Barrister Aisha Wakil is a human rights activist and works with the National Human Rights Commission in Borno State. She established one of the closest contacts with the deadly terrorist group – Boko Haram that has made life miserable in north-eastern Nigeria for more than 10 years.
Her close contact with the abhorred sect members has earned her a nick name ‘Mama Boko Haram.’ Truly, she claims them as her children in application of alternative dispute resolution aspect of her law profession.
Wakil believes that human conflicts do have their origins and effective solutions come from getting down to the roots.This is not a principle acquired through learning; she discovered it as a gift in mediation. While growing up, she excelled in settling disputes between people, even married couples, old enough to be her parents.
In recognition of her useful role, Wakil was appointed a member of the Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in northern Nigeria in 2013 by the government of former president, Goodluck Jonathan.
She was one of the two women in the 25-member committee and was equally named as a must-have participant by Boko Haram representatives. The committee was given the task of identifying and engaging key leaders of Boko Haram and developing a framework for amnesty and disarmament of the group.
To Wakil, it was a great opportunity to return to the discussion table that was missed in 2009 when Mohammed Yusuf, a Muslim sect leader and founder of Boko Haram was killed.His death led to the escalation of violent attacks by the sect members.
Wakil was close to Yusuf at a time that Boko Haram was yet taking roots. She recalls that the late sect leader had an oratory power and had developed a cult of personality among his followers through his preaching.”Yusuf would attract a large crowd whenever he preached, especially the youth. He was a very good orator and he knew the Quran very well. I think that was what really carried people away with him,” she said.
As the number of his followers began to grow and his rhetoric intensified, government security forces moved it to crush the group. Yusuf then confided in her that the group was planning to fight back but possibly a meeting with then governor of Borno State,Ali Sheriff, could prevent that from happening.
That meeting did not take place, Wakil recalls because Yusuf died in police custody in July 2009. Since then, violence in the region has dramatically escalated, as factions of the group later emerged.
The appointment of the committee for peace talks was like returning to the point where the light of discussion went off in 2009 – a pointer to the limitation of the use of force to deal with fundamental issues in society. In the darkness that ensued, the monster became hydra headed, inflicting on society the worst form of human wickedness imaginable.
Despite the destructions, Wakil doesn’t see the conflict as a war with people that should be wiped out. “I don’t see it as a war, I just see it as children that became weird; children that were angry and just went gaga”, she said.
Nigeria is really witnessing a growing number of its ‘children’ going gaga from many quarters. They are seen as a response to a system that failed to use its resources to treat the people as human beings, to give them basic necessities of life and to empower them for fulfillment of life’s purpose.
Wakil goes all out to seek peace where there is trouble. In one instance, peacemaking and military force apparently collided in a remote region under Boko Haram’s control and she nearly lost her life in crossfire of a gun battle between soldiers and the insurgents. She was on one of her regular missions in the region for peace talks and persuasions to give up violence.
She set out on the mission to secure peace for the nation in line with John F. Kennedy’s [the 35thpresident of the United Sates] slogan of seeking what to do for one’s country. “This is my own country; I don’t need to wait for anybody. I go out of my way to find peace whenever there is trouble”, she said.
Wakil stands out as a major player in the effort to restore peace in the north-east. She has played a key role in securing the release of many people abducted by the Boko Haram sect, particularly Chibok school girls.
She is determined to keep on advocating for peace because she believes that Boko Haram members have ears, they can listen and they have hearts, they can change. They are not going to stop however unless they are persuaded, she said. “I will keep on screaming until there is peace”, Wakil said.
Wakil’s alternative dispute resolution approach preaches that everybody is a winner through dialogue and a loser through violent actions. This is her message to Boko Haram fighters – to drop their guns and seek the forgiveness of Nigerians.
She believes that the moment they come out and do that, Nigerians will say ‘forgive them’. “These are the encouragements I want people to give them and this is the encouragement I always give them and I stand by it and I believe in it”, she said.
She has defined the next step going forward towards securing peace in the north-east. It is that government should come down to earth. The boys aren’t going to come to meet government officials in air-conditioned rooms. Someone has to come down for talking in the bush, she said.