Dr Fatima Akilu does not shout or bang the table. She does not tell tales of atrocities, nor blaze with visionary zeal. Rather, she speaks softly, almost too softly to hear over the clatter of crockery and the banging out of coffee grounds in the north London cafe where we meet. She sips hot green tea and laughs sometimes, such as when she tells me that what she’s been doing is less draining than when she worked with mentally ill drug addicts in an American prison. And yet, though she wears it lightly, the burden must be heavy. Because what Akilu has been doing for the last three years is trying to de-radicalise Boko Haram.
Until April last year, although they had killed 10,000 people and displaced millions more, almost no one outside Africa had heard of Boko Haram. And if they had, most considered them just one more grim troop of misguided killers in the name of Islam, lesser in notoriety than the Al Qaedas, the Islamic States, the Talibans, even the Al-Shabaabs.
Then the Nigerian group, whose name translates as ‘Western education is forbidden’, kidnapped 276 girls from a school in the northeastern town of Chibok. Its leader, Abubakr Shekau, announced that the girls would be enslaved and forcibly ‘married’ to his fighters. The world was horrified. Governments from China to Iran to Israel to Canada came forward in a rush to recover the girls before all that was threatened was indeed done to them. Vigils were held. The First Lady, Michelle Obama, was pictured with the slogan ‘Bring Back Our Girls’.
And yet most of the girls have not been brought back. Boko Haram has fought on against the Nigerian Army. It has sworn its allegiance to Islamic State. But behind these headlines, the situation has been changing. And even before the Chiboki schoolgirls had been heard of, Akilu had begun her patient work.
The best antidote to extremism is the Koran
Three years ago, the Nigerian government realised that it was not winning the war against the insurgency, which had begun in 2009. Despite superior military might, it could not force the militants into submission. So National Security Advisor General Owoye Azazi announced a new ‘soft approach’ of de-radicalisation and, after hearing her speak, recruited the psychologist, journalist and children’s author Akilu to design it.
Since she had never worked in counter-terrorism before, Akilu took a year to study and learn; particularly from the de-radicalisation programmes of Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Australia. Although what she has come up with exists in many small, highly specialised parts, together it amounts to an attempted total recalibration of Nigerian state and society, a work, above all, of reconciliation.
Ambitiously, given the difficulty of working across departments, she set about embedding each of these specialised projects within an existing department, such as the prison service or the ministry of education. Eventually, so her thinking runs, her programme will become redundant as the organs of government combat extremism as part of their daily business. The design was that, ‘in four or five years, we should be able to walk away’.
One crucial element, with far-reaching implications, consists of breaking the hold of extremist thinking on those militants who have already been captured. Doing so is the only way they can ever be released from prison, and as Dr Akilu says: ‘Because a lot of this terror is ideologically driven, you have to engage with it on an ideological level.’
So in Nigerian prisons, the inmates are being given Korans. In classes about Islam, imams discuss the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammed with the radicalised prisoners. Says Akilu: ‘We are teaching them Islam from scratch. Many of them have never seen a Koran before.
‘A lot of them really have a very rudimentary understanding of religion, so the more you engage with them, the more you begin to understand that this is not a fight for religion, it’s a fight for power and control. Religion is an instrument for recruitment. The easiest way for them to recruit is to say, Allah says you’ve got to do this. And you have a band of young people who, for a variety of reasons, are able to be easily manipulated.’
Those reasons, and the reasons for joining Boko Haram, are widely varied, but a study commissioned by the programme found them to be the same reasons for which young people – and these are mostly young people – join gangs: a sense of belonging, camaraderie, identity, being made to feel important. Some are given financial incentives, to start a business or get married. Some feel they are fighting for a just cause, others are simply looking for adventure.
When they are confronted with the Koran: ‘We had a lot of crying in class. At first there was some defiance and especially of the imams, because they felt they had more knowledge than the imams, but as time went on, as they began to really understand what the Koran was saying, there were a lot of tears. People would say things like, “I wasted my life”. You know, all of a sudden you’re confronted with what you’ve done. You’ve committed atrocities in the name of this religion when now you understand that religion actually preaches the exact opposite. How can you now justify why you raped somebody or killed a child or placed a bomb, so it’s tough, it’s a rocky road, it’s going to take them a long time.’
Even just to win enough of the insurgents trust to begin talking about Islam took a year. Long-incarcerated and stir-crazy, the prisoners were tempted into engagement with games of soccer and volleyball. ‘You’ve got people who’ve been sitting in prison, they’re more than happy to come out and kick a ball.’
The programme, which also provides classes in literacy, anger management and post-traumatic coping skills, made clear that their prospects of ever being released depended on no longer being a risk to society, i.e. on a change of attitude.
