“the scale of work being done [to support IDP mental care] is nowhere near what the need is”


Dr. Fatima Akilu is a trained psychologist with over 20 years experience. Until August 2015, she led Nigeria’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme as the Director for Behavioural Analysis and Strategic Communications at the Office of the National Security Adviser; a position she held for 3 years. In this conversation, she speaks to TAP about the challenges that Nigeria faces with its humanitarian crisis and provides insight into how Nigeria can deal with the mass trauma that has resulted from the insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast. You can listen to the conversation with on our Soundcloud widget, or read it with the lightly-edited transcript below.

Thank you so much for speaking with us, Ma. Let’s start with this. Can you say, for the sake of the audience, what the National Security Agency (NSA) does, and what your role was at the NSA.

Well the NSA is the country’s’ National Security Agency. It coordinates the security policy in the country. It’s a coordinating body that puts together information, strategies and it has about 67 distant security output to advice the president on national security situation in the country. It has multiple departments that deals with the cyber terrorism, military issues, puplic diplomacy, counter terrorism and counter mechanism.

While you were there, what was your role?

I was the Director of Behavior Analysis and Strategic Communication, I was also in charge of design and implementation of  Nigeria’s  first counter-extremism  program.

Can tell us what the program you set up was meant to achieve and the key indices of success.

Firstly,  it was meant to engage people who  were already involved in terrorism-related activities and or in captivity. Also designed to prevent other from joining terrorist groups. Thirdly, understanding the messages that terrorist set out as part of their recruitment tool, listening to it and strategise on how to counter future attack, using a combination of research, de-radicalization and counter-radicalization that were designed to achieve each of those thing.

What are the key indices of success that you had or hoped to be achieved?

That people would not become terrorists, that they would not join terrorist groups, through counter de-radicalization. People who have already joined, through interventions will allow them disengage from terrorist group and successfully get integrated back into the society as productive citizens.

Generally speaking, what are the challenges to the de-radicalizations and dealing with the traumatized populations?  Also is Nigeria unique in some of the challenges it faces throughout the Sahel region and some places in North Africa?

I think we all face the same challenges across the board dealing with this type of insurgencies. The only difference, is that the solutions are context-driven. We find out that not one cap fits it all. You have to really understand the culture milieu. You have to ask, what are the cultural references, what were the conditions that made it conducive for people to join and develop terrorism within their country. This is very complex, ranging from individual reasons like: people seeking adventure, lack of  inclusion, feeling that they don’t feel they belong to a nation state; to more global reasons, like they want to avenge what was done to their brothers and sisters in other country, like for example the Palestinian issue, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. others were mostly to do with poverty, lack of employment opportunities, lack of access to education, lack of platforms for youths to express themselves. We found all these various  reasons that people gave for joining Boko Haram. What our program  tried to do was to look at how we can address these issues, for platforms for youths to express themselves, rather than saying if we find jobs for these people, everybody will be happy and nobody will become terrorist. We found out it is was not as simple as that.

Yes, because of exclusion, alienation from the country, environment…

Yes. We don’t have a very inclusive society, it is actually very exclusive. It is like survival of the fittest in this country, and people are left to their own devices to find a place for themselves. Not every can do that. Some people left behind have a lot of anger issues and a lot of disillusionment. A lot of people feel alienated from the system. Terrorism offers them a place, it includes them, gives them a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose that they otherwise will not have.

Lets talk about the trauma aspect. I feel Nigerians do not understand the impact trauma has on a population. What will be your response as to how important dealing with trauma is. What will you do when a community has gone through a traumatic experience like the Dikwa people when they were attacked by Boko Haram.

I think part of the reason that we don’t have an investment on any platform for psychology or trauma response as a country regardless of what has happened or is happening. We do not have a pool of practitioners that can be advocate and can be mobilized to respond to a need.  Generally, If you set aside the issue of Boko Haram, if  people are traumatized from different things, for example, my house is robbed by a gang of thugs, I’m just expected to cope and be fine with it. There is no sense that I need some sort of  moral intervention or professional type of intervention. Some of it  is cultural, as we are evolving as a nation and we are beginning to appreciate and recognize the fact that psychology can play a major role in not just trauma related problems but terrorism.

