Evelyn Groenink

Nigeria | Journalist and peace maker under fire

Journalist and peace activist Ahmad Salkida has been arrested in Nigeria.

When Nigerian journalist and ZAM network member Ahmad Salkida writes of the "Tears of Maiduguri,” he is writing about his own tears. Salkida spent his childhood in this town, the main stronghold of Boko Haram. As a boy growing up in a Christian family, he climbed trees together with Muslim friends. When it was time for their Islamic ritual washing, he helped fetch their buckets; in turn, they waited for him next to the church on Sundays.  Some of these former friends are now members of the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group Boko Haram. Many others, Muslims and Christians, are dead.

Salkida became a journalist in 2006, when the first, still peaceful, version of Boko Haram began to attract unemployed youth in Maiduguri. At the time, Islamic mosques and schools were the only structures that bothered about the poor in the neglected north-eastern Nigeria region, which was the stepchild of the government in the richer Christian south. Seventy-five percent of the local youth was unemployed; local government was corrupt and dictatorial; education yielded only 'toy' diplomas; children fought with dogs for food on the streets.

Salkida had converted to Islam in the late nineties. In his eyes, the religion was a socio-ethical alternative to the unjust worldly powers around him. The local Muslim commune, called “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad," seemed an example of a better society. The commune had schools and fruit trees; it offered work, food, moral life lessons and shelter to young people from the region.  By the end of 2006, the commune counted around seven thousand members.

At the time a local Muslim commune seemed an example of a better society

But it was no idyllic kibbutz. Most of the recruits were former street youth, marked by hunger, neglect, bitterness and anger. Salkida, who had just started as a reporter for the local Daily Trust newspaper, became increasingly concerned about the mix of radical Islamist ideology and social aggression that he saw growing among the group. He interviewed the leader of the commune, Sheikh Yusuf, several times, asking him pressing questions about Yusuf's extreme opposition to everything that was 'Western' or 'Christian'.

At one point during their discussions Sheikh Yusuf offered Salkida the position of editor of the commune’s journal. But when the young reporter asked whether he would have the editorial freedom to tone down the magazines belligerent language, and whether the opinion pages could be opened up to real discussion, the offer was withdrawn.

Sheikh Yusuf was now busy equipping his commune –now simply called 'Boko Haram', meaning 'Western education is sinful’- with activist brigades, political and judicial councils and an armed guard. He started calling his kingdom 'the Islamic state within the state'. (Ironically, the core of the armed forces of 'Boko Haram' had been provided by secular politics. The provincial Governor, Ali Sheriff, had abandoned his team of bodyguards, after they had accompanied him on his successful election campaign, without as much as a bonus or even a food parcel. The group had then in anger offered their services to the 'Islamic state'.)

The first armed guard of Boko Haram came from the local governor

In 2007, Ahmad Salkida wrote in the Daily Trust that support for the sect was massively growing throughout Nigeria’s north.

By then, religious violence had already erupted once in Maiduguri. In February 2006, groups of Muslims, angry about their perceived oppression by richer Christians, had rioted and burned and destroyed Christian shops and churches. There had been eighty deaths. The immediate trigger for the riots had been the cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad that were published in the Danish newspaper Jylland Posten, but the underlying driver of the aggression was the general feeling among the Muslim population that they were second-class citizens.

Thereafter, apart from a few occasional skirmishes between Boko Haram members and police officers, the area remained calm for a while. But when in 2009 twenty members of the sect were executed in the street by a Joint Task Force team of soldiers and police, organized rebellion broke out in Maiduguri.

Salkida described how, after that, it became impossible to live a peaceful life in the city, especially if you were a young man. "Either you get blown up by an insurgent bomb, or you’ll get arrested by the army,” he wrote. In turn, the security forces lost their patience with the young journalist who kept highlighting the 'two sides of the story’ and describing insurgency supporters as human beings. Halfway through 2009, he was arrested, beaten, questioned about his beard and ‘Muslim-style’ clothing, and threatened with execution. "I was flat on the ground and peed in my pants while two policemen were arguing with each other over who would shoot me," he later wrote.

