Dr. Fatima Akilu, is executive director, NEEM Foundation and a peace negotiator, a forensic psychologist and a public speaker in the areas of preventing and countering violent extremism and terrorism. She is a former director of Behavioural Analysis and Strategic Communication in the office of National Security Adviser, where she worked on the Countering Violent Extremism Programme of the federal government in 2014.She is also a member of Global Strategy Network team and also belongs to global Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership.
From her desk in the office of National Security Adviser, she took up an uncommon task of applying a carrot approach to deal with Boko Haram, the Islamist group that, true to its boasts, kills people “like chickens and sheep”. The group has been responsible for a rampage of murder, rape, pillage and kidnapping across northern Nigeria for nine years and counting.
Akilu’s job was to run the country’s first official counter-extremism programme. This followed the decision of the government of Goodluck Jonathan to try a ‘soft approach’ of de-radicalizing the deadly group. Akilu developed and integrated de-radicalization and prevention programmes across the prisons overcrowded by Boko Haram suspects and also in the ministry of education.
Despite intensified military campaign, the military could not stop the murders, abductions and extremist ideology of the terrorist group that has created in Nigeria one of the largest humanitarian response needs in the world.
Akilu was attracted into the field of security and peace due to many overlaps she found in her previous work in development and forensics. It was for her a unique opportunity to bring together understandings and competencies she learnt in the fields of psychology, development and communication.
She is moved to stand up and do something by the prevailing needless loss of human lives in the insurgency. She is on a mission to find solutions that will ensure that those affected by conflict can return and reintegrate into their communities. It is for her “a chance to remake our society, address the things that led to the conflict, find purpose for our youth, empower our women and strengthen both access to and quality of education”.
From her NEEM Foundation, which was set up in 2012, Akilu works to respond to the needs caused by the Boko Haram insurgency. She insists on responses being holistic to encompass perpetrators as well as victims of the conflict. This provides an opportunity to understand the root causes of the problem and how to mitigate them from the roots.
She defines her work as de-radicalization and that involves working with terrorists, their wives, mothers and children. She also works with victims, providing them with psychological services to address their trauma. Specialist children’s trauma services that provide counseling therapy to children under the age of 14 in a safe environment is also part of the package of the foundation.
Effective response to the insurgency requires some skills that Akilu has found to be in deficit.In response, she opened a training centrethat offers year round training in psychological assessment tools, counseling techniques, counseling for children and working with victims of gender based violence.
The foundation runs a rehabilitation programme for women, who joined Boko Haram voluntarily. She found that they joined because the group offered them many choices thatgave thema sense of empowerment. These include access to money and material things andstatus enhancement. Akilu is pressing for greater recognition of women in top level decision making on peace and security as a fundamental redress of their mutedvoices finding expressions on the wrong side of life.
Itis estimated that close to 10 million children in Nigeria go with very little or no schooling from year to year. Thissegment of society lies vulnerable to Boko Haram’s bizarre world view. From her regular visits to Boko Haram suspects in various prisons, Akilu found the inmates have stunted abilities to think logically.
NEEM foundation works with international non-governmental organizations [NGOs] to design and implement projects in specific areas and also works with local NGO’s to build their capacity.It equally works with government to design policy frameworks that govern its engagement in its area of intervention.
Its approach is to engage in small projects that prove concepts and then work with other organizations as well as governments to scale up fromthe local level.Collaboration with governments at all levels is a key strategy, according to Akilu in order to help bridge the trust deficit that is often prevalent between governments and communities.
Akilu’s holistic model incorporates containing extremist thought before it finds an expression.The foundation conducted research on 20 communities where a large number of people joined Boko Haram.It then developed an early warning community response mechanism.It was able to draw a list of the main reasons that youth joined from those communities and drafted an index of radicalization. It proceeded to set up a community management team trained ondetectingand communicating signals of radicalization.
In the course of her work, Akilu has had some encounters that have encouragedherto do more. One of these is with a chief imam of Boko Haram, who convinced other members, including senior commanders, to participate in her de-radicalization programme. Another is an opportunity to see how well a young girlis doing in schoolwith her counseling, who out of panic, failed to detonate her suicide vest.
There is also joy and satisfaction for Akilu and her foundation in seeing severely traumatized people regain their will to live after therapeutic intervention. It is equally a fulfilling experience for her to watch young girls recovered fromBoko Haram’sabductions playing sports and going to school, the first time in school for a lot of them.