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SHE TALKS PEACE: “Mama” to ex-Boko Haram

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 27 March) — Who among us has not heard of the infamous Boko Haram?  Who can forget the abduction of 276 girls, aged 16-18, in Borno State, Nigeria in 2014, which prompted global condemnation and efforts to release the girls? 

This violent extremist group calls itself “Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad” or “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad” but commonly known as Boko Haram (roughly translated as “western education is forbidden.  “Boko” is a Nigerian slang for “book” and “haram” means “forbidden.”)

Nigeria seems to be succeeding in decimating Boko Haram ranks.  Military actions had arrested thousands in the past 10 years.  In the last week alone, some 7,000 members of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Boko Haram surrendered in northeast Nigeria, according to news reports. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has estimated that about 350,000 people have been killed and three million civilians displaced in more than a decade of fighting.  ISWAP and the Boko Haram had ravaged communities even in neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

However, Nigerian women from Borno claim that the thousands who had been arrested were not Boko Haram but innocent bystanders who they vouch for.  They claim that their menfolk have been victims of profiling – if you are a Muslim male, young or old, then you must be Boko Haram or an accomplice. 

Our guest on “She Talks Peace,” Hamsatu Allamin, had earlier organized a protest by mothers and wives demanding information about the whereabouts of over 2,000 Borno men and boys arrested since 2011.  Hamsatu, Executive Director of the  Foundation for Peace and Development, has been organizing the women’s protests since 2014 calling on the Nigerian government to release  their male relatives who were arrested as suspects when Boko Haram attacked the Giwa military barracks on March 14, 2014.  

Every year, on March 14, hundreds of women demand to know what happened to their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons.  Hamsatu said that the military had conducted the mass arrests of the men and boys allegedly for their complicity in Boko Haram activities, even with no evidence.  Where are they? What happened to them?  They simply disappeared.

Hamsatu Allamin  is an educator, freelance writer, gender activist, human rights defender, and peacebuilder. She started the Network of CSOs for Peace; the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Network as Voice of the Voiceless; as well as Social Networks of Victims of Disappearances and Survivors of Boko Haram Abductions among others. A member of the Women Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL),  she has received numerous awards such as the 2019 Nominee of the Nigeria National Human Rights Award, the 2016 International Woman Peace Maker of the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, USA and the 2018 Laureate of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) for Contribution to Sustainable Peace. She is a member of the African Union network of Women Mediators. 

Hamsatu is an advocate of alternative approaches to end the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. I wonder how much her approach had contributed to the surrender of the Boko Haram insurgents. 

She shared how the Nigerian government’s mismanagement of the Boko Haram insurgency motivated her to become a peacebuilder. At the height of the insurgency, the government was indiscriminately arresting young men, profiling all Muslims in her hometown as members of the Boko Haram. They arrested hundreds of thousands of young men, which led to many women joining the insurgence, and encouraging their sons to join, to seek revenge. The Boko Haram was killing, and in response, the military was also killing. Compelled to learn about the members of Boko Haram, who they were and what their reasons were for committing acts of violence that were taking its toll on all of society, she approached these communities in her bathroom slippers and dressed “wretchedly” like a local woman, to understand their whys, as the first step to stopping the madness. 

This approach earned their trust, and they even called her “mama.” She realized that no matter how vicious a person might seem, they always want to be listened to.  She believes in the power of listening. 

She organized dialogues in Nigeria, emphasizing the importance of communication and dialogue among all stakeholders. In the case of Northeastern Nigeria, women and the youth are excluded from discussions, even on matters that affect them. To prevent violent extremism, it is important to have everyone talking, so they can all understand each other, and detect early warning signs of radicalization and violent extremism. 

She believes that women have a vital role to play in peacebuilding, countering and preventing violent extremism in Nigeria.  Women have an innate ability to listen and reach out to men and gain their support.  Hamsatu points out that in her peacebuilding efforts, all the men she encountered were very supportive. However, she believes that women in Nigeria should change their tactics, so that men do not view them as competing with them. Rather than oppose them, they should appeal to their emotions and sentiment. Peace and persuasion are more effective tools to get things done, not war.  Truly listen and you will win their hearts and minds.

Eavesdrop on our conversation with compelling Nigerian woman peacebuilder Hamsatu:

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(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro, peace, human rights, and democracy)

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