhammad, to come home. It was well past 10:00. And Mamman — as she and everyone called him — should have been home more than an hour ago. He had a part-time job a few evenings each week at a local shop, in addition to his engineering classes at the university. And he was always home by 9:00. Always. Or if he was going to be late, he’d be sure to let her know.
Not tonight. And so, sleep would have to wait until she heard the front door creak open. Instead of dreams, her head was filled with a mother’s worries. When she heard the click of the lock, she leapt up to meet him, demanding with a maternal mix of relief and irritation, “Where have you been!”
Mamman met her look with an expression that bordered on the beatific.
“Ah, Mama, after work I went to hear Muhammed Yusuf speak at the grounds near the shop. The things he said! He read from the Quran and explained it in a way I’d never heard before! He inspired everyone there. I wish you could have heard him!”
Hamsatu felt her chest tighten. Fact was, she had heard Muhammed Yusuf speak.
Back when the whole family lived in Konduga — before her recent and final divorce from the father of her eight children — she had stood at the gate of the family compound and watched Muhammed Yusuf arrive at the village for an evening talk in the open air in front of the central mosque directly across from her home. An advance group had roared in earlier — mostly on motorcycles — to set up the amplifiers and microphone and the table and chair where the young cleric would hold forth.
The mood was festive as the villagers awaited his arrival. The Kanuri were known for their love of celebration. And the coming of this Islamic preacher they’d heard so much about was as good a reason as any.
After late evening prayer, a local teenager, a fervent follower of Muhammed Yusuf, was given the mic to deliver the initial sermon and set the tone. With wild-eyed exuberance, he harangued against any and all forms of education that didn’t begin and end with the Quran. He asserted that the advances of modern medicine — things like immunizations and diagnostic tools —were the work of the devil. Anyone who wasn’t a Muslim, he suggested, was an infidel.
Whipping up the crowd to welcome his leader, the young man interpreted the Quran in ways that were antithetical to the book Hamsatu had been raised with and loved. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
The crowd roared as the young orator put down the mic and a motorcade of several vehicles led Muhammed Yusuf’s Lexus SUV to the spot that had been set up for him. Getting out, he waved regally to the cheering crowd.
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!”
Nodding his approval to the young man who had just spoken, Muhammed Yusuf sat down at the table, a copy of the Quran at his fingertips, its pages ruffling in the warm breeze of a desert night. As his voice crackled through the amplifiers, the crowd grew quiet. More than quiet — mesmerized by the passion of his delivery, the authority in his voice, the cadence of his words.
When he railed against government corruption, Hamsatu found herself agreeing. But she took issue with the fact that he placed the blame for that solely on Western education.
Remembering the Prophet’s words — “Seek knowledge even if it is as far as China” — and still reeling at the disturbing messages that peppered the speech of Muhammed Yusuf’s ardent young follower, Hamsatu wondered at the motives behind such preaching.
Now Mamman seemed at risk of coming under the sway of that group, whose twisted interpretation of the Quran collided with what she knew to be true.
“What you heard tonight is not Islam,” she told Mamman, with an urgency motivated by a prescient fear.
“But . . .”
“Listen to me. You are never to go to those talks of his again. Muhammed Yusuf’s Islam is not ours. Real scholars like your grandfather and great-grandfather would be appalled to hear what he is saying.”
Mamman looked down. Said nothing.
“Look at me,” she continued, her voice rising.
Their eyes locked.
“I mean it. Mamman. Stay away from that group. Do you understand?”
“OK, Mama, OK,” he finally murmured. “I hear you.”
And because she knew the kind of man she had raised her boy to be, she was able to sleep well that night. But throughout Maiduguri in the days ahead, unrest connected to Muhammed Yusuf and his faithful followers continued to spread.
Men who were running for political office – all of them products of Western education – viewed the group’s growing numbers as a valuable voting bloc. And to get the support of Boko Haram members, they promised to fully implement Shariah law once they were elected. When those new government officials reneged, the seeds of anti-establishment rage and distrust, sown years before in a faraway battle over fishing rights, grew.
It erupted in Maiduguri when the group convened for the funeral of the baby brother of one of its members. Riding the motorcycles everyone had come to associate with Boko Haram, they were blocked on their way to the cemetery by policemen for not abiding by a new law that required them to wear helmets.
The already-resentful riders, determined to continue their procession, looked for ways around the makeshift blockade, saying to those officials, in effect, “You can’t stop us.” And with a barrage of bullets from their semi-automatics, local law enforcement answered, “Oh, yeah?”
Muhammed Yusuf soon declared a retaliatory jihad on the government. And Boko Haram began burning police stations and killing officers and security personnel — who, in turn, fought back and killed as many members of the group as they could. After Muhammed Yusuf was caught by the military and executed by the police, Boko Haram went underground. But it returned with a vengeance a year later, led by a man named Shekau, Yusuf’s second in command, who directed another series of assassinations of law enforcement officials — which, in turn, led to a declared state of emergency with crackdowns and city-wide curfews.
Neighborhoods in Maidurguri where Boko Haram members were believed to reside were set afire and destroyed — along with the homes and lives of people who’d never even met Muhammed Yusuf or Shekau. Anyone suspected of being in league with the group was rounded up, tortured for information, killed, or never seen again. Even the wives and children of Shekau and other key commanders were hauled off into custody. Boko Haram responded with more violence — this time, burning schools and killing or abducting family members of their enemies. Neighborhood vigilantes, in self-protection mode, sprung up. Violence and retribution ruled, settling over the city like the gritty dust of a Saharan sandstorm. And no one was safe from suspicion. Not even Hamsatu. Not even her sons.
Section title photo: Dark storm clouds (Pixabay)
Dealing With Conflict
Hauled in for Questioning / Bearing Witness / The Diaries / The Arrest
Hauled in for Questioning
It was her audience’s eyes, nervously shifting, that first told her something wasn’t right.
Hamsatu had been so focused on the presentation she was giving that Sunday morning to the monthly meeting of a group of academics devoted to “The Islamization of Knowledge,” she hadn’t initially noticed the arrival of a gun-toting soldier in the lobby. Nor had she heard the low rumble of the long line of military vehicles surrounding the building.
But others — 60 or so in the room — had. And now their attention was on the man, one of their own, who was leaning down to whisper to Dr. Ibrahim Umara, who, with Dr. Muhammad Bello, was one of the two organization members sitting alongside Hamsatu at the presenter’s table. They both got up, and all three men headed out to the lobby.
Members of the audience shifted in their plastic chairs, murmured to each other, and fell silent. So did Hamsatu.
Prior to her presentation, word had gone out that she would be talking that day at the Federal Training Center on the topic of “Religion, Violence, and Extremism.” Given what was currently going on between Boko Haram and the people of Maiduguri, the topic was on everyone’s mind.
