‘Mama Boko Haram’: one woman’s extraordinary mission to rescue ‘her boys’ from terrorism by Chika Oduah

It was another scorching afternoon in Maiduguri. In the west of the city, in Nigeria’s north-east, 51-year-old Aisha Wakil sat in her office talking to a jihadi fighter named Usman. Wakil was draped head-to-toe in fine sequinned chiffon; a niqab covered most of her face, leaving visible only her dark eyes. Ka’aji, a sweet, woody incense that Wakil kept burning in a corner, perfumed the room.

Wakil and Usman kept their voices down. They were hashing out a secret plan to free a 16-year-old girl who was being held hostage by Boko Haram. It was May 2019, 10 years after the Islamist group had begun terrorising Nigeria as part of a jihad it was waging against the government. The violence, which had spilled into neighbouring countries, had left more than 30,000 people dead.

Over the years, Boko Haram had become notorious for kidnapping women and girls. The most infamous instance came in 2014, when its fighters captured 276 schoolgirls from a secondary school in the remote village of Chibok. But there were abductions before Chibok, and dozens after. Some of those captured were forced to become suicide bombers, and Boko Haram has used more than 460 female suicide bombers, more than any other terrorist group in history. The teenage girl who Wakil and Usman were discussing was one of the group’s latest victims. For months, Wakil had been pleading with Boko Haram fighters to free her.

With soldiers and local vigilantes trying to hunt them down, the group’s members had largely fled Maiduguri, the largest city in Borno state, and the other cities in the region. They set up camps tucked away in the arid bush land stretching across northern Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Some fighters went to live in hideouts in the vast former game reserve of Sambisa forest and on the remote islands dotting Lake Chad, where they kept thousands of hostages – women, girls, men and child soldiers forced to join their ranks.

After annihilating villages, the fighters would slip back to their camps. Nigerian soldiers scrambled after them, but the army’s heavy vehicles would get stuck in the spiky shrubs and the soft, sandy ground of the Sambisa. They couldn’t venture far into Lake Chad’s swampy coast, especially during the rainy season. The insurgents were swift, cruising over the land in convoys of motorbikes, and then disappearing like smoke.

Wakil was one of the few people outside Boko Haram who could reach its members. She was in touch with senior fighters and, in her office that day, she was using that access to negotiate freedom for the hostage. The girl was Christian, and in interviews with the local media, her parents had been asking the Nigerian government to rescue her. Wakil wanted her out safely. She believed Usman was the right person to get the job done. He was, after all, a Boko Haram militant – a mid-ranking one, who travelled between the bush and the city for special assignments.

To get to Wakil’s office, Usman had to pass through the city without attracting attention. The streets were crawling with security personnel – soldiers, police officers, intelligence agents, volunteers from the Civilian Joint Task Force, a local paramilitary vigilante group. At the time, Boko Haram attacks were on the rise again and locals moved about with caution. So did Usman. With his frayed clothes, scratched-up hands and lean frame, he fit the physical profile of a Boko Haram fighter perfectly.

Usman wanted to do some good. He had decided to cooperate with Wakil, relaying her messages to the mujahideen back in the camp. Their meeting ended on an optimistic note. It seemed possible that the hostage might be freed.

Maiduguri is situated within what was the longest-standing kingdom in African history, a powerful pre-colonial Islamic state known as the Kanem-Bornu empire. Established by the ancestors of the modern-day Kanuri people, the empire lasted from the eighth to the 19th century. At one point, the empire’s territory stretched east from modern-day Nigeria through Chad, to Sudan and north to Libya. The empire’s kings – first known as mai, then later as shehu, a derivative of the Arabic title sheikh – were among the first monarchs to practice Islam in sub-Saharan Africa.

For a long time, Maiduguri was regarded as the “home of peace”. Life there revolved around Islamic traditions: the call to prayer echoed from mosques. On Fridays, the streets were packed with people making their way to jum’ah prayer; thousands of boys sat under trees, reciting verses from the Qur’an under their teachers’ gaze.

