In many ways, Boko Haram and its leader, Abubakar Shekau, are shrouded in mystery. But that is beginning to change. Abdulbasit Kassim and Michael Nwankpa recently published The Boko Haram Reader, an invaluable collection and translation of documents charting the evolution of Boko Haram as well as Shekau’s own thinking. (This will be the subject of a future blog post.) More directly related to Shekau’s person, the Voice of America (VOA) Hausa Service tracked down and interviewed Falmata Abubakar, who claims to be his mother. Village elders and community leaders also identify her as Shekau’s mother, making the claim credible. The interview—Falmata’s first—took place in the village of Shekau in Yobe state. According to the VOA, the village is isolated and its villagers avoid mentioning it is the birthplace of Abubakar Shekau. The interview, which has since been taken up by the Nigerian media, provides no biographic details about Falmata herself.
In the interview, Falmata states that she has not seen her son for fifteen years and does not know his whereabouts. Falmata says that while she cannot “curse her son,” he has become someone she cannot recognize: “This is not the character I gave him. I don’t know what this type of behavior is. It’s only God who knows.” She provides a few biographic details about Abubakar Shekau. According to Falmata, his father was a local district imam and died “a few years ago.” (A district imam is a senior to village religious leaders.) Falmata said that Abubakar left the village of Shekau as a boy to pursue Islamic studies in Maiduguri, where he became an almajiri (plural almajirai). In Maiduguri, he met Mohammed Yusuf, the late founder of Boko Haram. Yusuf, Falmata says, “brainwashed” her son, and after he was murdered by police in 2009, Shekau became the head of Boko Haram.
Falmata’s identification of Shekau as an almajiri is believable and perhaps the most significant part of her interview. In northern Nigeria, parents in rural areas often send young boys to local towns or cities to study the Koran. Once there, they focus on memorizing the Koran and sometimes learn Arabic, but the curriculum includes no Western elements, such as English, mathematics, or science. Almajirai typically beg in the morning and study in the afternoon, using some of their alms to pay their teacher. In the past, rural parents sent their sons to study the Koran during periods without work in the fields when fields lay fallow; the alms almajirai received from town dwellers represented a small wealth transfer from urban to rural areas. However, with the population explosion in northern Nigeria and deterioration of agriculture—at least in part related to climate change—gangs of almajirai are unable to return to their home villages and become another mouth to feed. As a result, they can now be found on streets year-round in northern cities. No consensus exists among observers as to whether almajirai are a significant recruiting source for radical Islamists.
For more on Nigeria, Matthew Page and I provide an overview of its politics, history, and culture, including the threat of Boko Haram and religious conflicts in our new book, Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, which will be published by Oxford University Press in July.