Secondly, when the civil war ended there was a big cry led by the then president General Gowon that said “no victim no vanquish”  we  must embrace and accept, and everybody must come together, do not blame, stigmatize or marginalize a certain group. The country belongs to everybody; we are all one in Nigeria. There hasn’t been that kind of cry or call in Nigeria. The peace building well has not really begun. There’s no center that has rallied everybody. There has been no platform for that kind of thing. In South Africa, there was peace and reconciliation. In Rwanda, they got a legislation that forces people to come together but we haven’t got there yet. What we have is people left to their own devices and at the moment the response is towards what is perceived as what is higher or beneath on the agenda. For example, we tend to focus on food, water, addressing nutrition, health needs, medical problems, etc. They are thinking of [trauma] as very low priority on agenda. My feeling is this is not an neither/or, but I feel one should carry the same weight as the other.

We just don’t have the practitioners that can provide the level of support we need. So I think that in Nigeria, we have to be creative. We have to use our traditional institutions, religious institutions that can be trained to provide trauma support. We are talking of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who need this kind of support and the people who can provide this training are probably not up to a thousand or two, and they are not in the region. They are spread across the country and are not in a specific place. The need is massive, and the response mechanism we have is fully inadequate to meet the needs.

We also do not have a National Trauma Framework where everybody understands their roles. There are no guidelines in existence and no clear standards of care, so right now anybody can say that they provide trauma support and go and do whatever they want. They can put together hundred people under a tree and say you are doing trauma support. You can do whatever you want. There are no basic standards. So this is where we are at the moment.

That’s quite grim. Vice Magazine did a short documentary of a trauma center but didn’t state the location probably because of security reasons for young people who have escaped Boko Haram. Can we as a country adequately take care of the challenge of people who have fled from Boko Haram?

It depends on the bill that we have. We had about 10 counselor at the center you mentioned, if we had the resources from the government and determination, we will at that time be able to do it. The number was only 318 people and we had been planning for a much larger group. It’s really a question of whether the issue of trauma is high enough up on the agenda. If it has the backing at the very highest level that this is a priority, it can be done. With our duress program it took us a year to train the staffs, but we did and we began to see change. I think its not going to be different for trauma aid. If the government, decides that trauma aid is a priority then health care workers all over the country, they can train and provide trauma support and mobilize volunteers, they can put together framework that include all the practitioners at the moment claiming they are providing trauma care and set minimum standards. All of these can be achieved.

I’m so expert, but even 10 to 318 doesn’t sound enough to me.

We had the religious institutions, the imams and priests that we trained in providing psychosocial support and a lot psychologist did a lot of testing for depression, anxiety or any sign of mental illness. So the fact that we could address psycho social support which is the first tier. Then the psychologist can be free to address greater needs.

For someone who has fled from Boko Haram how can they get such care, how do they get to the facility?

That facility doesn’t exist anymore.

So we currently have nothing to deal with trauma?

I don’t know what the government is doing right now. We have our own program started in Maiduguri, Borno State, where we are opening a fully fledged center for psychologist for training to raise the standards to a certain level for practitioners in the region. We are also doing a counselor’s awareness program. A lot of people are looking forwarding to come to any center. Most people for psychosocial support don’t need residential, because it’s very expensive, and it’s only in cases where people need an extensive amount of support. There are other agencies that do psycho social support such as IOM, UNICEF, Leaders in the area and some international development NGOs that are doing work, the Ministry of Women Affairs has some counseling section by UNICEF. But these are not also enough; the scale of work being done is nowhere near where what the need is.

So basically we are relying on donor partners right now. We don’t currently have nearly enough from Nigerian government You have given a lot of recommendations throughout this interview, what recommendation will you make to ensure the government meet up the challenges concerning the humanitarian situations ongoing  in the region.

There need to be a framework for socio-psychology; also government should develop a trauma disaster mechanism.

  • A clearly defined goal to who does what regarding psychological response to trauma.
  • A comprehensive program developed to encourage people to train in psychology across Nigerian universities.
  • For the short term, providing for the health care practitioner in the field who normally look at just physical health to look at psychological health needs as well.
  • Comprehensive integrated program on psychology which will eventually lead to clearer legislation on the role of psychology and what to be standard of care.
  • National response mechanism to really help the country. It is not just in Boko Haram, there is also Niger Delta Avengers and herdsmen issues where communities are facing a lot of trauma. So that will be my recommendation. I understand the Ministry of Health is doing a lot but it is not where it should be yet.

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