Aisha Wakil is a lawyer with the National Human Rights Commission and wife of a judge in Borno State. But the emergence of Boko Haram compelled her to abandon her primary assignment for a peaceful resolution of the insurgency that has inflicted untold damage on the country since it broke in 2009.
However, Mrs. Wakil’s intervention did not come without its challenges. The most recent being the recent decision by the Nigerian military to declare her wanted alongside two others on allegations they were aiding Boko Haram.
PREMIUM TIMES’ Samuel Ogundipe sat down with her in a location she said should be kept private for her first exclusive interview since regaining freedom.
When you first heard that you were declared wanted, what ran through your mind?
First of all, what ran through my mind: I said ‘devil is at work’. Devil is a liar. I was a little bit taken aback. Because I left Maiduguri that very day but I didn’t hear anything of such. So when I heard it, I went through whatever their statement said. I read it all over and over and over again. I said, ‘well, that is it to do good things in Nigeria you have a price to pay’. You can just sacrifice your life and get a proper burial. When you carry Ghana-must-go, some people clap for you. But when you want to restore something good in Nigeria, you become a target.
So all these things flashed through my mind, and I now said I was weak but I said ‘God, into your hands I commit myself. Take control of me and don’t let this thing disturb the peace I’ve been building for the past seven years when this thing first started’.
What was your experience after you turned yourself in?
When we got there, we spent several hours at the Defence Headquarters. But I have never been there before. I just saw a big house and I walked in to say I want to see Buratai. So someone told me: ‘no, you go round there’.
I now went to the reception and I told the lady ‘I am Aisha Wakil, I am wanted’.
She asked me which newspaper and I said ‘you should know’. Then she asked me to write my name on a paper and I did and she went inside. Then one tall and fair man later came out to ask for my passport. Few minutes later, he came back with some military personnel. From there they put me inside a vehicle and they took me to the military command guest house. That was where I spent the night.
I wrote a lot of things for them. A lot of questions and what I know. They asked me to write everything I know about Boko Haram. After I wrote everything they became very impressed. Honestly. The room they gave me, I was treated like a queen.
For so many years you’ve been dealing with the Nigerian government, no one ever asked you these questions? They didn’t know you?
They didn’t ask me about my life. I was telling my story to them. It was Ahmed Bolori that introduced me to the Director of Military Intelligence, Abubakar Sa’ad, who later linked me up with now Chief of Army Staff, Buratai.
They were coming to my house to pick me for extensive meeting and after the meeting they would bring me back home. They were very impressed.
You said they treated you like a queen, but they still confiscated your phones and passport?
When I asked them for my phones, they said they won’t give me. They said that’s the process and my own was not going to be different.
Are you on administrative bail or you were just allowed to go?
Somebody bailed me out. Somebody signed my bail from SSS headquarters. I was transferred to the SSS on Tuesday, a day after I turned myself in.
What of the allegation that you were aiding Boko Haram? You could be charged under the anti-terrorism laws.
It is a misconception. Whoever did the announcement. I don’t think the Chief of Army Staff knew about it before the thing was aired out.
It’s been a long time you’ve been pursuing this road.
How did the Nigerian authorities approach you or were you the one that reached out to them?
When I approached the government. I met first, Brigadier General Bello Sarkin-Yaki. The person that took me to Bello Sarkin-Yakin was Defence Minister, Bello Haliru. He was the one. When he came, I narrated the story to him and I told him these children they have listening ears. They are human beings like all of us. They can be handled.
You should stop bombing and killing, let them also stop what they were doing. He now said okay I should go to Bello Sarkin Yaki in the morning. So in the morning they took me there and I narrated the whole story. He was also very impressed. He now linked me up with Colonel Suleiman —I don’t know the surname. He was residing in Giwa Barracks. From then, I’ll be with Col. Suleiman and we’ll put the boys on the phone. Then the boys were so scared to go and meet any military man because they believed they were going to kill them. So when I call, I will connect them on the phone without them knowing I was with a military man. They would talk and talk. Then Suleiman would preach to them then they became shocked that a military man could quote Qur’an for them because Col. Suleiman was highly learned in Qur’an.
Sometimes they would come to my house and say they wanted to go and do something and I would preach to them not to do so.
What year was this?
Okay, the ones that informed you beforehand about attacks, what did they do after you preached to them?
They never returned to it. They swore not to kill again. But were later killed because they renounced Boko Haram.
You were involved in a series of negotiations with the Jonathan administration, apparently it all fell through?
When this thing initially started, they wanted it to finish immediately. But later, they said people were paying them to start killing people like politicians and businessmen and to destroy businesses. So they became divided later. So those that were used to bad activities they were using them freely and they then ran out of control.
But all the while I continued pleading, begging.
