Meet the Nigerian woman taking on Boko Haram
On a long, barren road in northeastern Nigeria, Hafsat Mohammed, squeezed into a public minibus, saw the gunmen materialise from the bush like a mirage.
The 33-year-old was on her way to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency, when two Hilux pickups swerved onto the road ahead.
The minibus stopped. Men in combat fatigues and balaclavas emerged from the first pickup and aimed their guns at the windshield.
They ordered the passengers out onto the hot tarmac.
The second pickup sped off towards a nearby village.
The men beat the passengers with their guns, jeering and calling them names as they did so.
A former radio journalist-turned-civil society activist, Mohammed wasn’t usually afraid to speak up; she thought she might shout or scream, but, instead, she found herself mute.
“I was praying in my mind,” she recalls. “I did not dare pray out loud.”
Then they opened fire.
Mohammed remembers how the dead body of a woman fell on top of her and how she lay there, beneath it.
She heard the screams of two women as they were forced into the pickup. Then the gunmen were gone, leaving tyre marks behind in the dirt.
They had killed five passengers, but Mohammed was unharmed. She and the other survivors, including the driver, got back into the minibus and drove off.
I first met Mohammed in January 2014, just weeks after the attack. She was back at her office in a nondescript high-rise in Kaduna city, the old political capital of the north, gearing up for initiatives to tackle religious intolerance in Nigerian schools.
For the past year, she had been working at the grassroots, community-led Interfaith Mediation Centre, founded by a Muslim imam and a Christian pastor to address interreligious violence.
In sentences often punctuated by a loud, raucous laugh, Mohammed spoke about her work and the attack.
“It motivated me to go back to the northeast,” she said. “It was something that kept on bothering me: ‘What do you do to conquer this [violence]’?”
Her answer to that question has been to try to counter violent extremism by engaging young people at the grassroots level, getting them to imagine a different future and their individual ambitions for it.
“I was in that bus and I saw hell,” the mother of two reflected. “But it motivates me to work for peace.”
Lifting our voice above theirs
When we meet again, at a bustling salon in the Nigerian capital of Abuja in September 2015, Mohammed is sitting quietly getting her hair woven into braids. When they are done, she pulls the slinky hood of a lilac abaya over the neat, steamed rows and scrolls through Facebook updates on her phone.
There has been a bombing in Yola, where people fleeing attacks in Borno are living in IDP camps. “Why would they do this?” she questions out loud.
“We have to make sure that our voice is lifted in such a way that we counter those violent messages and ideologies, our voice is heard above theirs,” she later says.
The following day, she posts a video on Facebook, taken on her phone, her face obscured by a dark niqab, speaking through tears about the bombing in the camp.
“I have something that’s really bothering me today and I want to talk about it,” she opens. “How the Boko Haram insurgents went into an IDP camp in Yola, in the northeastern part of Nigeria, and detonated a bomb, in a camp for crying out loud!”
She cannot comprehend what would make somebody commit such violence against people who have already lost everything other than their lives.
In April 2014, when more than 200 girls from the town of Chibok in Borno State were kidnapped by Boko Haram, the world seemingly woke up to what had been erupting around Mohammed since 2009. It is a conflict that has until now claimed more than 15 000 lives and displaced millions.
She has watched as her home state has become the hotbed of a war waged by a group invoking Mohammed’s own Muslim faith.
Across the northeast, education facilities have been repeatedly targeted and, early last year, officials in Borno decided to close around 85 schools, affecting nearly 120 000 students.
Mohammed wanted her children to grow up in Borno, but an attack on a school near the one attended by her children was the final blow: she no longer felt that it was safe for her children to be there.
So, in early 2014, she relocated her father and two young children to Kaduna, a city that has experienced only rare attacks.
But Mohammed didn’t go with them. Instead, she headed further into the epicentre of the crisis in the northeast – to Yobe State
“I thought, what if every individual said, ‘Let’s counter this message by preaching good’? … I felt obligated to do something,” she says, explaining why she would choose to put herself in harm’s way.
Photographs of alleged fighters killed by the Nigerian army during an attack on a boarding school in Yobe disturbed her: they were just young men, she observed. “It became a problem for me, knowing I have a brother, I have teenage cousins, I have a son,” she explains.