At present, the programme, which is part-funded by the EU and the UK’s Department for International Development, is working with 90 inmates in two prisons. A third prison with 850 eligible inmates is about to start. There are several thousand insurgents in Nigerian prisons (the precise number is unknown, but being audited). And as soon as in ‘two or three years’, the programme intends to be ready to cope if a negotiated settlement leads the 10-15,000 active members of Boko Haram to lay down their arms en bloc.
‘Society has to change, it must change’
Outside the contained environment of prisons, too, everything the programme does to prevent radicalisation in the first place has a parent agency. ‘The idea is that the scale-up will be incorporated within the everyday workings of the ministry. The idea is that it becomes institutionalised.’
So for example:
- In schools Akilu has designed a ‘creative curriculum’ implemented by the Ministry of Education to promote critical thinking, and ‘broaden the idea of what religion is. What we’re saying is that religion should never be taught in isolation from other things. Islam should be taught with science. There are a lot of Islamic scientists, there are a lot of Muslim philosophers. So that when someone comes and says, “Islam tells me you should not go to school,” you can say, “Well, hang on a minute, the father of algebra was a Muslim”.’ (Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Latinized as ‘Algoritmi’, hence ‘algorithm’.)
- In six of Nigeria’s thirty-six states, everyone from public servants in state and local government to traditional rulers, NGO workers, policemen, imams, teachers and mothers is being trained to form a network providing early warnings of extreme preaching. Alerts can be issued by telephone, text message, Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram.
- The incomers to the Public Service Institute, Nigeria’s training college, are being taught to counter Boko Haram’s message from whichever department they end up in. The Red Cross is being employed as a partner to provide post-traumatic counselling for former insurgents and their victims. The number of individual projects far exceeds the scope of this article.
We didn’t invent anything, we just connected the dots
Outside government, Akilu’s programme is setting up Islamic and interfaith discussion groups with the religious establishment, and ‘centres of imagination’ with mentoring, sports, arts, drama and music for young people. In this way, Akilu’s agency, which now has around 200 staff of its own, is mobilising every level of Nigerian state and society. ‘Normally, [with religious communities], it’s them and us. But when you talk about extremism, government cannot do it by themselves. You’ve got to forget this them and us. You’ve got to find a way to bring everybody together. The only way you can do it is an all-of-society approach.’
In fact, this programme is only possible because the recognition that something must be done about Boko Haram made other agencies and ministries very willing to participate, to retrain and redeploy their staff. That applies especially to the military, which came round early to the idea that education could be part of national security. Much of the thinking was already changing when Akilu began her work, and there was a recognition that, ‘If you’re affected by insurgency, society has to change, it must change.’ She adds: ‘We didn’t invent anything new, it was connecting all the dots that were already there.’
But even such an ambitious programme had to start ‘one group at a time. We can’t take on every group, so we said, let’s go for the Muslim community. Let’s start with the scholars, the academics, the thinkers and, once we’ve got them on board, they can help us move down to the preachers and then down to the lower levels. And down and down, and out, and it becomes bigger, the ring becomes bigger.’
Akilu adds: ‘It’s society-wide but in small steps, because we had to start very tiny. At the start you make a lot of mistakes. We wanted to start very small to make sure it’s something that’s sustainable within an institutional framework.’
Ultimately, no single project is as important as that framework. If that is in place, a failing project can simply be dropped and replaced until it starts to work. Nor do the people at the top matter, says Dr Akilu, who has recently left the programme. She intends to ‘enjoy myself’, write more children’s books (she has already written several) and drive a campaign to have Nigerian children read 100 books a year. She leaves the framework in place.
The end of Boko Haram?
It is worth noting that of the insurgencies we’ve become too familiar with over the past fifteen years – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria – not one has been defeated. And yet, Fatima Akilu believes the auspices in Nigeria are good.
When the Army forced Boko Haram into retreat earlier this year, the Islamists escalated their atrocities. As a result, previously sympathetic communities are now refusing to shelter insurgents on the run. ‘There is not much appetite for Boko Haram in Nigeria right now.’
The ongoing fear, however, is that, even if Boko Haram are comprehensively militarily defeated, they will go over to terrorist tactics. That is why victory over Boko Haram, if it is not a mirage, will come only through reconciliation.
Akilu says: ‘Nigeria has a really good chance. It takes a long time, and people are not educated enough about insurgencies and how they end, but if we reduce their ability to strike and the government is able to provide developmental projects, infrastructure projects, jobs for youth, the ability to have some sense of normality in those areas. When the Army is long gone, the social programmes will still go on – the social programmes are forever.’
Although she emphasises that the war is far from over, she says: ‘When we started we were in the dark, I don’t know what the programme would look like or if it could even be done. But people have been so responsive, all the partners and the communities, the imams, even the ones who don’t trust government have been willing to at least come along and hear us out, so I think there’s a real appetite for the kind of mobilisation that’s led by government but includes civil society. So now do I think it can be done? Yes, absolutely.’
(Photo credit: Flickr / UNHCR / H. Caux)