Did you ever meet Shekau while you were going to the bush?
No, I’ve never met Shekau before. But I knew him face to face. Before the war when I went to greet Mohammed Yusuf, he would block me and not allow me to go in because I had a police orderly then.
So when I returned home, Yusuf later came to my house and started pleading and begging. He used to be a simple, humble person. But I don’t know what happened and everything became like this.
One day I called Yusuf to my house and asked him if truly there was going to be a war, but he said no. Shekau and Abu Qaqa were on his entourage. Then Yusuf entered my sitting room.
Who do you think has control of the sect now? The original leader of the sect now?
Barnawi, I know him as Habib. When he changed to this name, I sent him an SMS to tell him I won’t be calling him that name. ‘I know you as Habib son of Mohammed Yusuf.’
So, you believe he’s the one in charge?
Yes, he is.
What do you think is the prospect of rescuing the rest of the Chibok girls?
Assuming I had a clue that they were going to kidnap the girls, I would have been in Chibok sleeping. Then I would have been in that hall and everybody would be kidnapped. I didn’t know about it. When I heard about it, I told the government to calm down. They should keep quiet. I was able to pass the message across. I said ‘please start releasing them’. It did not take time before some of the girls were released. So by the time I knew it, the whole thing was in the media. Boko Haram now called me and said mama we are no more releasing. The Chibok girls have become diamond and gold. I asked why? They said even Obama’s wife is carrying ‘Bring Back Our Girls’. They now knew they were very important as attention was focused on them.
After that I became really disturbed. I started tracing them in the bush to see whether I could get to where the girls were. I slept in the bush. Then later they told me where to come and pick 50 of them. I was heading there with Dr. Steven Davis and one general. We slept in that bush. So by the time we got there, civilian JTF alerted them in the bush and was chasing them in the bush and they now took off. I went there with the ambulance. They called me in front of the general and requested that I should come to a certain location the following day and pick 50 girls. They said we should have 14 ambulance buses on standby. I said ‘okay’. They also told me to come with shai which means tea with milk and put plenty sugar. This is because some of the girls were very weak and one with a broken hand.
So Dr. Davies and that high-ranking general now decided to go with University of Maiduguri vans and some doctors and nurses. They warned me never to come with a military and if I do they would slaughter me in front of the military.
So we were making the preparation. The general with us received a message on his telephone: “Chibok girls sighted.” So we rushed. By the time we got there civilian JTF had seen them and gave them a hot chase.
By the time we got there they had driven them too far. I was calling on the telephone but their lines were switched off. It was later in the night I got them and they asked me: mama what happened? Did you tell anyone? I said ‘no I did not’. Civilian JTF chased them and there was a massacre.
They killed so many of them —up to 400— that time. We lost them, We slept in that bush with the military and commander of the military know me and everything. They were so happy that I could take this risk.
Early morning, they called me and asked ‘mama where are you?’ I said ‘I am somewhere’. They now said the roads were dangerous that we should pass through Monguno on our way back to Maiduguri. That was how we lost that one. If they had not chased them. If they had not sighted them we could have just finished this thing. Those 50 girls would have been in our custody. everything would have been over by now.
What do you make of President Obasanjo’s comment that the girls could not longer be rescued?
It was exaggerated. When he made that statement, they called me. You know they read everything —they read a lot. They go on the Internet and read a lot of things. They called me and said mama go to the newspapers. Tell them they are alive. I said why don’t you come so that two of us will say that they are alive? He said ‘no mama. Please do this. Nigeria will curse us. So I now came out in the newspaper and narrated story saying they are alive. Nobody believed it. Now I kept on pushing them. What they want is proof of life. So when we get there, I will cross the bridge of showing the proof of life. So it is very easy, What are they doing with them? Even though they are married come out with your wives we will settle you.
Still a bit more on the issue of peace. Ahmad Salkida, Ahmed Bolori, what is your relationship with them, especially as they’re tied to the release of videos from the sect? Can you please tell us how you work together?
Yes. Ahmed Salkida, I have not seen him eye-to-eye. I spoke to him on the phone once after Abu Qaqa mentioned my name in the newspaper that they were going to kill me because the money I was spending was not from me. That I collected money from the federal government, state government and the United Nations. That they brought money in dollars. He did not know I was using my money. So when I now got him and I said ‘if you know you are clean come and meet me’. And when I met him he shed tears.
Abu Qaqa cried. I put my hand on his head, this is what I normally do as a mother and prayed for him and he left. He later said they did their research and found that I was not being paid by the federal government or the United Nations. So that was all and he said I should keep up with what I was doing.