From the Sahara Desert, cascades of sand blow into the city, covering the terrain in fine layers of dust. At midday, Maiduguri is blindingly hot. It has a particular kind of dry heat that prickles the skin. At night, the heat eases off a bit, giving way to breezes rising over the murky Ngadda River, rustling past neem trees scattered across the land.

Wakil moved to the city in 1989, to enrol at the University of Maiduguri. Unlike many of her fellow students, she wasn’t a member of the indigenous Kanuri people – she was Igbo, an ethnic group whose ancestral land lies in the south-east of Nigeria. It was there that Wakil was born, in 1968, and where she grew up, as the country was trying to reconcile and rebuild in the aftermath of the civil war, which ended in 1970.

Wakil came from an Igbo family of devout Roman Catholics and she, too, had been deeply devoted to the faith. It led her to God, she said, and throughout her youth she took to reading her Bible and praying for hours on end. It was not until the early 90s that she converted to Islam, after meeting the man she would marry, Alkali Gana Wakil. He was Kanuri and Muslim. “According to the tradition, the woman should follow the man’s religion. I did it to maintain that culture, for peace to reign in my matrimonial home,” Wakil told me.

Maiduguri in northern Nigeria. Photograph: Fati Abubakar/AFP/Getty Images

Her relatives back home in the south were deeply disappointed with her conversion, and the fact that she, a “southerner”, had gone off and married “a northerner”. She changed her name to one of the most revered in Islam, Aisha – after the favourite wife of Muhammad and “mother of the believers”. (Today, Wakil refuses to reveal her original Igbo and Christian names.) She and her husband moved into a quaint bungalow close to the most sacred place in Maiduguri – the Shehu’s palace and adjacent mosque complex.

The first time I met Wakil, in 2018, she grinned and embraced me tenderly when I told her that I was also Igbo. “It’s like being with my sister,” she said, giggling, and lifted her niqab to let me see her face. Wakil had done her best to adopt Kanuri culture. She burned ka’aji. She took on local beauty customs, keeping her hands and fingers covered in lalle, a type of henna plant dye. She followed the local expectations of a Muslim wife, too, covering her head in a hijab whenever she stepped out of her home. When her husband started telling her that he did not like the way men were admiring her face, she began wearing the niqab to conceal it.

Shortly after Wakil moved to her house in Maiduguri, she decided to start leaving her front door open. She was still fairly new to the city and wanted to be welcoming. Soon, poor Kanuri boys, about six or seven years old, began streaming in. Wakil let them play in her compound. Eventually, she would let them garden with her and pick fruit from her trees. Although she already had two of her own children at the time, she started calling these gangly neighbourhood boys her “sons”. In turn, the boys called her “mama”, and to show how much they appreciated her, they started inviting her to attend their circumcision ceremonies, which she ended up sponsoring as a way to help their families, who were struggling financially.

The circumcision of a Muslim boy is a sacred rite in northern Nigeria. In Maiduguri, it usually takes place when boys are about seven. Wakil was there at her newfound sons’ circumcisions, holding their hands as they flinched under the blade. When the old men finished cutting, Wakil would gently wash the boy’s penis, submerging it in ka’aji to disinfect it and keep evil spirits away. At the end, she had a chicken killed to celebrate each boy’s rite of passage.

But Wakil was still getting used to the customs of north-eastern Nigeria. Some people there saw her as an outsider, a southerner. At times she felt like one, too. And as she continued to adjust to a culture that was so different from the one she grew up in, it was her sons who kept her company. They came to adore the Igbo dishes she cooked them, such as isi ewu, spiced goat’s head steeped in red palm oil. Back in those days, Maiduguri still felt like the city of peace.

Around the turn of the century, life in Maiduguri started to change. After 1999, when military rule ended and civilian rule was restored to Nigeria, sectarian tensions increased. Between 1999 and 2001, to ensure that the new secular, democratic government in Abuja would not encroach on Islamic principles, 12 northern states adopted full sharia law. Christians living in the north said they felt threatened by sharia, despite officials’ promises that it would not apply to them.