Hamsatu’s talk examined a wide range of conflicts in which religious extremism played a role in the region and the world — from an uprising in Borno State in the 1980s to the international backlash over a Danish cartoon of the Prophet to the violence and atrocities that had become the new norm in Maiduguri. Dialogue and understanding are keys to change, Hamsatu believed. And she hoped her talk would help move that forward.
Now, in the doorway to the lobby, Dr. Umara motioned for her to join him, Dr. Bello, and the soldier, and bring with her a copy of her speech.
As the soldier flipped through its pages, he got more and more agitated. Hamsatu saw his eyes widen at section headings that mentioned Boko Haram, Muhammed Yusuf, Shekau.
“I’m taking the three of you in,” he said brusquely. “Follow me.”
Hamsatu insisted on driving her two colleagues and herself to the army barracks for the questioning she knew awaited them. Two military vehicles took to the road in front of her. And as she followed, two more loomed large in her rearview mirror.
The soldier at the gate instructed her to park at some distance from the headquarters in a lot teeming with cars and the motorized tricycles the poor used for getting around or making a living. Hamsatu guessed those dust-covered vehicles belonged to individuals previously brought in for questioning. Many, she knew, never needed their car keys again.
On the trek to the headquarters, flanked by soldiers, Hamsatu saw in the distance clusters of people under similar guard — standing, sitting, shuffling — their heads lowered, their hands tied behind their backs.
“Wait here,” a soldier told the three, depositing them outside the commander’s office.
Talking among themselves, they had decided Hamsatu would be their spokesperson. After all, the presentation that started all this had been hers. And besides, it was commonly known that military officers tended to go easier on women — especially married ones, like Hamsatu, veiled and traditionally dressed. Left unsaid was the fact that everyone who knew Hamsatu, knew her to be fearless.
After a half hour in the noonday sun in the company of a couple armed men, they finally saw the young commander stride out of his office toward them. His expression was both stern and distracted. Hamsatu thought he looked like he’d give anything to be someplace else. In his hand was the copy of her talk.
“Lady and gentlemen, I’ve gotten a report all the way from Abuja that says you’re part of a group that has assembled without permission to discuss — shall we say — sensitive matters.”
Hamsatu pushed back. “We never knew we had to seek permission to meet in a public institution! My colleague here is a lecturer at the training center. This one is a professor at the university. I work for an international NGO. We’ve been having these meetings every month for three years now. Why do we suddenly need to seek permission? We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Then why are you talking about Boko Haram?” He didn’t add, “... if you’re not one of them.” He didn’t need to.
“Sir, these issues are of serious concern to all of us right now. I am a Muslim. So are my colleagues. And what is going on in Maiduguri is related to Islam. Muslims on all sides of this issue need to sit together, talk, and look for some way out of this darkness we’re in. That was the purpose of the gathering.”
“Hmmmmm,” the commander said, skeptically. And he started to read the document in hand.
As Hamsatu and her colleagues looked on, they saw him nod from time to time. Heard a few more “hmmmmm’s.” Noticed his expression gradually change from fierce to almost friendly.
Looking up, he said, “Let me be frank. I am from the extreme south of the country and was brought here recently to manage a situation I don’t really understand. I believe what’s going on right now is largely political. And after reading your talk, madam, I see your point. Your elders and leaders need to engage in the kind of discourse the three of you were part of this morning. If people in Maiduguri can find a way to do that, people like me will have no business coming here.
“Next time you want to meet, get permission from the police. That’s their domain. But if you run into any difficulties, madam, here’s how you can reach me.” He wrote his phone number on a scrap of paper and handed it to Hamsatu.
In the tension of those times, things could have turned out very differently. And for many who met up with the army in Maiduguri’s fear-fueled war of retribution, they already had. But Hamsatu came away from that encounter not only with her life, but also with a potentially important contact, and a newfound awareness that a heart, not unlike her own, could beat beneath an officer’s uniform.
Boom! The sound of the blast reached the meeting room in the hotel on the outskirts of Damaturu soon after the caterers dropped off lunch. Speaking at the front of the room, Hamsatu stopped in mid-sentence.
As a consultant with the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP), Hamsatu had traveled to Damaturu from Maiduguri with another team member, Dr. Muhammad Kabir Isa, to conduct meetings with stakeholders in the community. She had a leading role in the Northeast office’s mapping project, funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), managed by the British Council.
Aimed at assisting the community in managing the escalating violence non-violently and reducing its impact on the most vulnerable, the project looked for the root causes and driving factors of the violence. It sought to identify key state and non-state actors and their roles in the conflict, and to engage in dialogue with government, religious, and traditional leaders, security forces, and those who had to live with the consequences of the violence, especially women and girls.
With Boko Haram specifically targeting security forces along with anyone suspected of siding with them, Hamsatu had to meet separately and discreetly with representatives of the police, military, and other security operatives. That afternoon, though, she faced a room full of 50+ individuals from Damaturu’s civil society.
Boom! Another blast. This one close enough to shake the table with the warming trays.
Hamsatu didn’t need to officially adjourn the meeting, the advancing explosions did that for her. The attendees fumbled for their belongings and rushed out the door. Hamsatu, Dr. Isa, and the retired security officer they’d hired to drive them from Maiduguri the day before, flew about the room gathering up the workshop booklets, their briefcases, laptops, bags, flats of bottled water, plates, and the covered trays of what was to have been lunch.
Their driver brought the car around. They jammed everything into the trunk and jumped into the back seat.
“Where to now?” came the question from the front seat, punctuated by the rat-tat-tat of gunfire in the distance.
“Home,” Hamsatu said.
Through the deserted side streets they rode to the two-lane highway that linked Damaturu, the capital of Yobe, with Maiduguri, capital of Borno State. In front and behind them, other vehicles were fleeing the fighting too. About 9 miles out of the city and still over 70 miles from Maiduguri, the line of cars, trucks, and buses came to a halt, stopped by a military roadblock.
As time passed, people got out of their sweltering vehicles and milled about. Armed soldiers, incessantly pacing, stirred up dust on the side of the road. Hamsatu could understand their agitation. After all, their comrades in the city were at that moment in a pitched battle with Boko Haram. None of the travelers asked them what they knew of the fight or how much longer they thought the roadblock would last. No one dared. For news, Hamsatu and others turned to their radios or, secretly, to their cell phones.
It was common knowledge that if a soldier saw someone using a cell phone, he’d confiscate it and take its owner in for interrogation. Soldiers feared that cell phones could be used to plot against them, pinpoint their whereabouts, or remotely trigger a bomb. That’s why now from the back seat, Hamsatu crouched beneath the fabric of her long scarf — a traditional laffaya — to tap out this email for her team leaders, Dr. Sarah Ladbury and Ben Fisher, at NSRP in Abuja:
We are now 15kms away from Damaturu. We are still hearing blasts and gunshots in Damaturu at regular intervals ... . We’ve heard that Maiduguri had bomb blast incidences at Baga road, Bulumkuttu ward in a church and Gamboru ward. Report just reached us now of some incidences at Potiskum too. We are all fine and safe stuck inside our vehicles. There are several hundreds of people and vehicles at both ends of the road to and from Damaturu.