She wanted to make other young men less vulnerable to the lure of such groups. “What can we do to prevent it, to show that this is not the way?” she asks.
Women’s role in countering extremist narratives
The kidnapping of the Chibok girls, the ensuing Bring Back Our Girls campaign and the rise in the use of young girls as suicide bombers has made the conflict in Nigeria a key example of the dynamic and complicated role of women within crises fuelled by violent extremism – as targets, as propagators and also as leaders in countering the threats within their communities.
This September, the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee held an unprecedented meeting on the role of women in countering violent extremism – often seen as a male dominated domain – with female experts from Iraq, Kenya, and Nigeria speaking about the issue.
Pastor Esther Ibanga, an activist for interfaith peace in Plateau State, in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region, believes women play a crucial role in security issues.
Although in Nigeria their involvement is seen as “taboo and sometimes quite offensive to the men,” Ibanga says “women civil society groups tap into the needs of communities, where women and children are disproportionately impacted by terrorism.”
Many activists share Mohammed’s belief that the best defence against divisive ideologies is providing a counter message and encouraging people to speak out.
One such activist is Aisha Yusuf, a campaigner with Bring Back Our Girls. “Poverty in this country makes you nameless, faceless and voiceless,” she says. Yet, “we [citizens] have a duty to speak up against anything that’s wrong”.
But, in some places, people are too fearful to even speak of Boko Haram, she says.
“The question we ask is what narrative are we putting out there to counter what Boko Haram is saying? What are we telling the people?” she asks.
“It’s for us to give a different narrative. If Boko Haram is saying Western education is forbidden, why are they on Youtube? … Why are they driving cars and using assault rifles? Why are they not using horses and donkeys or their own legs? These are people saying education is forbidden but they’re using education.”
While there is no shortage of female activists in Nigeria pushing for change and fighting injustice, Mohammed admits that it’s not always easy to be an outspoken woman.
She says most young men are receptive to her work, but some older men have responded differently.
“Some felt I was being disrespectful, that I wasn’t being a lady, that I should be at home, married, having babies like a baby factory, but that wasn’t what I was created for,” she says.
“I am confident, I am strong, I am a Muslim, I am an anti-violent-extremism activist, I advocate against it and I will do whatever I can to stop it. A lot of time I talk in front of people and they say, ‘You’re a woman, you don’t need to talk.’ And I say, ‘Yes, I will talk.’”
It was Mohammed’s father, a former air force man, who instilled in his daughter the gritty confidence she has today. He always told his children they could achieve anything they set their minds to. “He never treated me differently as a girl,” she reflects.
And it was in her former career as a journalist in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria, that the roots of her activism were formed. She would visit different communities and meet people facing violence and poverty.
Then, in 2007, she turned to civil society work, consulting for internationally funded development projects.
But she wanted to do more hands-on work to make a sustainable difference on the ground, and so she joined the Interfaith Mediation Centre in December 2012.
In her outreach work for Interfaith in Kaduna, a city divided between north and south, Muslim and Christian, Mohammed saw how religious intolerance could plant the seeds of extremism and hate.
She and a Christian colleague, Samson Atua, visited schools and witnessed classrooms becoming unofficially segregated by religion as communities grew ever more divided. They drew on their own experiences to show teachers and students that the religious divisions in their minds were fabricated.
“If the student is Muslim they’re taught, ‘Oh [the teacher] is a Christian, don’t relate with her,’ or if he’s a Christian, ‘Your teacher is a Muslim, don’t go close to her,’ ” she says.
“There has been resistance from the Christian teachers and the Muslim teachers, and we had to give references from the Quran and the Bible,” she elaborates. “I can sing choir songs and Christmas carols, and the kids say ‘I dare you,’ and I do. The kids and pastors are surprised, with the hijab and all.”
When growing up in Kaduna, says Atua, “You never knew who was a Christian, [and] who was a Muslim.” But now, he says, “hate is the issue of the day”.
Together they made an effective team: the forthright Mohammed, often dressed in a purple-grey abaya, her head covering framing her round, smiling face, and her diamante nose stud catching the light, alongside Atua, an easygoing, soft-spoken young man in a bright blue t-shirt and jeans.