Living a peaceful life became impossible

Mediation by a local politician resulted in his release, but a decree from Governor Ali Sheriff –the same governor whose former militia has become the first armed core of Boko Haram- then banned him from Maiduguri altogether.

Now exiled to the Nigerian capital Abuja, fifteen hundred kilometers to the south, it wasn’t just his own reporting that suffered. Several national media, reluctant to send their own reporters to the tormented region, had become dependent on Salkida’s scoops. One by one, they fell in line with the governments press releases, until there was only one narrative left: violent Muslims had been manipulated by local political leaders to undermine the government, but the government forces were in complete control.

Salkida’s expertise and strong contacts with individual youths in and around the insurgency were, however, increasingly recognised by more progressive media, such as the Premium Times and the news websites run by Sahara reporters in the US and Nigerian Watch in the UK. In 2012, the French news agency AFP asked him to assist their reporting on Boko Haram; the BBC followed in 2013.

Peace negotiations failed because of ‘political corruption’

In the meantime he had tried to help make peace. In 2011, he had been secretly approached by a group of diplomats and members of the security forces with the request to assist in negotiations with Boko Haram and he had immediately agreed. But the talks led nowhere. The reason for the failure was, he would explain later in a presentation at a journalists’ conference, ‘political corruption.’ “As soon as there was a commitment from one government leader, another government person, with a different agenda, would undo it. And then there were the people who pretended to be trusted contacts of Boko Haram, but who were just criminals out to pocket government money. It was chaos and it made things worse.”

After this debacle, Salkida found himself one again in the firing line of terrorism accusations. Besides the military and the secret service, Boko Haram itself was threatening him, too. In 2013, he fled with his family to Dubai, where he still lives.

Since then, Salkida tweets Boko Haram. Never with sympathy for the group –they lost whatever understanding he once had when they started to massacre villages-, but always with hope that at some point the Nigerian government will do the right things to end the war. By bringing social justice to the north, by ending political corruption, by effective military action and by winning the populations hearts and minds. It was to this end that he always kept his contacts and sources within the group. He tried again, two years ago, to help build bridges of negotiation when the girls from Chibok village were kidnapped; but the efforts failed this time too.

After publishing a video of the Chibok girls he was declared ‘wanted’

He tried once again last week. Boko Haram released a recent video of what they purported to be the Chibok girls. They had sent it to him, as they still do; and he published the material as he always does, simply to inform the world, whilst leaving no room for misunderstanding with regard to his own views (the reader can check his Twitter account @contactsalkida for reassurance in this regard.)

Screenshot of Ahmed Bolori's mobile phone as he tried to communicate with the Nigerian military.

But the Nigerian authorities seem to be getting the wrong end of the stick again. In a reaction to him posting the video on You Tube, the Nigerian military declared Ahmad Salkida a ‘wanted’ man for his ‘links with Boko Haram terrorists.’

Besides Salkida, the military now also attached the ‘wanted’ label to two other Nigerian citizens who have assisted talks with Boko Haram in the past. The two, Maiduguri civic activist Ahmed Bolori and lawyer Aisha Wakil, have since both said on Twitter that they are always available to the security personnel to talk about Boko Haram. “They know where to find me and I wonder why I had to be declared wanted,” Wakil said. With regard to Bolori, the Nigerian press reported that he had immediately gone to the army headquarters in his area to hand himself over, but that there had been no one to talk to and that he was told to come back the next day.

“My return could be hastened if the military would send me a ticket.”

Ahmad Salkida, for his part, has said that he is eager to travel to Nigeria to assist the authorities with regard to Boko Haram, and that his return could be ‘hastened’ if the military could send him a ticket.

After the responses by the three 'wanted' individuals, a Colonel Rabe, speaking for the Nigerian military on TV, has since said that "we are not arresting them; we are only inviting them to come and shed light on Boko Haram."

ZAM published an updated version of this article on September 6, 2016. The article was adjusted to reflect the latest developments.

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