After word had spread that they weren’t going to move in either direction any time soon, Hamsatu and her two companions did what they could to make the best of the situation. They opened the trunk and started distributing the bottled water they’d brought with them.
“We’ve got some food here, too,” Hamsatu announced, uncovering the warming trays to scoop rice, vegetables, chicken, and tuwon shinkafa — a doughy rice dish popular in the region — onto the plates they’d also packed in the trunk.
And even though intermittent gunfire continued from the city behind them, some of the stranded travelers, happy for something to eat, joked, “Looks like you planned for this!” Hamsatu, managing a wry smile, had to admit, it did.
As the sun set, the wind kicked up and the temperature began to drop. People headed back into their cars to bed down for the night. In the dark, the desert that surrounded them seemed even more desolate — with its swirling sands and skittering scorpions. The laughter of far-flung hyenas, carried by the wind, made the circumstances the travelers found themselves in seem like a cruel joke.
“We’ll sleep outside, Hajja,” Dr. Isa and the driver said, respectful of her and the mores of their society.
With her light-weight laffaya her only blanket, Hamsatu lay curled up across the back seat, shivering. The day had left her exhausted, but sleep wouldn’t come. She held her cell phone near the floor, keeping the blue-white light of its tiny screen as far from the windows as possible. Throughout the night, she continued communicating with Maiduguri mostly in texts and emails — assuring friends and family she was still alive and providing her workplace colleagues in Abuja with an eyewitness account of everything from the number of soldiers on the road to the blood-red hue of the sky over sections of the burning city she’d left behind.
The roadblock was lifted in the morning, and Hamsatu and her companions were able to return to Maiduguri. Even though their city had also come under attack by Boko Haram the day before, life went on almost as if nothing had happened.
We’re getting too accustomed to this, Hamsatu thought.
Back in her NSRP office, she learned that the reports she had sent from the highway had gone farther than the inboxes of her two colleagues. Sarah Ladbury, the program’s technical advisor, told Hamsatu she had taken the liberty of sharing those updates with DFID, whose global work to end extreme poverty dovetailed with the peacebuilding efforts of NSRP.
Hamsatu understood why Sarah had forwarded those messages. They both knew that the real story of what was happening in Maiduguri and northeast Nigeria wasn’t getting out to the world. Foreign journalists no longer ventured into the region. In a place where people eyed their neighbors — and sometimes even their own family members — with suspicion, and where security forces — except the military — had stopped wearing uniforms for fear of reprisals from Boko Haram, outsiders with press badges and pale faces could hardly expect to have their questions answered or their safety counted on.
The positive response from DFID to Hamsatu’s reports from the road led Sarah to encourage her to continue documenting events as they occurred and as she saw them.
“If you’ll send those reports to me, Hamsatu, I’ll edit them and see to it that they reach the right people in my government,” Sarah said.
When Sarah spoke, Hamsatu gladly listened. Out of their close working relationship, trust between the two women had grown. In terms of outward appearances, they were a study in contrasts, a mismatched pair of salt-and-pepper shakers: one, fine bone china; the other, heartwood mahogany. Yet in their shared commitment to do all they could to bring peace to the people of northeastern Nigeria, they were more than colleagues. They were sisters.
Hamsatu opened the dresser drawer in her bedroom to add another notebook filled with names, dates, times, places, impressions, incidents — a collection that had begun years earlier, soon after she had returned from Damaturu. Sarah’s suggestion to document events in the region had evolved, for Hamsatu, into an ongoing cause — a search not only for news, but also for truth.
Because of her family history in the area, her tribal connections, and her experiences as a local educator and civil servant, Hamsatu typically needed no introduction when she met up with people in the region. And for those who didn’t know her name, many knew her face. They’d rubbed shoulders with her at the market or at a naming ceremony for a neighbor’s newborn. Prayed with her at the mosque, run into her at the offices and meetings of government boards and agencies, or even occasionally seen her on TV.
When no one else would listen to them, people on all sides of the conflict turned to Hamsatu to share their stories.
And so, the drawer she was standing at held more than notebooks. It held memories, some of which she wished she could forget. But she couldn’t, and wouldn’t. And because of her work in the field, neither would others.
So many stories. So many, she thought. And in that instant, Hamsatu traveled back to some of the places where she’d gone with those notebooks in her big bag after getting a phone call from one of her sources at the ER, the morgue, the police station, the army barracks, or on the street or among vigilantes. Through the warmth of her personality, the strength of her reputation, and sometimes, for good measure, the gift of a phone card, she’d been able to build a reliable network of sources.
It’s a tip from one of them that takes her to a neighborhood in Maiduguri notorious for its concentration of families with sons in Boko Haram. The area had recently gone from bad to worse when some who lived there, fed up with indiscriminate retaliatory raids from soldiers who’d been targeted by Boko Haram, began ratting out members of the group, which made Boko Haram take revenge on those who talked, and gave the military yet another reason to return.
“Last night security forces set fire to Kawar Maila. There’s not much left,” Hamsatu hears a voice on the other end of the phone say. And once again, she reaches for her car keys.
From behind the wheel of her Toyota, she slowly navigates the narrow streets of what had once been a neighborhood where people didn’t have much to begin with, but now have next to nothing. Block after block, smoke rises from the ashes of their meager homes. Here and there, women poke through the smoldering debris to salvage a kettle, a cup, a spoon.
As she slows almost to a stop, two Kanuri youths yell at her. “Where were you when they came to torch our houses? Violate our mothers? Huh? People like you did this to us!”
Their eyes flash. Their fists shake. Hamsatu understands that to them at that moment she’s nothing more than a nosy interloper with a nice car, someone who’s a product, no doubt, of “boko” — their term for Western education.
She drives a short distance, then stops at the sight of a parked pickup — a moving van, of sorts — filled with women and children. She reaches into her bag for her camera.
The world needs to see what has happened here, she thinks, snapping a photo.
An old woman in the truck, catching sight of her, wails, “What are you doing? Look at us! We’ve lost everything. And you sit there, taking a picture?” But documenting the situation wasn’t the only reason Hamsatu stopped. She had come intending to do whatever she could to help.
Hamsatu gets out of the car. “I am so sorry,” she begins. Somehow she finds more of the right words to convey her sympathy for the women and their situation.
“Tell me what happened here,” she continues, and listens. But talk, she knows, doesn’t feed a hungry family or provide a warm blanket on a cold night.
“Here, take this,” Hamsatu says to the women, offering a thick roll of naira. The mood had already begun to change, but that gift of cash provides the tipping point.
