“It’s okay to be a suicide bomber. It’s normal,” says one of the wives of Boko Haram currently living in a safe house in Maiduguri, Borno State.
In a revealing story by Nigerian writer Chika Oduah for Al Jazeera, the wives of some of the most wanted and dangerous men in West Africa tell a story about their husbands and of life in the camp of Boko Haram unlike its been told or reported before.
There are over 30 women (many of whom are teenagers who were married off early as is the culture in northern Nigeria) in the safe house, all wives, and mothers of members of the Jihadist group. They were rounded up in Walasa, a town near the Nigeria-Cameroon border by the military once they reclaimed territories previously occupied by Boko Haram. However, the story focuses on seven women: Zainab, 25-year-old Aisha (the Amira), 14-year-old Hauwa, 15-year-old Iyeza-Kawu, 27-year-old Aisha from Cameroon, 19-year-old Esther, and 11-year-old Umi, the youngest of them all.
The women are currently undergoing a state rehabilitation programme designed to reintegrate them back into society and eventually reunite them with their families and relations in Maiduguri. At the safe house, they are counselled by social workers who have complained that getting the women to talk is “not an easy thing to do,” and that when they do speak, their stories are rarely consistent.
The only clinical psychologist who counsels the women through a translator said the programme is disorganised and not all that effective. “Some of these women are hardened … If given the chance some would go back (to life with Boko Haram). According to Zainab and Iyeza-Kawu, whose husband was shot dead by soldiers, the Jihadists teach people to be good Muslims. “Everything Boko Haram tells us is the right thing…,” Zainab is quoted to have said.
The psychologist, Reuben Ibeshuwa, also thinks it’s unfair for these women to be in a comfortable home while millions of displaced people are pining away in camps as a result of the activities of their husbands. He recounted an instance where he showed a video of IDP’s scrambling to get water from a bucket to one of the women during a therapy session. He was very displeased by her response: “If they had joined us, they would not be suffering the way they are now. They should have joined Boko Haram,” she had said.
According to the story, the attitude of these women is a sharp contrast to past reports and the general belief that most of them are forced to conduct acts of violence. Instead, the women at the safe house say that they would do whatever was asked of them by their husbands who they regard as servants of God.
“The safe house is supposed to “de-radicalise the women” through psychosocial therapy, but there is no clear structure and many of the women spend much of the day sleeping or braiding one another’s hair. Quran lessons, individual therapy sessions and English classes take place sporadically.” – Chika Odua
The stories of the women also revealed some form of practised fetishes and rituals in the group. When they pledged allegiance to the group, they were all given some mystical tea or fruits to eat which made them think differently. Aisha the Amira told Oduah that when she pledged allegiance, she was given a date palm and coconut to eat. “I ate it and then I slept for three or four hours. Then I woke up and my heart was changed,” she said. “I loved Boko Haram. I didn’t like normal men.”
The women seem to be aware of the general scepticism about their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Falta, an elderly woman who is the mother to Aisha’s husband, a Boko Haram commander, worries if her family would accept her “after all the bad things” she’s done. The old woman left her husband and the rest of her family many years ago to support her son’s terrorist movement.
However, these women have more to worry about than whether or they’ll be accepted by their family. Abba Aji Kalli, the state coordinator for the Civilian Joint Task Force, a paramilitary vigilante group working with the army to combat Boko Haram refer to the women as “criminals” who should be in military detention. “If they release those women into society, they should release them with their body bags because surely we will kill them. Society will kill them,” he’s quoted to have said. They should be kept in detention at least five or six years before they should be released to the community. In his opinion, it would be difficult for people to tolerate and accommodate the family of terrorists who are responsible for the death of a family member or loved one. “[Imagine] somebody who killed your father and your mother [is] being released to come and stay with you in the same neighbourhood … The government should think twice about releasing those Boko Haram wives into society,” he said.