After years of a Government onslaught against Islamic militants Boko Haram, casualties abound; among the prisoners of war captured include wives of Boko Haram commanders who have become accustomed to a way of life that comes with its privileges.
In a facility in Maiduguri, a Non-Governmental Organization Neem Foundation is embarking on a de-radicalization programme, aided by psychologists and Islamic teachers.
One of the women undergoing the rehabilitation programme, Aisha, a 25 year old wife of a top Boko Haram commander recalls the power she wielded living in the jihadists’ forest stronghold in northeast Nigeria.
“I had many slaves, they did everything for me, and even the men respected me because I was Mamman Nur’s wife. They could not look me in the eye”
Despite being kidnapped by Boko Haram when they attacked her town of Banki four years ago, Aisha was not forced to marry Nur, the suspected mastermind of a suicide bomb attack on U.N. headquarters in Abuja in 2011 that killed 23 people.
Aisha was courted for months and showered with gifts by Nur, who has a $160,000 state bounty on his head, before agreeing to become his fourth wife. When she told Nur to divorce his second wife because she did not like her, he did so right away.
“I laugh at what he (Nur) was saying, I now realise that he is not doing the right thing.”
After arriving at the foundation, Aisha complained about being separated from Nur, and asked the staff how they would feel if they were suddenly deprived after years of regular sex.
A Neem staff said:
“That’s when she threatened that she would soon rape one of the male staff, For almost two weeks, the men didn’t come to work … they were all afraid.”
With more women likely to be freed from Boko Haram or widowed as the military steps up its fight against insurgency, the need for reintegration programmes become more pressing.
“There is a possibility of violence (when these women go home) because they were married to Boko Haram militants,” Fatima Akilu, the head of The Neem Foundation said.
“There is still a lot of anger and resentment from communities that have been traumatized for years, and subjected to atrocities by the group,” she added.
Another woman, 22-year-old Halima recalled the ‘beautiful home’ built by her Boko Haram husband in the Sambisa, and the easy life she enjoyed.
Trucks arrived regularly with food and clothes, a hospital staffed with doctors and nurses tended to the ill, and Halima was given her own room in the house she shared with her husband.
“Anything I requested, I got,” said Halima.
The aim of Neem’s programme is to change the mindset of the women and girls, make them think more rationally, and challenge the beliefs instilled in them over several years by Boko Haram.
Neem employs psychologists who treat trauma and provide counselling, while Islamic teachers discuss religious and ideological beliefs, and challenge interpretations of the Koran.
The women and girls in the safe house were subjected to nine straight hours of Koranic teaching a day by Boko Haram during their time in captivity in the Sambisa forest.
“You can treat a person’s emotional state … but if you don’t change the way they think and just release them into society, you perpetrate a vicious cycle,” said Akilu, who used to run a state de-radicalization program for Boko Haram members.
Akilu said she had seen huge improvements over the past nine months in the women and girls in the safe house, with most now believing that the actions of their former husbands were wrong.