“May Allah bless you!” the old woman cries. And the others echo her words.
On her way back to the car, Hamsatu is met by one of the two boys she saw earlier. Apparently, he’d watched the whole scene at the truck unfold.
Now he calls her “Mama,” and softly adds, “Please forgive me. I didn’t understand your mission.” With so much all around them that defies understanding, they continue to talk.
Moments later, Hamsatu stands with the boy amid the blackened walls and rubble of what used to be his room. He points out the spot where he’d slept, said his prayers, and where he’d kept his cash. Money that must have come — Hamsatu is quite certain — from the coffers of Boko Haram.
“See? Empty,” the boy says, pulling back a remnant of carpet that had escaped the flames. Beneath it, the hole where he’d hid his earnings. “The soldiers looted the place before they set it on fire.”
“May I take a photo?” Hamsatu asks.
With a slow nod, he gives her permission — the only thing still his to give.
Into the drawer of her dresser, Hamsatu placed the notebook that held that story — the worn corners of its cover, evidence that it had been through as much as the woman who wrote in it. And the memories continued.
Standing in the shade of the neem trees not far from the morgue, Hamsatu points her camera at the black police truck parked in the midday sun and piled with the decomposing bodies of more than two dozen prison staff and policemen. One of her local sources had alerted her to the scene, but Hamsatu had to see it to believe it.
Two days earlier, in the middle of the night, there’d been an attack by Boko Haram at a prison facility in Bama, some 75 miles away, aimed at freeing some of their detained members. The military were called in to help, but Boko Haram had the upper hand from the start. The insurgents killed nearly all the security personnel including the police, poured petrol on some of them and, with the flick of a match, set them ablaze.
The bodies of the slain officers lay there unclaimed until 5:00 p.m. the next day. The flatbed truck, sent to retrieve them, didn’t arrive back in Maiduguri until after sunset. By then, most of the staff at the morgue had gone home. The few still on the job said the place was already filled to capacity. So, the truck was parked on the street. And the dead it had transported continued to stiffen, swell, and drip — waiting through another muggy night for their families and their final rest.
So this is how the men who die protecting us are treated? It’s come to this? Hamsatu says to herself, snapping a photo for proof.
Sickened in her soul by the sight, smell, and inhumanity of it all, for three days afterwards, Hamsatu cannot eat.
“In a firefight earlier this week, soldiers in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, killed nine members of the Islamic insurgent group, Boko Haram, the military there reported,” the BBC newscaster on Hamsatu’s transistor radio says.
This is the first Hamsatu is hearing of the incident. Whenever a news story like that reaches her ears, she makes a note to follow up.
The phone rings. On the other end, Hamsatu hears the voice of her source in a nearby neighborhood.
“There was an awful commotion here the night before last,” the woman says. She goes on to tell Hamsatu that around midnight, soldiers forcibly entered the homes of some of her neighbors, and hauled away the boys who lived there. Nine in all.
“They accused them of being Boko Haram, but I don’t believe it,” the woman continues. “This morning some from the community, including Malam Dala Kamfani — the father of three of them — found the boys at the morgue. Shot dead. They wouldn’t release the bodies, but Malam Kamfani took photos ...” The voice of Hamsatu’s informant trails off.
“I’m on my way,” Hamsatu says.
Soon after she arrives, Hamsatu sees those digital pictures for herself. Malam Kamfani, his hands shaking, points to the bloodied faces — one by one — and in a choked voice, says their names: Wakil. Bukar. Ali. Adam. Mamman. Hassan. Mamman M. Alhaji. Babangida.
“Our sons,” he weeps.
In the course of her visit, Hamsatu hugs their mothers. Talks with their neighbors. Several wonder aloud how Allah could allow such things to happen. To those who knew and loved the nine, Hamsatu says, “Whatever situation we are in, good or bad, as Muslims we must take it as a trial from Allah, and trust in His will and His mercy.”
She asks for the boys’ ages, their addresses, and more, jots down everything on a Post-It note. Later, she’ll elaborate on all of it in her notebook. But for now, she makes quick notes and keeps her focus on the people she’s talking with.
“Why do you want to know all this?” they ask.
She tells them she is documenting such things for the sake of their children and their children’s children. “One day there will be — even before we die and go to the Lord for judgement — a day of reckoning. It has happened in other countries; it will happen in ours. Right now, though, we have nowhere to take these cases, but someday we will. And the things you are sharing with me today will help bring justice. Future generations can learn from these experiences.”
It seems to Hamsatu that people find comfort and a semblance of justice simply in the thought that justice could be possible.
That night, as she does every night, Hamsatu writes everything in her notebook. The diary has become as much a part of her life and routine as the Salat al-`Isha she prays at day’s end. And at the end of each week, she turns her handwritten notes into an e-report for Sarah and DFID. Throughout, she makes every effort to be factual and fair — so fair, in fact, that virtually every faction she talks to comes away convinced she’s on their side.
But her journalistic objectivity is put to the test, when her own son is arrested.
“Stop!” the soldier shouts. “Stop!”
But Lawan Kawu Zanna Luminu and his two friends don’t stop. They know what will happen if they do. They’ve seen the near-daily procession of military vehicles filled with young men — blindfolded, bare from the waist up, hands tied behind their backs with the twisted fabric of their shirts.
With soldiers in the midst of an operation in the area, the streets are mostly deserted — except for people like Lawan and his friends, who are just trying to make their way home after their morning classes at the polytechnic. They walk quickly, avoiding the main roads and taking shortcuts to stay clear of the checkpoints and the soldiers who man them.
“Stop!” the command comes again.
One of the boys in the group starts to run. Shots ring out. The young man falls; his final breath comes moments later. Lawan and his other friend freeze. All three are loaded into a truck and taken to the Dala military base at the edge of town.
In the neighborhood they’ve left behind, the wind riffles the pages of their textbooks, scattered across a blood-stained road.
“Are you the mother of Lawan?” Hamsatu hears an unfamiliar voice ask on the other end of the phone.
“Yes?” she answers warily. Friends and family always call her son by his nickname, “Gargam.”
The next voice she hears is that of her son.
“Mama,” Gargam says in a trembling whisper. “I am with the soldiers at Dala. Come quickly. Please.”
A sudden dial tone ends the conversation.
Hamsatu arrives at the military base alone. She parks her car in the far lot and hurries toward the main area.
“Woman, raise your hands!” a gun-toting soldier silhouetted in the distance yells.
Hamsatu’s hands go up.
She forces her feet to comply.
Finally, she reaches the place where her son and his two friends are being held: a small “room” in the open air, defined by wooden poles at each corner and the tin roof they support.
