This Insider Gets the Best Scoops on Boko Haram
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Dead or alive, there are few people more knowledgeable about Boko Haram than this journalist who has risked life and limb, but barely gets credit for his work.
By Eromo Egbejule
It was an unexpected hesitancy on the part of Nigerian policemen that spared Ahmad Salkida’s life in July 2009. As two officers argued over who would pull the trigger while Salkida lay on the floor of a government site, about to join Nigeria’s hundreds of victims of extrajudicial killings each year, a senior government official intervened. Mohammed Yusuf, the radical cleric who had founded Boko Haram, was not so lucky; that same week he was killed in police custody elsewhere in Maiduguri, the city where both men had grown up and grown to know each other.
Yusuf’s killing set the stage for an explosion of the insurgency under his successor, Abubakar Shekau who has supervised a campaign of killings and bombings across northeastern Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Some 1.8 million people have been internally displaced and more than 7 million people are in need of urgent aid, according to Human Rights Watch.
And Salkida has been there to document it all. Widely seen today as the journalist with the most access to the insurgents, Salkida lives an uneasy existence between the army and the terrorists. “I am distrusted by both Boko Haram and the government. … They are only working with me because of necessity,” the 45-year old hisses, adding that he has been detained or summoned by security agencies more than 70 times. The government sees something sinister in his access; the anti-Western fundamentalists see that Salkida lives with his family in Abuja, “the land of the infidels,” he says.
Salkida struggles with nightmares and the association with terrorism, which he says “is worse than the stigma of living with HIV/AIDS.”
While the Nigerian government has struggled to paint a picture of the group being “technically defeated,” as information minister Lai Mohammed has constantly insisted, Salkida’s role has been threefold: establishing access to Boko Haram, joining negotiations for hostages as a mediator and presenting accurate information to the public.
Born a Christian, he converted to Islam in 1997 while growing up in Maiduguri, the commercial city now more commonly known for being where the seeds of Boko Haram sprouted to envelop northeastern Nigeria. Salkida’s career as a journalist began in the early 2000s; he had just moved to the capital city Abuja and worked shifts as a night watchman while moonlighting as a writer. He managed to secure a job with a local newspaper with only a primary school education because of his writing skills and an uncanny ability to get scoops.
One of those scoops was an interview with Yusuf that inspired the demagogue to start making plans for his own news outfit, and was the spark for Salkida to gain continued high-level access. The relationship has often brought Salkida trouble, including the near-death experience in 2009. Back then in Maiduguri, he had sometimes attended preaching sessions out of curiosity and had a line into the group like no other journalist. The day before Yusuf’s murder, the radical cleric had called Salkida. When Salkida told the police about the call, they detained and nearly killed him. After regaining his freedom, Salkida fled to Abuja again.
In 2013, after escaping an assassination attempt, Salkida fled with his family to the United Arab Emirates where he was working as a grocer while still maintaining tabs on one of the world’s deadliest terror groups. Three years later, the Nigerian military made him a wanted man because he was the first journalist to receive footage of some of the hundreds of schoolgirls Boko Haram abducted from Chibok. The military demanded Salkida provide intelligence, so Salkida was forced to return to Nigeria, but says authorities released him almost immediately, without indictment or public acknowledgement. He’s lived in Nigeria since late 2016, but is tight-lipped about his personal life, refusing even to provide OZY with photos, an acknowledgement of the danger he continues to face.
“Journalists like Salkida play a vital role in informing citizens and monitoring the actions of government at all levels,” says Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “When our leaders threaten journalists and create a hostile environment for them, they not only threaten fundamental rights, but also keep us further away from democratic consolidation.”
As someone who routinely watches videos of executions as part of his work in a country where psychosocial support barely exists, Salkida copes with nightmares and the association with terrorism, which he says “is worse than the stigma of living with HIV/AIDS.”
The routine displacement and harassment have cascaded down to his family, who have moved often for safety. His children ask him why he’s a member of Boko Haram, because that’s what they hear at school. “There is not very good knowledge of conflict reporting in this part of the world,” Salkida laments. If a Westerner has “the kind of access I have, [it’s] a journalistic feat. But if it’s a local having that, it’s seen as complicity.”
Even some of his fellow reporters question why he so closely tracks Boko Haram, says award-winning journalist Mercy Abang, a longtime friend of Salkida. She replies that journalists all over the world specialize in beats. And Boko Haram is a life-and-death beat for Nigerians. “Salkida has had to risk his life and that of his family over and over again,” Abang says. “Over the years, he’s been consistent and resilient and passionate.”
And he’s not quitting. Media companies have shied away from giving him jobs, bringing up excuses about his lack of university education, while other colleagues envy his exclusives. So in March, Salkida launched his own online newspaper, HumAngle, to cover the human side of the war neglected by big media outlets. He’s partnering with Abuja-based West African news site Premium Times, but the budding media entrepreneur is not losing sight of what got him here: If there’s a scoop to be had about Boko Haram, you know who’ll get there first.
- Eromo Egbejule