She saw playground games where children called out to each other: “I’m a Christian, you’re a Muslim,” and mimicked guns with their fingers: “Ta-ta-ta-ta, you’re dead!”
On one research visit, she asked students to draw their homes. She remembers how one five-year-old drew a picture of trees, smiling people, animals, and sweets on one side of his piece of cardboard. He covered the other side entirely in black crayon. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘This end [the black side] is full of Christians, the other is Muslims,’ ” Mohammed says.
Mohammed waited until school had finished for the day to meet the boy’s mother, who was shocked. When asked how he got such ideas, the boy said his religious teacher had taught him that “Christians are no good”.
Mohammed’s own family has not been immune to this atmosphere of religious disunity. As a single mother working in Kaduna, her children live most of the time with her father in Maiduguri.
“I had to be the workaholic, up and down,” she says. “My dad was helping me.”
Once in Maiduguri, as she was walking past a church with her son, Mohammed told the boy to go and say hello to the pastor.
“Please don’t make me,” her son responded, tugging at her arm to keep walking. “Only Christians can go into the church.”
She made him go and greet the man, who then gave him some sweets.
That church has since been destroyed by Boko Haram, she says.
We need the correct answers, she says, to discredit “those ideologies, those messages that your children hear on the radio, hear from friends”.
“Every mother’s dream is to have a child who is successful,” she continues. If her own son became a fighter, she says, it would be “heartbreaking … [it would] kill me”.
In December 2014, Mohammed moved to Damaturu, the capital city of Yobe State, and the alleged birthplace of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. For the past year, there have been regular attacks by suicide bombers in the city.
The primarily Muslim state was carved out of Borno in 1991, and was one of the northeastern states on which former President Goodluck Jonathan imposed a state of emergency in 2013, due to the escalating Boko Haram insurgency.
She joined a regional development initiative as a project manager for Yobe and became responsible for identifying and supporting campaigns and projects countering violent extremism, particularly among young people – or “our nation,” as she calls them.
In Damaturu, an emerging urban centre, daily life continues, despite the regular threat of suicide bombings, as it does across northeastern Nigeria.
“People just continue their business after a bomb explodes,” she says. “If it’s a really bad attack, they’ll put [a] curfew just for a day.”
Positive messages and dialogue, she believes, can act as a buffer against the anger and frustration she worries could lead many youth to pick up guns themselves. In the rousing wake of Muhammadu Buhari’s landslide election victory in April, Mohammed helped organise a symposium for around 200 young men and women from across the northeast, to discuss everything from leadership to jobs.
We were working on “getting youth on their toes,” she says.
Unlike in Kaduna, where she was on the ground mediating and implementing programmes, in Yobe, Mohammed took a different approach – catalysing local leaders and grassroots civil society organisations to make change within their own communities.
Working with imams
In Yobe, Mohammed worked with interfaith initiatives and women’s groups. One of the most important aspects of this work, she explains, was gaining the trust of local imams who speak out against extremism and violence during Friday prayers and often counsel young people.
A UN event this year highlighted the importance of delinking extremism from religion in countering violent extremism, and Mohammed sees religious leaders playing a key role in that.
“They are change agents,” she reflects.
“There is a lot of frustration everywhere that makes people join [Boko Haram] because they don’t even have the money to buy food or go to the hospital.”
“[There is] poverty, unemployment and frustration that they’re not getting from [the] government what they’re supposed to be getting,” she continues.
When people struggle to see a future for themselves and to form ambitions, Mohammed believes trouble follows.
She wants to empower youth to take control of their lives, to know that they have the right to speak up as citizens and to ask more of their local government; she wants them to see that staying silent or picking up a gun are not the only options available to them.
Just reminding the youth to talk about their future can help, she says, explaining that this is a lesson she has passed on to some of the young people she has worked with.
“They don’t talk about terrorism, about war; they talk about positive stuff, about education, about being who they want to be. They talk about in the future having a family – that’s a great ambition.”
In Damaturu, she spoke to as many young people as she could. Some came to her house, others she’d find in groups at a park or on street corners where mobile recharge cards are sold under colourful umbrellas or at roadside tea and bread stalls.
She spoke to carpenters, bricklayers, and painters.
“They would tell me their ambitions,” she says. “They never got the chance to go to school, but they had ambitions, they had dreams.”
