She stood out when President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated the committee on amnesty for Boko Haram last Wednesday in Abuja, covered from head to toe in her burqa. The mystery of the woman behind the veil extends to her origins. Tony Akowe in Kaduna profiles the woman Boko Haram insurgents call “Mama.”
In a region where women are given little attention, the announcement of the name of Aisha Wakil as a member of the Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the northern part of the country came to many as a surprise.
Even though not much is known about her, her name has consistently appeared on the list of people allegedly released by the Boko Haram insurgents as one of those to represent them in any form of dialogue or negotiation with the government.
In November last year, when the insurgents announced the names of prominent northerners who they wanted to represent them in negotiations with the Federal Government, Aisha Wakil and her husband, Justice Zanna Wakil of the Borno State judiciary, were on the list headed by former Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari.
When the leader of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria, Sheikh Datti Ahmed, rejected his nomination into the committee, many Nigerians felt disappointed – especially in view of the fact that he is one of those that may have had any form of contact with members of the group. Ahmed was part of the botched peace deal and he believed that the government was not serious about peace with the insurgents.
Alongside her husband, Justice Wakil, Aisha, a practicing lawyer was nominated by the government to help resolve the problem. Even though she was called the mystery lady, many Nigerians may not be aware of the fact that she has been in touch with some members of Boko Haram and was even instrumental to a ceasefire declaration announced by the group at a time which was later denied by another faction of the group.
During one peace march by women in Borno State, she was quoted as asking them to come out and state their grievances. “My sons, I have been begging you since in silence to come out and state your grievances and stop destroying your homeland. Please come out and state your grievances and stop these killings,” she allegedly said amidst tears.
One Mohammed Amin Abdullahi, who said Aisha was a friend to his sister, claimed on his Facebook page that Aisha Wakil actually hails from the South-East, but converted to Islam when verses of the Holy Qur’an started appearing on her skin and blended well with the Borno Muslim community.
He wrote “Barr. Aisha Wakil, I would say, is a mysterious woman. She is Igbo by tribe and was a Christian during her education in University of Maiduguri many years ago. She converted to Islam when inscriptions of verses from the Holy Qur’an started appearing on her skin. Members of the sect became so close to her that they even called her mummy.
“They visited her house at will. She even sold her valuables to feed them, just to convince them to drop their weapons. There was a time she seized from them and burnt a note book containing the lists of people killed and those to be killed.
“A lot of them confessed to her that they were fed up with the sect activities. She has been trying to convince members to stop their insurgency long before the issue of dialogue and amnesty started. I got to know all these because she is a close friend of my sister’s, who is also a human rights activist. I once drove my sister, whose name I don’t want to mention here, to Aisha’s house and had the opportunity of seeing the sect members.”
Barrister Wakil, who works with the National Human Rights Commission, told Peoples Daily, an Abuja-based newspaper that largely covers the north, that her relationship with members of the sect dates back to a time before the conflict began and before the death of the spiritual leader of the group.
She also alluded to the insinuation that she was an Igbo lady. She was quoted as saying that she “started the dialogue process since 2009, even before the major crisis erupted, because I knew their slain spiritual leader, Muhammad Yusuf. His father in-law, late Alhaji Baba Fugu Mohammed, was my spiritual father in Islam, and I used to visit his home.
“In fact, Mohammed Yusuf almost married my younger sister Amina, but Almighty Allah did not make it possible. So that was how I got closer to the duo. It went even to the extent that I was cooking food and taking it to the house of late Alhaji Fugu, to the pupils of the Qur’anic school, (almajari).
“And because I am from the southern part of the country, I normally prepared southern dishes, which Yusuf had always come to eat. In fact he liked my egusi soup very much and we became very close when his father-in-law told him that I was the one who cooked the food. So anytime we met, he expressed delight and prayed that Almighty Allah would reward me, for he was eating from my pot and that was how I established a strong relationship with him.
“Though I did not know where he lived at that time, but whenever I visited Fugu’s house, I saw many people trooping to the area and they would later gather behind a particular compound, so I asked Fugu who these people were. He replied that they were the followers of his son-in-law and that they had come for a preaching session conducted by the late Boko Haram leader. When they finished the preaching and were offering closing prayers, I would sometimes walk across to get the blessings of the prayers.”
Wakil admits knowing some members of the sect saying, “I reside in Shehuri North Ward, the epicentre of the insurgency and I know majority of the insurgents, so I sat down and made up my mind, that how could I just watch them continue like that?”
“When this thing was about to start in 2009, late Yusuf had been detained severally and when he came out after one of the detentions, I went to his house to greet him, but his followers refused to allow me access to him. I was angry and said I would never go to greet him again.