So I now talked to Salkida on the phone. I said I knew there was a time Mohammed Yusuf mentioned you to me briefly. Are you still the one and he said yes. Okay, we have to join hands and bring back these children. He was ill-treated also by security. If they had handled him properly I think with me and him together this thing would have been over. I don’t know the reason why they did that to him. He is a very strong person.
Ahmed Bolori is a Kanuri guy. He realised that I was alone doing everything. He now said he was going to give me moral support. He was the one that organised my meeting with the DMI Sa’ad and Buratai.
Okay, what would you say is the best approach now to rescue the girls? Do you think it is the military or diplomatic approach that is the solution? Would Boko Haram release the girls to you?
They will release everybody to me or you. If they find you worthy, they will release to you. They can release to anybody. What they wanted before was that they said they were going to send thirty commanders to me. If those thirty commanders can come meet the security, they would discuss and they need trust. If they trust them they go back to their bush and the next thing they will bring two girls.
Then, they will now make their demand during the meeting and bring some more girls.
The controversy between you and the SSS and a former aide of Borno State governor in 2014. I think you were accused of taking money to surrender Boko Haram operatives that were later found to be fake. Do you remember?
No, I was not a part of that. That was during Ali Sheriff something. In that allegation, they said Steven Davis and Ali Sherif were instrumental to Boko Haram.
Thank you. We’re going to get to your personal life in a bit, but let’s quickly touch on the situation in Maiduguri and the rest of the Northeast. What is your assessment? What do you think of the situation with the IDPs?
The situation in Borno is partially okay. It is not 100% because from time to time you hear bomb exploding. At least, one can move a little bit freely but you cannot avoid looking over your shoulder even till now. So, yeah, I think the military is trying with the support of the Civilian JTF some of whom I know very well.
Then the issue of IDP is a pity that such a thing is happening. I won’t go deep into that.
Madam, Nigerians would like to hear about the situation of the IDPs because it is of national and international interest.
It is hazardous. IDPs situation there is bad. Honestly, it is zero. The Nigerian government is trying but things are not circulating. That is the problem. Because some of the IDPs are communities. Some are living near my house. Some of the IDP camp people I have employed to come and do my hair so that we can be giving them things: money, clothing, feeding you know. I am doing that one personally. I do a lot of things which I don’t like everybody to know. I am doing it for God. I am not a very loud person.
How about your family members? What do they make of the whole thing?
What would my family do? They know me. These boys, just as I said, some of them lived with me when they were young, when Borno was just perfect. They were in my house. They are from Sheguri North. My relationship with them started long ago. It started since I came to Maiduguri in 1989. So they grew up to see me. I am a very humble person. If I go to a place I relate a lot with the tradition.
I happened to win the hearts of all the elders, their wives, their children and when they were growing up they called me “yanjunmai” which means “loved mother.” So from this yanjunmai, they were with me. I keep them in my house. Some of them were going to school. Then when Mohammad Yusuf came to Borno, they started going there to learn Islam.
All of us were happy that our kids were no more idle. So Mohammed Yusuf was helping them, building them up. So Mohammed Yusuf won the heart of all the youth in Borno State and beyond Borno State. Because when somebody is giving you without collecting anything from you, you become part and parcel of that person and whatever he says you obey. So that was what happened,
I became their yanjuma. So when this thing came up, I did not stop and my family cannot tell me to stop.
Till today, in my house, if you go, you see a big pot that we use in cooking food for people. People that are not in my family, when the time comes, they come and eat. And that till today that is what we call nakowa. So, my family cannot stop me from doing it. And I am a very peaceful person. Right from my childhood I like to mediate between husband and wife when there is a crisis. It is inborn for me. They tried to stop me and I said ‘no’. If I don’t know them from day one, I won’t try it. I don’t speak the language. I don’t speak Hausa or Kanuri. But we understand ourselves.
It’s a perilous position when you play the negotiator between the government and a terror group, how did you manage to earn the trust of both parties without being frustrated with suspicion by either or both parties?
If you see white, you know it is white. If you see black you, you know it is black. And if you are pretending, three days anybody can detect you. So this is 7th year now and I am still where I am. So that trust is there because I am the type of woman that carry “gulma” from this one to this one. If this is what I discuss with you, that is what I discuss with you. If she asks me, I will say ‘you are not supposed to know’. If you must know, you go and ask yourself. I don’t discuss military is here, Boko Haram is there. And the military officers know it. If they ask me where they are? I say I don’t know where they are. If Boko-haram asks where? I say I don’t know where they are. So, it is like that. When they arrest them, my name is straightforward. They say “go meet this woman, she is the only one we trust”.
I know you are a lawyer, do you still practice law?
No, I am into this business of a mediator. In law, you know we have mediators and I work with the National Human Rights Commission. My husband is also a judge in Borno State High Court.
Would you mind giving us an idea about your age?
I am 48 years old.