Many were scared to go to school, even if it were possible; they were afraid that Boko Haram would come to kill them.
“If we go to school, what will happen?” a 10-year-old boy asked her. She told him he would be safe and that the security forces would watch over him. He reminded her that security forces had been present when other students had been killed.
One day, in a market in Damaturu, Mohammed was drawn to a gathering of young male tailors. They were arguing about why the media called the Boko Haram fighters Islamic extremists.
“It’s not religion,” said one man, angered by those who claim Boko Haram is an Islamic movement. “It’s not Islam.”
They were hurt that their religion was being linked to something they felt was so far removed from their beliefs. “Why don’t they say ‘Christian terrorist’?” asked one, referring to the Charleston church shooting in the US.
“I’m like, for real? In the market?” Mohammed laughs. “These guys have a point.”
Mohammed, who rejects the idea that extremism or hateful ideology is particular to any religion, explained to them that because Boko Haram claims to be Islamic, that’s how people see them.
“Well, they [the media] should have more common sense,” one man responded. “It really gets on my nerves.” She encouraged him to get his message out there.
Most of the young people she meets believe the boys who have joined the fighters are being used.
But Mohammed worries that young men, constantly being painted as potential terrorists, could be marginalised to the point that they end up fitting that image.
“We get them to say, ‘Okay, I’ll just be it,’ ” she says. “Things like this can trigger their frustration and make them hate people.”
She says that many of the young men she has met have been approached about taking up arms, but that they were in no way eager to do so.
“They’re frustrated with the whole issue. They want to go to school, they want to go farming, but now they can’t because they’re afraid to move around.”
In June, Mohammed registered her own NGO called Choice for Peace, Gender and Development, to help young people and women whose family members have been taken, whether abducted or recruited, or killed.
“I feel the pain of other mothers,” she says. “They feel helpless to prevent it.”
In Yobe she tried to encourage women-led initiatives and also to set up psychosocial support for women who were dealing with trauma.
The use of young girls, some as young as 10, as suicide bombers has devastated communities.
“Girls are heartbroken that [Boko Haram fighters] are using girls as suicide bombers, that’s something they never expected,” she says.
The young women at the symposium she organised could barely talk about it; instead they just cried.
Each attack leaves her feeling more horrified that anyone could do such a thing. “Even today, it just baffles me,” she says.
But these days, Mohammed doesn’t feel she’s in a position to help anyone.
The calls began in August: Three different voices, all male. They told her the same thing: When the time is right, we will find you and we will kill you. They said they knew where her family was, that if she continued her work they would harm her daughter.
“Ever since this recent [threat] … every day I sit alone, I get feverish, I get sick,” she says. “I get really confused at times, I’m really scared. I know I’m safe but the thought, it keeps coming.”
In these moments, and in the strained silences when she does not want to speak or to remember, it is sometimes hard to recognise the resolute and unshakeable young woman who sat at her desk just weeks after the attack on the road.
Now, in the early evenings, she is driven home from meetings in Abuja, the lights of the minarets of the capital’s grand mosque glowing in the approaching dusk.
She arrives at the gated, guarded housing complex where she lives, and spends most evenings curled up on the sofa. She fries eggs and watches television. Mostly stuck inside, Facebook has become an outlet for her.
But when she thinks of the men in the pickup trucks, or of her father’s house in Borno, now filled with displaced relatives, her whole body stiffens. Instinctively, she wraps her arms around herself.
“[Last year], I was fearless; I would go back to Yobe and stay there, I wouldn’t leave and no one could convince me to leave,” she says. “But I’ve been holding on strong for a long time and I’m breaking down.”
Her hands clasped on her lap, she says: “Now the trauma is in my head.”
The events of the last few years – the attack on the road; the teenage son of a cousin who disappeared only for a note to turn up at his home saying that he refused to join the fighters so they killed him; the friend from Gwoza who returned home after the army had reclaimed the area from Boko Haram, and found a ghost town and people’s bones – have all taken their toll.
“After these phone calls, these threats, all that came back,” she admits quietly.
“I want changes in this country,” she says. But alone in a room that is not hers, separated from her family for fear of putting them in danger, she acknowledges that, right now, she needs to look after herself first. “It’s time to keep my life.”
You can follow Caelainn on Twitter at @CaelainnH.