Religious tensions were particularly raw in the wide swathe of fertile land south of Borno state, known in Nigeria as the Middle Belt. In 2001, in one Middle Belt city, Jos, about 1,000 people were killed in violence between Christians and Muslims. In Maiduguri, that same year, a total lunar eclipse sparked a riot, after local Muslim men took the eclipse as a sign that the city was overrun with immorality. News agencies reported that the men set ablaze at least 40 hotels, brothels and bars. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, and Osama bin Laden’s exhortations to Muslims in Africa to rise up against unbelievers, only added to these existing conflicts.

Since the 90s, a man called Mohammed Yusuf had been travelling around Nigeria’s north-east, preaching against western influences. Yusuf subscribed to a radical, militant strand of the conservative Sunni branch of Islam known as Salafism. In his sermons, he attacked boko (meaning secular education) and deemed it haram (sinful). By 2001, Yusuf had a devoted group of followers, known as Yusufiyya, and people started referring to his ideology as Boko Haram.

Yusuf tapped into the growing anger at rising inequality in Borno state, where most villages lacked power and clean running water, and the majority of people lived on less than $1.25 a day. He railed against government corruption, as well as the growing influence of western Judeo-Christian culture in the north. He condemned the idolisation of international football stars, the prioritising of Nigeria’s secular constitution over Islam and the government’s push to make primary education compulsory for children.

In 2005, Yusuf set up the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque and compound, near Maiduguri’s train station. A few hundred of his followers moved there, settling around the train tracks. Yusuf’s rhetoric got more extreme as he agitated for the Borno state governor to enforce sharia law, beyond its formal adoption in 2000. He railed against the US invasion of Iraq, the torture of Muslim detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. He told his followers that Nigeria was an infidel state, and it was time to prepare for jihad against the government. Meanwhile, violence between Christians and Muslims across Nigeria continued to escalate. The worldwide protests that followed a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad in 2005 led to more deaths in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. Many protests turned violent, which began a vicious cycle of attacks and counterattacks between Christians and Muslims, leaving dozens dead.

Wakil knew Yusuf, having befriended his wife and father-in-law around the time he began amassing a following. She saw him as another son. Maiduguri residents who knew Yusuf told me that he respected Wakil. She would cook for him in his father-in-law’s home, and urge him not to fight the government.

Around this time, she noticed her other sons were spending more time at Yusuf’s mosque. “They just began disappearing,” she told me. She remembers one of the boys who went away for three months. When he returned to town, he was no longer the jovial teenager that he used to be. He came back with a quiet, brooding disposition. When she asked where he had been, he told her that he had gone somewhere to learn how to kill people.

“I thought it was a joke!” Wakil told me. “Kill people?”

At first, she had no idea that jihad training camps were springing up in Nigeria, let alone that one of her sons had participated, upon Yusuf’s instruction. She confronted Yusuf about it. “He didn’t deny it,” Wakil said. “He said they were preparing for jihad.” Later, she learned about a camp in the Middle Belt and her sons started telling her to call them by new names, their noms de guerre.

Yusuf and his followers were becoming increasingly combative, repeatedly fighting with security agents. Yusuf’s popularity swelled after each arrest. The final trigger was a now-infamous incident that took place in June 2009. One day when Yusuf was away, his followers were riding in a convoy of motorbikes on their way to a funeral when a government patrol force confronted them to ask why they weren’t wearing helmets. The Yusufiyya argued with the patrol force, and soon shots rang out. It’s not clear who shot first, but several officers ended up wounded, and some of Yusuf’s devotees died. The government never investigated what happened.

Yusuf was livid, and responded with a series of diatribes directly threatening the Nigerian government and ordering Muslims to acquire weapons. Those messages went beyond Maiduguri, recorded on DVDs and tapes that circulated across the region.

Wakil realised that her sons and Yusuf were headed for trouble. She spoke to his father-in-law about her concerns, and he, too, was worried. On 21 July 2009, police raided the home of a sect member and seized bomb-making materials. The Yusufiyya burned down a police station on 26 July in Bauchi state, west of Borno, where Yusuf had a farm. Police raided the farm, killing dozens of militants. Later that day, jihadists also attacked a police station in Maiduguri and for the next four days, they terrorised the city, killing police and soldiers, and slitting the throats of civilians caught in the middle. In response to the killing spree, Nigerian troops shot more than 100 of Yusuf’s followers. Soldiers captured Yusuf and handed him over to the police, who executed him. Wakil cannot forget the night of 30 July 2009, when she saw Yusuf’s bloodied corpse on the local evening news TV broadcast.