“Gargam,” Hamsatu gasps, seeing her son sitting on the ground — slumped, eyes closed, thick welts rising on his rounded back. Flies navigate the nearby body of his dead friend. The other boy stares at the side of his jeans, where a spray of flesh protrudes, pushed there, Hamsatu later learns, by a soldier’s handgun fired at close range.
One soldier sits on a stack of tires; another, on a wobbly bench. Looking off into the distance or at their fingernails, they ignore Hamsatu and pay scant attention when a third soldier speaks to her.
“Your son claims he’s not a member of Boko Haram. Says he’s a student. Is that true?” he asks in English, the official language of Nigeria.
Hamsatu elaborates — fluently — on her “Yes,” prompting the soldier to ask, “What is it you do, Madam?” She tells him of her position at an international NGO in the city.
“Well, you people need to tell your children to obey orders. This situation isn’t our fault. The whole thing could have been avoided if your son and his friends hadn’t tried to run away.”
“But, Sir, given what’s going on in Maiduguri these days, of course they’ll run! If they don’t, they know they’ll be arrested, accused of being members of Boko Haram, locked into a detention center, and never heard from again. If they do run, they’re likely to be shot, but at least they have a chance. After you called me, I approached six different men to come with me here. Six! But nobody was willing to. Even grown men — civil servants, professionals — fear you soldiers.”
“I wish it weren’t so,” the man answers with a rueful shake of his head. Then he asks Hamsatu where she will take her son when he’s released.
“OK. Let’s get him to your car.”
With Gargam’s arms draped over their shoulders and his feet dragging heavily in the dust, Hamsatu and the soldier together struggle to reach the far lot, both burdened — each in their own way — by more than the boy they carry.
In her report for NSRP that week, the incident was listed fifth on the page, under the heading “LAWAN ZANNA LAMINU (Gargam)’s Rescue AT DALA, 22nd February.” The facts of the story were recounted in a single paragraph, tucked between other news of the week, including a gun battle at the Budum area of Maiduguri, a blast at the city’s fish market, and an attack on a police station in Gombe.
Gargam would eventually recover from his day at Dala. But if anyone wanted to know more about what happened to him at the hands of the soldiers, they’d only need to look at the photo his mother steeled herself to take.
Section title photo: A thunderstorm (Wikipedia)
Face to Face with Boko Haram
Auntie Boko Haram / Rumors and Risks / The Would-be Rescue
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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)
Hamsatu Looks Ahead
Postscript from the Author, November 2016
“Good morning, Sue,” Hamsatu says, shuffling into my San Diego kitchen the day after the 2016 presidential election.
I’d invited “my PeaceMaker” to have a home-cooked dinner with me and my husband after we went to the polls. The plan was that the three of us would watch the returns from the family room couch and celebrate the election of the first woman president of the United States. In the morning, I’d drive Hamsatu back to the campus of the University of San Diego.
But things didn’t work out quite as planned. Hamsatu, an early riser, said goodnight before all the results were in. When she headed down the hall to the guestroom, the tally of electoral votes had Trump with a slim lead, but key battleground states were still too close to call. Whether she stayed up and stressed out with us or not, Hamsatu reasoned, the outcome would be what it would be.
“So, Hillary won? Yes?” she says.
I look up from the fruit I’m slicing for breakfast smoothies, slowly shake my head, and see Hamsatu’s expression melt to match my own. We stare at each other glumly.
Hamsatu, like me, is at a loss for words. But the motherly hug she soon enfolds me in says, “I know. I know.” And if anyone knows what it feels like to be afraid for the future of one’s country, it’s Hamsatu Allamin.
Over the course of the Women PeaceMakers’ residency, we spent a lot of interview time talking about the peacebuilding initiatives Hamsatu had played a lead role in and planned to continue. In the main dining room of the PeaceMakers’ campus residence, I’d turn on my little digital recorder, place it on the table, then listen and take notes as Hamsatu talked about what she’d accomplished so far and what she still hoped to do.
High on her list was the establishment of a narrative to counter the current one that says Western education is at odds with the precepts of Islam. Back in Maiduguri working with the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership, in partnership with Jama’tu Nasril Islam and the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria, she’d produced a 15-week radio show that featured noted Islamic scholars — women as well as men — shedding light on what the Quran and the Prophet say about things like tolerance, forgiveness, and the importance of universal education. Other topics discussed on-air included Islam’s perspective on promoting peace, with respected scholars showing how true Islam espouses non-violence and doesn’t teach Muslims to kill innocent people in the name of politics or religion. Funding for the project came from DFID.
“My idea was for people to get these knowledge-based messages from those who are well-versed in the Quran,” Hamsatu told me. Radio, she said, was an effective medium in her area of Nigeria, and the station the show aired on reached all the way to Niger.
“Everyone listens to the radio. It’s very common. Even the cattle rancher in the bush, you will see him holding a transistor radio. And for women who don’t get out of the house much, it’s their friend.”
Because of the popularity of the 15-week program, Hamsatu told me she has plans to look for ways to expand and enhance it when she gets back to Nigeria.
I also learned of the educational manual she helped create, working with the same partners and funding as the radio programs. Prior to publication, the manual’s approach and content — based largely on the topics covered on the air — received approval from scholars and representatives of many Islamic schools, as well as the government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. Designed as a tool for peacebuilding, conflict analysis, and conflict resolution in Muslim communities, it will be used, initially, by teachers and students in Islamic schools. Copies — 2,000 so far — have been printed, but implementation awaits. Hamsatu has said she envisions developing a short training program for the project soon after she returns to Maiduguri.
Another cause close to her heart is one she refers to as “the realignment of social norms.” In Kawar Maila, for instance, the cycle of violence and retribution, killing and more killing, had unraveled the very fabric of that society — close to completely. Cabbies refused to drive there. Security forces wrote the place off. Social services all but stopped. The community’s links to Boko Haram turned all who lived there into pariahs, sometimes even to each other.
Enter Hamsatu. She reached out to what was left of the community. Set up meetings. Got people talking with one another again. Reminded them of the values they all shared as Kanuri and as Muslims. Working with a small grant, she also helped parents get their children back in school. And thanks to a philanthropist, even managed to supply the kids with uniforms and new backpacks.
Hamsatu admitted that the funding she had to work with wasn’t much. “But in this context,” she said, “no intervention is too small.” And then, giving me a glimpse of her work to come in communities like Kawar Maila, said, “We are just beginning.”
Now we sit in the breakfast nook, talking of billionaire Donald J. Trump, a man who said he’d issue a ban on all Muslims, build a wall to keep out Mexicans, and deport millions. A guy who bragged about sexual assault. Like all the pollsters, neither of us expected him to become the 45th president of the United States.
Hamsatu asks about the electoral college. I try to explain how someone can win the popular vote and still lose the election.
“I don’t understand,” she shrugs. And I have to admit, neither do I.