“On hearing that, he rushed to his father-in-law and asked him to plead with me that I should forgive him, saying he was not around when I came. But three weeks to this problem, I started hearing rumours that they would launch deadly attacks. So, I called him (Yusuf) to my house and when he came, I learnt that Abubakar Shekau and other followers had escorted him, but they stayed outside.
“When he entered my house, he didn’t even look directly at my face. He put his two hands behind him and I said to him, “my son, I’m hearing something. These rumours I’m hearing, I beg you in the name of Allah, don’t do it. He said that he was betrayed; I said by whom, he said by government, I said can I come into it, he said. Alright, if you can intervene and settle it, we are ready.’
“But I was unable to do so due to the protocol involved in government, especially when it entails meeting governors. I tried all I could to get to the former governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, to discuss the issue, but wasn’t able to get to him. But I later spoke to Yusuf’s in-law, telling him that I was not comfortable with these rumours I was hearing but he said there was nothing he could do, as he was a man of over 70 years and that he had written a letter to the government but he didn’t tell me precisely the content of the said letter.
“I continued talking to Yusuf and he kept giving me instances of the betrayal as his followers were shot over the use of crash helmet for instance. Then when they carried their dead bodies for burial they shot them again despite the fact that there was an agreement between them, they were betrayed.
“In fact he had seriously lamented this betrayal as I’m talking to you now I don’t know the betrayal he was referring to and nobody has told me about it up till now. And another issue is, I didn’t know the problem will degenerate into mayhem like we have seen, otherwise I would have contacted some of the elders in the state so that they can come into the matter with a view to finding a solution to it.”
But how was she able to convince the sect members to lay down their arms, she was asked. She said “it was not easy, it was hell. It was horrifying, scary, because when I spoke with one of them, he directed me to come to a particular place. When I reached the location, I found him with an AK 47 rifle and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
“Afterwards, he said, ‘Mama, why did you risk your life to come here? I said because we are killing ourselves and I want to put a stop to the bloodshed. He said ‘you know I’m not alone’. I replied that yes, I know and I said but you can talk to others and that was how the whole thing started. I was able to persuade them to come out from their hide-outs in the forest and show their faces, promising that they will not be harmed or arrested. I was able to do so because I’m fully involved in the dialogue procedure.
“After succeeding in convincing some of the insurgents to show up as their safety was guaranteed, I was linked with someone and I contacted the Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima, who welcomed the development and facilitated several meetings between myself and the insurgents who accepted the dialogue on one hand with the top officials of the state government as well as the Borno Elders Forum, after which the dialogue process was mapped out resulting in the present ceasefire.”
They, however, gave conditions, which include the need for absolute confidence from government that they would not be arrested, all their members in detention should be freed, compensation should be paid to the families and relations of all those killed in the violence.
Others were, rebuilding of the enclave of their leader and houses of some members destroyed in the conflicts, they should also be empowered to be self-reliant, and that all those involved in the extra-judicial killing of late Yusuf should be prosecuted.”
She was not unmindful of the fact that some members of the sect denied ever agreeing to a ceasefire, but said that the denial could not have come from Abubakar Shekau, leader of the sect. She noted that the leaflets denying the ceasefire did not “emanate from Shekau, because he was in support of the truce and in fact was the one who directed Ibn Abdul-Aziz to represent the sect in the agreement.”
Moreover, why did it take long before the purported Shekau denied the ceasefire? She replied: “You would recall that before the ceasefire was reached, Shekau was always hasty to react on any particular issue that didn’t emanate from him. I also want to dismiss the recent video footage of the person who claimed to be Shekau, because the insurgents’ spiritual leader does not cover his face in all his appearances as that man did. But even with the ceasefire, killings and bombings have continued. Actually all these attacks were the handiwork of some faceless enemies of peace and progress of the state. Whether they are politicians or ordinary citizens, all I know is that there are some individuals who are not at all happy with the ongoing peace process that the state has started enjoying.”
But she is not happy with the statement credited to President Goodluck Jonathan, calling the sect members ghosts. She said, “it is quite unfortunate that the president made this statement at a time when dialogue is still going on, Boko Haram is not a faceless group because we have seen them and sat with them. The president’s position will not in any way jeopardise our peace initiative because we are doing it for the benefit of women, children and elderly people, who are at the receiving end.”
This mystery woman may be the key to solving the insecurity that has continued to destroy the north and the economies of some of the most vibrant cities of the north. It is apparent that a lot will be expected from her if the peace initiative is to work.
This article was first published by TheNation Newspapers in its online edition of April 28, 2013