Mohammed Yusuf, then leader of Boko Haram, after his capture by Nigerian troops in 2009. Photograph: HO/AFP

The government thought Yusuf’s death was the end of Boko Haram. But it only made things worse. After going into hiding, the group re-emerged in 2010 with Yusuf’s brutal deputy, Abubakar Shekau, as Boko Haram’s new leader. From then on, Boko Haram began targeting schools and kidnapping women. The group’s goal was to overthrow Nigeria’s government and replace it with an Islamic state.

Many of Wakil’s sons were now under Shekau’s command. But as appalled as she was by the destructive path her sons had chosen, Wakil felt she couldn’t abandon them, or hand them over to the government. Throughout the nearly two years I spent following her, I never heard Wakil describe any of them as “terrorists”. These were men she had taken care of as they grew up. Now, she decided to pray for them to repent. And she kept looking after them: she gave them clothes, money and phones, believing they could be reformed with love. She took care of the wives and children they left behind in the cities. When state security agents came after Wakil’s sons, she hid them inside her home: they slept in the parlour, while she and her daughter, Ummi, slept in the next room.

But she feared how far her sons would go. Maiduguri became an urban war zone. At night, the sound of gunfire filled the air. During the day, residents were afraid to gather for weddings and parties. Speaking out against the militants could get you killed, so residents kept usually silent.

But Wakil was an exception. Her associations with Boko Haram were no secret. Producers at a local TV news station invited her to the studio to speak about the rising insecurity. During that broadcast, Wakil said the fighters should stop, that she was pleading to them as a mother to her sons.

After that, residents and journalists started calling her “Mama Boko Haram”. She was the only woman who would publicly declare that she spoke regularly to the militants.

The University of Maiduguri is the most prestigious university in Nigeria’s north-east. With its modern, expansive campus, more than 20,000 students and international staff, it is the pride of the city. And as a secular, coeducational institution, it was also an obvious target for Boko Haram.

In 2012, the group carried out a series of high-profile attacks. In early January, Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s president at the time, admitted that Boko Haram members had infiltrated his government and the security services. Later that moth, in Kano, Nigeria’s second-biggest city, Boko Haram carried out a series of coordinated shootings and bombings that left more than 178 dead. Back in Maiduguri, not even the beloved Shehu of Borno – who had publicly denounced Boko Haram as un-Islamic – was safe. He barely escaped a suicide bombing in the central mosque where people were worshiping.

That same year, Wakil got a call from one of her sons warning her not to let her daughter Ummi, who was a student at the university, go in that day. The campus was about to be attacked. Wakil spoke as gently as she could. Addressing him as “my son”, she did her best to coax him into abandoning the plan. She told him that killing innocent people was not God’s will. He said there was no way to stop the mission, because everything was already in place, but that she should protect her daughter.

When he hung up, Wakil turned to Ummi and told her to rush to school. “She was telling me, go to school quickly,” Ummi later told me. “I didn’t know why she was hurrying me.” Wakil knew that her sons wouldn’t want to bomb the university with her daughter inside. Ummi was like a sister to them: she, too, had taken care of them. So Wakil used her like a human shield.

A wanted poster for Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in Maduguri in 2013. Photograph: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

When the insurgents spotted Ummi, the man called Wakil again. Why had Mama let her daughter go to campus, he asked her. After some back and forth, he said that, on Mama’s request, they were going to call off the attack.

Very few people outside Boko Haram could claim that kind of influence over its members – and at first, the government considered Wakil’s relationship with them an asset. They believed she could help them open talks with the group.

As the violence spiralled, in 2013 Wakil was invited to join a committee that President Jonathan had set up to open talks with the insurgents and broach the option of granting them amnesty. Wakil joined, but the talks didn’t go anywhere. Boko Haram didn’t trust the politicians, and as details of the negotiations kept being leaked to the media, the insurgents became less and less inclined to cooperate.