“Whatever situation we’re in, we must take it as a trial from God,” Hamsatu tells me. She doesn’t glibly say, “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be OK.” She’s far too wise for that. And her wisdom has been hard won. I think about all she and her country and her people have endured. How sometimes after sharing with me a particularly difficult story driven by people divided by hate, she’d sadly add, “It’s terrible, Sue. Terrible.”
And yet — and yet — she hasn’t given up or given in. In a few days, she’ll pack her suitcase, tuck her ever-present diary into her carry-on, and fly back to Nigeria. She’ll continue talking with all parties in the conflict there, including the boys of Boko Haram. She’ll advocate for victims and the vulnerable. She’ll seek and speak the truth — even if it gets her in trouble. Even, she says, if someday it costs her her life.
“Peacebuilding is a process,” she’s told me many times. Now she reminds me, “We just do what we can do, Sue.” And if there’s a lesson in Hamsatu’s life, it’s that if hope is to prevail, we must.
Section title photo: Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice
About the Author
Sue Diaz is an author, educator, and freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of regional and national publications, including Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, and Readers’ Digest. The award-winning series she wrote for The Christian Science Monitor about the war in Iraq and her personal connection to it was syndicated nationally and internationally. Those pieces were the starting point for her most recent book, Minefields of the Heart: A Mother’s Stories of a Son at War (Potomac Books), which explores the impact of war on the souls of those who fight and those who love them. It was one of two books selected in 2013 by Silicon Valley Reads, a community-wide reading program in the San Francisco Bay Area. A passionate believer in the power of story to effect change and an advocate of writing as a path to healing, Diaz has also conducted writing workshops for war veterans at the San Diego Vet Center, the Naval Medical Center and Veterans Village of San Diego.
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)
Political Developments in Nigeria and Personal History of Hamsatu Allamin
15th-19th centuries — Borno Empire
16-18th centuries — The slave trade forcibly sends millions of Nigerians to the Americas.
1809 — The Sokoto caliphate is founded in the north.
1850s — The British establish a presence around Lagos.
1861-1914 — Britain consolidates its rule in Nigeria.
1922 — As part of a mandate by the League of Nations, part of the German colony Kamerun becomes part of Nigeria (the current Adamawa state and Bama in Borno).
1958 — Hamsatu is born in Nguru, Yobe State.
1959 — Hamsatu’s parents relocate to Maiduguri.
1960 — Nigeria is granted independence, with Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa leading a coalition government.
1964 — Hamsatu is enrolled in Gamboru Primary School.
1966 — The first military coup occurs in Nigeria.
1970 — Hamsatu enrolls in Community Secondary School in Maiduguri and continues to Yerwa Government Secondary School.
1975 — Hamsatu proceeds to Northeast College of Arts and Sciences, in Maiduguri.
1977 — Hamsatu marries. She then enrolls in the University of Maiduguri.
1978 — Hamsatu has her first baby, a girl named Falmata (Tukul).
1979 — Hamsatu has her second baby, a boy named Allamin (Babu). Nigeria’s Second Republic begins. The first civilian governor of Borno State is Muhammad Goni.
1980 — Hamsatu graduates with a BA in English and enrolls in the compulsory National Youth Service Corps program.
1981 — Hamsatu completes service. She has her third baby, a boy named Mustapha (Kaka Lawan). She takes up an appointment with the Borno State Government as a teacher.
1982 — Hamsatu has her fourth baby, a boy named Muhammad Buhari (Mamman). Hamsatu’s husband becomes the tribal chief in Konduga (28 kilometers from Maiduguri). The family relocates there and Hamsatu begins teaching at the government secondary school. She also enrolls at the University of Maidguri in a master’s degree program.
1983-95 — This era is marked by a series of military coups, counter coups, election annulment, and the formation of an interim government rife with allegations of corruption and poor governance.
1984 — Hamsatu earns an MA degree in history. With her ongoing activism and advocacy in Konduga, Hamsatu continues to re-define the role of a chief’s wife.
1985 — Hamsatu has her fifth baby, a boy named Lawan Kawu (Gargam).
1988 — Hamsatu is appointed principal of the Model Girls’ Science School in Konduga.
1989 — Hamsatu has her sixth baby, a boy named Ahmad (Baa Lawan).
1992 — Hamsatu has her seventh baby, a boy named Abubakar (Habu).
1996, October — Hamsatu has her eighth and last child, a girl named Hadiza (Yakaka).
1996, December - 1997, July — Hamsatu is appointed executive secretary, Borno State Commission for Women, and then director general, Borno State Ministry of Women Affairs.
1999, December - 2003, February — Hamsatu is appointed director of School Service and promoted to board secretary, Borno State Primary Education Board.
1999-2001 — The Da’wah group (sometimes known as the Nigerian Taliban) emerges under the leadership of Muhammad Ali.
1999 — Nigeria’s Fourth Republic elections bring to power Olusegun Obasanjo as president and Mala Kachalla as governor of Borno State.
2000 — Borno and several other northern states adopt Sharia law over the objections of Christians, leading to hundreds of deaths. As director of School Service, Hamsatu initiates pension benefits for primary school teachers.
2002 — Da’wah migrates to Yobe, and Muhammad Ali and several others die in a clash with police. During violent clashes in Lagos between northerners (mostly Muslims) and southerners (mostly Christian Yoruba from the southwest), around 100 people are killed. The governor of Borno State earns the title “Captain of Peace” for traveling to Lagos and advocating peace.
2003 — Da’wah consolidates in Borno and attacks the police in Bama and Gwoza, but are subdued by government forces.
2003 — After Ali’s death, Muhammad Yusuf becomes the leader of Da’wah and it is re-named Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād. Local people call the followers “Yusufiyyas,” and the group later becomes known as Boko Haram. In the first civilian-led democratic elections, Olusegun Obasanjo is re-elected, while Ali Modu Sheriff is elected governor in Borno State. Hamsatu suffers political victimization, is removed as secretary, demoted to the rank of a director, and posted to the Scholarships Board.
2007 — Hamsatu takes a post as secretary to the Secondary School Teaching Board.
2008 — Two former health ministers and a daughter of the president are among 12 top health officials charged with embezzling public funds.
2009 — Hamsatu and her husband divorce. Muhammed Yusuf’s preaching draws large crowds in the Maiduguri area, Hamsatu’s son among them. Later that year, Hamsatu marries her second husband.
June — The first revolt by Boko Haram against the state is recorded, with the group holding government forces hostage for three days. Several hundred fighters, including Yusuf are killed, and the group goes into hiding.
Hamsatu takes leave from the Teaching Service Board and volunteers with the Federation of Muslim Women in Associations in Nigeria in response to political victimization.
2010 — Goodluck Jonathan becomes president of Nigeria. Boko Haram re-emerges in Maiduguri under Abubakar Shekau, and the group starts targeting security forces. Christmas Eve attacks near the city of Jos kill at least 80 people, and that and other attacks claimed by Boko Haram spark reprisal attacks, killing roughly 200 more. The government sets up a Joint Task Force in response to the violence in the northeast.
