Meet "Mama Boko Haram" The Woman between Boko Haram and the Government 

Mama Boko Haram ' grasps for peace in Nigeria
A lawyer close to the armed group tries to negotiate for peace, and the return of hundreds of abducted girls.
Maiduguri, Nigeria - Barrister Aisha Wakil is quite literally caught in the middle between Boko Haram fighters
and the government of Nigeria - and has nearly died because of it .
For the past five years , " Mama Boko Haram " - the name given to her by locals - has been negotiating a peace
agreement between religious fighters and Nigerian authorities in Maiduguri , the main city in the troubled
northeast.
From her home in Maiduguri ' s Shehuri North district , the former stronghold for Boko Haram, Aisha recalled how
she first became acquainted with the hard - line group, which has received global notoriety for recently
abducting more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok , and its violent programme to implement strict
Islamic law across Nigeria .
Thousands of people have died - more than 2, 000 so far this year - and an estimated 750, 000 Nigerians have
been driven from their homes in the five - year - old conflict .
In April 2013 , Aisha was one of two women appointed to the government - initiated Committee on Dialogue and
Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North . She was also named as a must - have participant by
Boko Haram representatives.
A lawyer and human rights activist , Aisha along with 25 other committee members consisting of politicians and
northern community leaders were given the task of identifying and engaging key leaders of Boko Haram , and
developing a framework for amnesty and disarmament of the group.
Sheathed in a full black niqab with only her light brown eyes peering out from behind her spectacles , the 44 -
year - old told Al Jazeera about how she first became involved with Boko Haram , including its slain chief
Mohammed Yusuf who was shot dead allegedly while trying to escape police custody in 2009.
" I would visit his house regularly and always cooked food to bring to the almajaris [ pupils ] of the Quranic
school , " Aisha said.
" Yusuf would always be there preaching and he liked my cooking very much , especially my egusi soup . He
prayed that Almighty Allah would reward me because so many were eating from my pot , and that was how we
established a close relationship. The boys called me 'mum '. Many of them didn 't have mothers. "
Killed in custody
Aisha described the cult of personality that Yusuf developed among his followers .
" 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.
But as the number of his supporters began to grow and his rhetoric intensified , Nigerian authorities began to
run out of patience.
" Yusuf was giving a sermon insulting the government . They wanted Sharia law implemented across the entire
country . That was when Yusuf started getting dragged into the police net. They would arrest him for one thing
or another , " said Aisha .
Yusuf confided in her that Boko Haram was planning to " wage war" amid increasing repression and
government violence. " It had got serious … He said , 'Mum you were here when they shot and killed my
followers and as we were carrying the bodies they shot us again. My hands are tied, but if we ' re able to meet
governor Ali Sheriff [ former governor of Borno state ] and talk things over , the war will not happen . '"
That meeting did not take place , however , after Yusuf died in police custody on July 30 , 2009. Since then ,
violence in the region has dramatically escalated, and the government later turned to Aisha to use her
influence as " Mama Boko Haram " to initiate peace talks .
She has risked her life to communicate with Boko Haram , and was nearly killed in the crossfire of a gun battle
between soldiers and fighters as she entered a remote region under their control for talks .
" Barrister Aisha has a lot of contacts and personally knows many who are in the group, " said Bulama Gubio
from the Borno Elders Forum , and a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue .
" She instigated dialogue through her contacts and nearly died trying to facilitate talks between Boko Haram
and the government . The process of dialogue can only be successful if those who are involved in the grass
roots level are included . Boko Haram trust her and she is a vital key from their community . "
Fight for Islamic law
Nigeria 's 170 million people are nearly evenly divided between Christians , who dominate the south, and the
primarily northern - based Muslims . Boko Haram - which means " Western education is prohibited " in the local
Hausa dialect - has called for the enforcement of Islamic law even among non- Muslims.
Sharia law has been implemented in 12 of Nigeria 's 36 states - all in the north - after Nigeria returned to
civilian rule in 1999 following years of military rule .
As Aisha recounted her story , a gurgling baby boy crawled around her feet and rested two chubby fists on her
ankles , lifting his head up to shed a smile . In her humble home , men sit on the floor eating food . They do not
meet her eyes as she passes , and instead smile at the floor and greet her as " mama " .
" I know all the boys from here , " she said, picking up the infant in her arms . " I held them when they were born . "
As a married Muslim woman , Aisha could be considered an unlikely associate of West Africa 's most notorious
rebel group. But Nigerian women have been at the forefront of Boko Haram' s activities , not only as victims of
abduction but also as galvanisers of political action .
In April , a " million woman march " protested the mass kidnapping of the girls and was accompanied by the
hashtag # BringBackOurGirls campaign organised in the capital , Abuja, which rapidly spread throughout the
country and across the world, eventually reaching the US White House.
Even before the mass abduction , women in Maiduguri under the aegis of " Concerned Mothers of Borno"
marched for peace back in 2009.
" Women should be included in all talks and the peace process in northern Nigeria , " said Hamsatu Allamin of
the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme .
" Barrister Aisha is … fighting for all our children so that they don't have to grow up in a society filled with
hatred , killing and fighting . "
' Nigeria ' s lost boys '
Aisha said Boko Haram had separated the more than 200 kidnapped girls into " many groups " .
Asked how the schoolgirls were being treated , Aisha said, " I know that Jama' atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda' awatiwal -
Jihad [ original Boko Haram fighters led by Mohammed Yusuf ] don't touch women or elderly ones . "
But she added that Boko Haram has evolved over the years and the girls were abducted by members who have
deviated from its original teachings .
" I have spoken to them about the girls and the situation to plead for their release . When this first happened
they told me the girls are well but some are sick. They need medication . They are giving them antibiotics but
they cannot buy food to feed them. They are attacking villages for supplies . "
Aisha said she asked Boko Haram what they wanted in return for the girls ' release , and was told the
government must free about 70 of their fighters from prison .
" And they want to be given amnesty, rehabilitated , and allowed to come back home and move freely , " she
added. " I told them not to hold the girls as ransom and to give me the sick ones - and that was where we
ended up . The girls are a growing burden to them , and if the demands are not met . . . "
Aisha paused and closed her eyes tightly, trying to hold back tears .
" I don' t agree with what they are doing, but I speak to them because I am their mother . Sometimes they call me
Um el Salam [ Arabic for mother of peace] . These are Nigeria 's lost boys . My hope is that the government
listens to them and lets them have dialogue .
" I 'm still with them after all these years because I didn ' t betray them . I didn 't betray the government , I didn ' t
betray the military - I ' m just in the middle grasping for peace.
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