But since Shekau had become Boko Haram’s leader, Wakil had been carrying out her own negotiations, talking to members by phone or through her informants, or meeting them in person in her home. She beseeched them to leave the group, and dozens of them did. She convinced some of them to abandon their arms, directing them to a large rubbish dump in Maiduguri where they could drop the weapon and walk away. A couple of times, militants helped her to disassemble explosives. She buried the pieces in her garden. As we walked around it together, she pointed out the spot where she had destroyed a bomb; if I looked hard enough, she said, I might still be able to see pieces of it.

She helped former members establish a new life in other parts of the country. One day, she gave money to some 30 ex-militants. With the money, one ended up going to the commercial capital of Lagos to work in the textile sector, she said. Another made his way to the south-east to become a butcher. According to Wakil, many of these sons were killed by vigilantes or arrested once word spread about who they were.

Not everyone understood what Wakil was doing. And it wasn’t long before rumours started going around. People said she was suspiciously close to the insurgents. They wondered why her home had been spared, while just about every other area in Maiduguri had been touched by gunfire or a bomb.

It was true, Wakil said, that they had agreed never to attack there. But that was because her home was considered a sanctuary by all sides. When bullets were fired in the city, it was where civilians went to seek refuge. Insurgents ran there when they were being pursued by state security and soldiers; security officials ran there when they were fleeing Boko Haram.

At these moments, government security agents and Boko Haram fighters sometimes came face to face in Wakil’s home, exactly as she wanted. She would bring over bowls of isi ewu and encourage the men to eat together in peace. “They will eat and they will be very happy,” she told me with a laugh. They would be wary at first, but over food they slowly warmed up enough to have frank conversations.

Aisha Wakil in her office in Maiduguri in April 2019. Photograph: Jean Chung/Getty Images

It was Wakil’s own version of peacebuilding. But unsurprisingly, some people felt uncomfortable about her unorthodox methods. On 14 August 2016, Wakil was declared wanted by the Nigerian army after the militants released a video of the Chibok girls in captivity. In a statement, the army spokesman, Sani Usman, said that Wakil – and two other people who were wanted, a journalist and a peace activist – was “in possession of information on the conditions and the exact location” of the Chibok girls. “They must, therefore, come forward and tell us,” Usman’s statement went on.

Wakil was distraught. Not only did she not know where the girls were, but for years she had been cooperating with the security services. She had met with the army’s chief of staff and kept the military informed about her activities. Now she was being treated as an accomplice. She posted a response on Facebook: “Yes I have links with Boko Haram and you have always known that,” she wrote. “I have been in the front fighting for peace long before Chibok girls were kidnapped. Nigerian security knows me too well, I am not shady. Why declaring me wanted? … this has put my immediate and extended family under a lot of pressure and I do not deserve this from the government.”

The next day, Wakil turned herself in at the defence headquarters in Abuja, and was interrogated for about eight hours. Security personnel asked her for her life story, how she ended up in Maiduguri, how she came to know the insurgents. Though she was not offered any public apology, the army accepted her story and released her after 48 hours. She returned to Maiduguri and got back to work.

In early September 2018, two years after her interrogation, Wakil sat in her office with two Boko Haram militants. “You hear me? We will come out,” said Ali Garga, one of the Boko Haram militants, in a gentle voice. “We don’t want any security to disturb us, like police.”

Wakil sat in her chair quietly listening. She seemed worn out. The previous year, she had launched a nonprofit organisation called Complete Care and Aid Foundation. Every few weeks, she and her team would visit refugee camps, where they would distribute clothes and food to women who had lost their husbands to Boko Haram, as well as check on the storehouse where they kept bags of rice and beans.

But the relief work was not her most pressing priority. She urgently wanted to get her boys to stop the violence – and it was taking a physical toll on her. She suffered from acute back pain and crippling headaches. Still, she kept going.