Hamsatu is arrested after her presentation on the topic of “Religion, Violence, and Extremism.” Hamsatu starts a collaboration with the British Council in Nigeria to develop the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP).
2011 — Boko Haram makes Nagarannam in Maiduguri their headquarters and starts abducting girls. The government says it wants to start negotiating with Boko Haram, as several major attacks kill hundreds across the country. The JTF arrests wives and family members of Boko Haram commanders.
Fleeing Damaturu after the outbreak of that clash, Hamsatu and hundreds of others are forced to spend the night in their vehicles. Hamsatu’s updates from the road to her colleagues at NSRP evolve into ongoing eye-witness accounts of the violence and its aftermath in Borno State and Maiduguri.
2012, February — Hamsatu’s son is arrested, falsely accused of being a member of Boko Haram, and tortured by soldiers.
2012, August — The army kills 20 Boko Haram fighters in a shootout in Maiduguri. The government says it has started informal talks to try to end attacks. Boko Haram rule out peace talks shortly beforehand.
2012, October — Boko Haram bombs army bases in Maiduguri and reprisal attacks by the army kill 24 fighters.
2012, November — Hamsatu becomes regional coordinator/consultant and conflict analyst for the NSRP/British Council/DFID Peacebuilding program.
In her own efforts for peace, Hamsatu partners with Barrister Aisha Wakil — AKA “Mama Boko Haram” — in an ongoing outreach to key commanders in Boko Haram to end the violence.
2013, May — Boko Haram begins kidnapping prominent people for ransom, and attacks Bama, the second-largest city in Borno. The group kills 22 secondary school students in Yobe state, and abduct an unspecified number of female students. Later that year, Boko Haram kills 50 male students at the College of Agriculture in Yobe. The government declares a state of emergency in the northern states of Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa, and sends in troops.
2014, April — Boko Haram kidnaps more than 200 girls from a boarding school in Chibok. Hamsatu and her women colleagues in Maiduguri organize a press conference to bring attention to the abduction of the Chibok girls and press the government to act.
May — With Australian-negotiator Stephen Davis, Hamsatu and a small group travel into the bush on a covert state-sponsored mission to rescue the Chibok girls.
2014, August — Boko Haram proclaims a caliphate (an Islamic state) with headquarters in Gwoza. The declaration is dismissed by the government.
2014, October — The government says it has agreed to a ceasefire with Boko Haram and that the Chibok girls will be released. Boko Haram denies this
2015, February-March — Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger form a military coalition against Boko Haram. Muhammadu Buhari wins the presidential election.
2015, April — Hamsatu addresses the United Nations Security Council on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.
2016 — Hamsatu disengages from Borno State government service.
2016, August — Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the biological son of Muhammad Yusuf, splits from Shekau and his leadership of Boko Haram, and refers to his faction as the Islamic State in West Africa.
2016, September — The Institute for Peace and Justice, at the University of San Diego’s Kroc School of Peace Studies, selects Hamsatu as one of its four Women PeaceMakers. Hamsatu travels to San Diego to participate in the 10-week program.
On a panel moderated by Nicolas Kristof of the New York Times, Hamsatu speaks at the United Nations on “Women’s Leadership and Gender Perspectives on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism.”
Section title photo: Stakeholders in Nigerian education (Photo provided by Hamsatu Allamin)
Conflict History of Nigeria
Nigeria is in many ways a divided country, beginning with the primarily Christian south and the largely Muslim north. This division arose in the 19th century with British colonial rule, but continues to have a profound impact on the country today, particularly its northeastern region. The violence there has its roots in this divide.
Before British colonial rule was established, what constitutes present Nigeria was comprised of many ancient kingdoms and empires both in the south and the north. The Kanem-Borno Empire in the north was established in the 9th century and existed to the end of 19th century. Its area of influence spanned a region which includes the present countries of Niger, Cameroun, Chad, and the whole of Northern Nigeria.
Kanem-Borno’s contact with Arab/Islamic influences dates back to the 5th century through Arab traders trading slaves and horses for fire arms, facilitated by the empire’s position near important trans-Saharan trade routes. Over time, Kanam-Borno became the largest, most influential empire and the “Gateway of Islam” to West Africa. By the 9th century, the rulers greatly expanded the influence of Islam by making it the religion of the state. Kanem-Borno became the first and greatest center of Arabic and Islamic education in the region. (Even today lslamic students and scholars across the region consider a period in Borno as a necessary part of their education.)
From the 1850s Britain established its presence on the coastal area of Lagos (Southwestern Nigeria). Britain’s imperialist ambitions also brought the Christian missionaries who introduced Christianity and Western education to that area.
The Sokoto Caliphate, which had taken root in the North, was abolished when the British defeated it in 1903. The modern state originated with the merging in 1914 of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate.
Direct and Indirect Rule in Colonial Nigeria
The Southern Protectorate was governed by “Direct Rule,” a system in which the central authority (British) has power over the colony, while the Northern Protectorate was governed by “Indirect Rule,” a system in which native leaders continued to rule their traditional lands so long as they collected taxes and performed other duties ensuring British prosperity.
The Indirect Rule, as developed in Northern Nigeria, was a practical means of administering a huge territory, with only limited manpower and cost. The British also provided Western education for some of Nigeria’s elite. However, in the main, Britain limited schooling as much as feasible because it did not see an obligation towards it at the risk of jeopardizing its hegemony in the North.
The Christian missionaries confined themselves to mostly to the southern region and the hilly/mountainous areas of the North, areas which neither the early Borno Kingdom or the later Sokoto Caliphate had reached to subdue and convert to Islam (because of inaccessibility due to difficult terrains). The weather and climate conditions of these hilly areas also favored the Europeans, compared to the harsh, dry winds and hot sun of most of the vast desert prone areas of the North.
Several important developments that have continued to affect Nigeria’s government and politics in the postcolonial period marked the period of colonial rule. First, British colonial rule nurtured north-south separation, which has remained the classic cleavage in the country.
In particular, after Lord Frederick Lugard, the High Commissioner of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria from 1899 to 1906, made a pact with northern emirs to protect Islamic civilization, the North was shut off from much of the Westernizing influences to which the South was exposed. This protection gave the southern peoples a head start, especially in Western education.
During the struggle for independence, northern leaders were afflicted by a constant fear of southern domination. Many of the northern responses to national politics to this day can be attributed to this fear.
Among the people in dominant Muslim territories, who were left to their traditional Quranic education, the perception grew that Western education – introduced in mostly the “pagan” hilly areas – was not meant for them, but rather for unbelievers. After independence when the few Northern elite started to coerce people to send their wards to school, they resisted on the perception that they cannot be forced to accept the knowledge of disbelief.
