Dr Fatima Akilu, a British-trained psychologist working on a deradicalisation programme with former Boko Haram militants has been removed from office.
This article was originally published in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.
Fears for Nigeria’s counter-radicalisation programme as British-trained head is ousted
Removal of ex-NHS psychologist Fatima Akilu sparks concerns that UK and EU-funded programme may be mothballed
By Colin Freeman, Chief Foreign Correspondent 07 Oct 2015
The future of a UK-backed programme to de-radicalise Boko Haram Islamists in Nigeria is in doubt after the British-trained expert who set it up was abruptly sacked by the country’s new government.
Fatima Akilu, an NHS-trained psychologist who was educated at a boarding school in Kent, set up a pioneering national scheme to rehabilitate Boko Haram members and spread counter-extremist messages.
The first such scheme of its kind in Nigeria, it was hailed as a key plank in the government’s long-term strategy to tackle Boko Haram, who are blamed for the deaths of 10,000 people across northern Nigeria in the past five years.
Two weeks ago, however, Ms Akilu was removed from her post as part of a clear-out of the entire top tier of the country’s national security agency by its new head, retired Major General Babagana Monguno. He was appointed by president Muhammadu Buhari, the ex-general who swept to power in May’s elections.
Ms Akilu has now been replaced by a colonel in the military, robbing the programme not only of its chief architect but also its civilian face. The programme had been designed to be civilian-led so as to have greater success in winning the confidence of insurgents. It had been funded by the EU to the tune of £5.6 million and an unknown amount by the UK.
There are concerns now that without its original backer, the scheme may end up being quietly sidelined, depriving Nigeria of its only counter-extremism scheme. A source close to the government told the Telegraph: “The decision to remove Fatima came without any warning and now she has been replaced by a military man that nobody has heard of.
“Her staff are not happy about what has happened, and many are considering whether to stay or not.”
The question marks over the programme come as Boko Haram continues to pose a major threat to Nigeria, despite Mr Buhari’s pledges to crush it. On Monday, the group claimed responsibility for multiple suicide bombings over the weekend that killed 18 people around the capital, Abuja.
Ms Akilu, who was educated at the Beechwood Sacred Heart boarding school in Tunbridge Wells, set up the scheme last year at the invitation of Mohammad Sambo Dasuki, a national security adviser under the previous president, Goodluck Jonathan.
She had previously been working as a children’s author and adviser to troubled teenagers, but caught Mr Dasuki’s attention after writing a series of articles on the importance of education in drawing Nigerian youngsters away from trouble.
The programme focused partly on educating young Nigerians about the dangers of radicalisation in the first place, and also on trying to rehabilitate the thousands of Boko Haram suspects already in jail. Suspects would be challenged by imams on their radical views, and also given access to sports facilities and classes in computing and craft skills.
It was considered to be innovative in Nigeria, where “hearts and minds” has never been a strong aspect of counter-terrorism strategy.
“The project was just beginning to bear fruit,” said the source. “At first the Boko Haram prisoners wouldn’t even talk to us, but we had reached the point where both were at least taking part in the programme. Some of the ex-commanders were even telling us about other commanders in other jails that might also be persuaded to take part.”
News of Ms Akilu’s removal first emerged on social media in Nigeria, and has been the subject of much speculation since. Some believe that Mr Buhari, who was elected on pledges to take a tough approach with Boko Haram, is not convinced that “softer” strategies work. Others say he may not even have been aware of her removal.
Another theory is that she was the victim of score settling between the Jonathan and Buhari camps, which date back to Mr Buhari’s brief time as military ruler of Nigeria in the mid-1980s. Ms Akilu’s ex-boss, Mr Dasuki, is said to have been among a team of soldiers who arrested Mr Buhari shortly after his overthrow that year.
This summer, three of Mr Dasuki’s houses were raided on suspicion that he was involved in “undermining” national security, leading to him eventually being charged with possession of an unlicensed pistol. The Nigerian government denies that there has been any kind of witch hunt.
A Western official linked Ms Akilu’s removal to the wider clear-out in the NSA, but said there had been problems with the programme in the first place. “Fatima set the programme up and had a lot of good ideas, but there were some shortcomings, partly in her team’s own capacity to run it, and partly in the lack of buy-in from the Nigerian military, who at the end of day need to be onside for this kind of thing.
“We hope that the programme will continue, and that this can become an opportunity to get more buy-in from the military and make it better than it was.”
An EU source said: “We are maintaining close contact with the office of the national security adviser staff and with the technical assistants working on the EU funded activities to evaluate the impact of the recent staff changes.”
The Nigerian government did not respond to requests for comment.