“We drop everything, we drop everything, Mama,” Garga went on, speaking on behalf of some of the men in his unit. He did not specify just how many men wanted to surrender. A man with a hard, skinny body and kind eyes, Garga had been a cattle herder before becoming a mujahid. But he had grown tired of the guerrilla life, eventually coming around to see what Boko Haram was doing as criminal, not Islamic. He missed his cows, his home, his freedom. Later, he turned to me and explained that he was surrendering because Wakil was making it possible for him to do so.

As part of the surrender, Garga said he planned to release some of the Chibok girls who were still captive. Of the original 276, about 112 are still missing. Garga, who claimed he had about 40 of them under his care in a secret location, told Wakil he would sneak out of the camp with the girls and other abductees.

An hour later, Wakil said it was time for her sons to eat. She brought out plastic containers of rice and bottles of water and orange soda. The men sat quietly, scooping up the rice with their hands and then wolfing down their food, until an informant began to praise Wakil. “Mama Aisha, mother of the Boko Haram. May God bless you, Aisha. May God help you,” he said.

Three weeks later, I was in Wakil’s home on a Saturday night when she ran towards me with her phone in her hand, shouting, “Ali is dead! Ali is dead!” A trusted informant, whom I had met several times, had just called her. Wakil was hysterical. She threw her body on the cold tiled floor and cried. I watched her shoulders shake up and down. She told me that when Garga went back into the bushes, some of his fellow mujahideen found out about his plan to escape with the Chibok girls. They killed him. Wakil later found out that he had been tortured.

Ali Garga’s death was a huge setback to Wakil’s peace talks. Things hadn’t been going her way lately. She had sold many of her assets, including jewellery and land, and had no more money to lure the militants away from the group. Her talks kept hitting dead ends. Her informants were getting killed as they travelled between Maiduguri and the bush, where the militants were based. She never knew who did the killing. Periodically, she would get a message that another contact had been killed by a stray bullet, or drowned in a river.

In late 2019, her foundation was hit with a lawsuit over allegations of fraud. She was detained shortly afterwards. According to the government’s anti-corruption agency, contractors who had supplied at least 111.6m naira (£229,000) worth of goods such as cars, maize and medical supplies to the foundation had not been paid and some of the awarded contracts were bogus.

In January, I travelled to Maiduguri to see if I could visit Wakil in the prison where she and the foundation’s programme manager and country director were being held. I learned that the prison administrators had allowed her to go to the hospital to get treatment for her high blood pressure. At the hospital, Wakil told me she was innocent, blaming everything on the programme manager, who had handled the contracts. (Like Wakil, the programme manager and country director have also pleaded not guilty. The trial has been postponed until further notice, and all three suspects remain in custody.)

Meanwhile, Wakil told me, the number of people joining Boko Haram was growing, despite the Nigerian military’s claims to the contrary. They were getting their hands on more sophisticated weapons: Russian anti-aircraft missiles and mortars that had been circulating in north Africa since the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, as well as drones. And then there were all the Boko Haram splinter groups, which made it harder for Wakil to keep track of which faction was carrying out which attack.

Despite the presence of a multinational task force of specially trained army units, and repeated claims by Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, that the group has been “technically defeated”, its insurgency continues. In March, the Chadian and Nigerian armies kicked off a major offensive operation against Boko Haram. Later that month, 92 Chadian soldiers were killed in a battle that lasted seven hours. Chadian forces claimed they killed 1,000 militants in a mission launched that month. In June, militants carried out multiple attacks in north-eastern Nigeria, which left scores of civilians dead.

It’s hard to say who is winning the war, but Wakil’s boys are dying before they can even surrender. A couple of days after Ali Garga was killed, Wakil called me into her bedroom to watch old videos of him. It was night-time, and I sat on the fluffy pink comforter beside Wakil, and looked at the tablet in her hands. There, on the screen, were Garga and his wife, a rifle slung over her shoulder. They were dancing in a clearing of trees. All around them, sword-carrying mujahideen danced with women, standing shoulder to shoulder, shuffling back and forth. Everyone was beaming. Under a bright sky, Boko Haram was dancing.

I looked up from the tablet and saw Wakil smile as she watched her son. I remembered something she had told me one evening in her kitchen. All she wanted, she said, was for her boys to come out, so she could cook isi ewu for them and they could eat together like old times.


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