Although colonizing Northern Nigeria was by conquest, “the Sokoto Caliphate’s leaders had been ‘wise’ to recognize that it was in their interests to offer little resistance during the campaigns of ‘pacification’ and place their lands under the ‘protection’ of the British.” Such a response led the British to see the highly-ordered and hierarchical societies of the Islamic North as more cultured and well-governed than the stateless societies of southern and eastern Nigeria. But paradoxically, the indirect rule model left areas like Northern Nigeria economically and educationally backward in comparison with the directly-ruled areas of Nigeria.
During the pre-colonial era, religion was integral to the state in the northern kingdoms, empires and caliphate, in that the religious leader was also a political leader, as provided by Sharia law. During the colonial period both Islam and Christianity spread, but Christianity was privileged and produced a new elite that controlled both the economy and the bureaucracy. Then the uneducated Muslim North began to see the products of “disbelief” coming to positions of supremacy. The struggle for political power then came to entail the manipulation of symbols and beliefs of both religions as stepping stones to power and political legitimacy by desperate politicians on both sides.
From the 1980s there was an upsurge of religious violence, in that Islam and Christianity were sometimes depicted as monolithic entities that confront each other in pitched battles, especially with the formal declaration of the Sharia, (Islamic legal code), providing a trigger for the violence. Riots based on religious affiliation and policies occurred.
The word Sharia, meaning “the path,” refers to a set of principles that govern the moral and religious lives of Muslims. Most of it deals with how to practice Islam. Sharia law covers things like marriage, divorce, inheritance and punishments for criminal offenses. Interpretation of Sharia is done through Islamic scholarship.
The Maitasine Riots – Precursor to Boko Haram
The riots that started in 1980 Kano – the biggest commercial hub of Northern Nigeria – spread to many major cities of the North. Leading the movement, Muhammad Marwa Maitatsine preached against the Nigerian state and Western influence, including modern technology. Many analysts see Boko Haram as an extension of the movement Maitasine started. A violent riot by his followers in Kano was responded to by the Nigeria military, resulting in the death of Marwa, several of his followers, some members of the government security forces, innocent civilians, and the destruction of public and private properties.
Despite Mohammed Marwa’s death, riots continued to spread. In October, 1982 they erupted in Bulumkuttu Ward, an outskirt settlement in Maiduguri, Borno State, and in Kaduna. In early 1984 more violent uprisings occurred, leaving thousands dead or homeless, and destroying churches, mosques, police stations, schools, and government buildings. The violence in the city of Maiduguri was the worst.
Around the same period, the then Military Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida, enrolled Nigeria into the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), a move of “Islamizing” the country, which aggravated religious tensions in the country, particularly among the Christian community.
The Boko Haram Violence
In 2002, the Da’awah group – also called the Nigerian Taliban – under the leadership of a young man named Muhammad Ali, migrated from Maiduguri to Kanamma, a border village in Yobe State, to preach the Quran. Disillusioned by the corruption and patrimonial system prevalent in Northeastern Nigeria, he had dropped out of the University of Maiduguri and established with other disaffected youth a commune in Yobe dedicated to following strict Sharia law.
A clash with local police over a misunderstanding concerning fishing rights in the community pond led to the arrest of several of their members. The group mobilized, attacked the police station, freed their comrades, and carted off the firearms. Muhammad Ali and several members lost their lives in a clash with authorities. Shortly after that, the survivors who had escaped regrouped and attacked police formations in Bama and Gwoza in Borno State, but were subdued by security forces.
A charismatic cleric, Muhammad Yusuf, became the new leader of the Da’awah group, which was renamed Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād or “Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad.” In 2009 Muhammad Yusuf brought the group back to Maiduguri, where it became known as Boko Haram, a phrase meaning “Western Education is forbidden.”
Some of the bloodiest violence associated with Boko Haram started between 24th and 28th of July, 2009, almost simultaneously in six northern states: Borno, Bauchi, Yobe, Gombe, Kano, and Katina. After an explosion some few kilometers from Markas (residence and headquarters of the sect, behind railway quarters in Maiduguri), armed members of the group stormed, attacked and burned police stations, churches, mosques, prisons, and government buildings. Hundreds of lives were lost, in addition to property damage to schools and government buildings, including the offices of the Education Board in Maiduguri.
The press reported more than 500 members of the group were killed, but one of the governors in the Northeast, now a senator, confirmed in the senate that over 5000 people lost their lives. The sect members held government security forces in Maiduguri for ransom for three days, while their leader, Muhammad Yusuf, tried to escape, but was arrested by soldiers and handed over to the police, who later in the evening announced his death to the public.
Afterwards, the group went underground and re-emerged in mid-2010 in Maiduguri under Abubakar Shekau. It proceeded to launch targeted killing of security operatives, as well as Islamic scholars who openly opposed their ideology, and community leaders who identified them to security agents and who allegedly took their properties when they went into hiding.
At the beginning of 2012, the government called a state of emergency, yet militant attacks increased, as did security force abuses. Since 2013 more than 2 million people have been displaced by the conflict, and at least 250,000 have fled to neighboring countries. Boko Haram has carried out countless abductions, shocking the world with the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April of 2014.
Corruption has hampered efforts to broker a peace and put an end to the violence. To date, Boko Haram continues to operate from its current base in the Sambisa Forest.
Section title photo: Nigerian Soldiers, serving with the UN in Darfur (Flickr).
With her book, “Scholars and Scholarship in the History of Borno”. (Open Press, Zaria, Nig. 1993, 2nd Edn.), her knowledge of Nigeria, and her M.A. in history from the University of Maiduguri, Hamsatu Allamin provided much of the information for this overview of the conflict.
The Women PeaceMakers Program
The Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice’s (IPJ) Women PeaceMakers program annually hosts four women from around the world who have been involved in human rights and peacemaking efforts in their countries.
Women on the frontline of efforts to end violence and secure a just peace seldom record their experiences, activities and insights — as generally there is no time or, perhaps, they do not have formal education that would help them record their stories. The Women PeaceMakers Program is a selective program for leaders who want to document, share and build upon their unique peacemaking stories.
Women PeaceMakers are paired with a Peace Writer to document in written form their story of living in conflict and building peace in their communities and nations. While in residence at the institute, Women PeaceMakers give presentations on their work and the situation in their home countries to the university and San Diego communities.
The IPJ believes that women’s stories go beyond headlines to capture the nuance of complex situations and expose the realities of gender-based violence, thus providing an understanding of conflict and an avenue to its transformation. The narrative stories of Women PeaceMakers not only provide this understanding, but also show the myriad ways women construct peace in the midst of and after violence and war. For the realization of peace with justice, the voices of women — those severely affected by violent conflict and struggling courageously and creatively to build community from the devastation — must be recorded, disseminated and spotlighted.