Benevolent Cause for Humanity

Hauwa with French President, Emmanuel Macron

Olawale Ajimotokan writes on the benevolence of the 2005 Sakharov Prize winner and Harvard visiting professor in law, who shipped items donated by a Boston community for the less privileged

Advocacy and philanthropy are the dominant features in the DNA of Hauwa Ibrahim, who teaches law in top institutions in Europe and the United States.

She embraced prominence as the attorney of three women, tried for fornication and adultery under the new, but controversial Shariah law, introduced in Northern Nigeria in 1999.

The cases involved Bariya Magazu in Zamfara State, Safiya Husayn in Sokoto State and Amina Lawal in Zamfara State. Two of them were sentenced to death by stoning, except Magazu, whose conviction was commuted to public flogging.

Ibrahim became a legal activist and a reference point on the practice of Shariah law by virtue of those cases. In 2005, the European Parliament recognised her human rights advocacy and awarded her the Sakharov Prize for the Freedom of Thought. The monetary reward for the award was €100,000.

The prize enabled her to visit over 70 countries and speak globally. The Nigerian is a Radcliffe Fellow and is presently at Harvard Divinity School in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ibrahim hails from Hinnah, Gombe State. She allowed THISDAY an unobstructed peep into her humble beginnings, when she brought items she distributed to people afflicted by poverty in Nigeria.

Among the items were bicycles, orthopaedic mattresses, beddings, shoes, toys, boxes, bags, Jeans, pencils, socks, clothes, barbeque grills, furniture, mosquito repellent, basket balls, American football and a car.

The car- a Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) Chevrolet brand came with four brand new tyres. It was donated by an American couple-Suzzy and Emma Carl.

The shipment, brought in a 40 by 40 feet container, was courtesy of the residents of Lincoln in Boston. The community is inhabited by roughly 5,000 people.

In a riveting account, Ibrahim described herself as a child of accident. She said it was this accidental existence of life that has remained her substance.

“I was an orphan. I acquired education by accident. I also became a lawyer by accident and I am teaching at Harvard University in the United States by accident,” She declared.

She was born and raised into a household that could not afford three square meals a day. Her family farmed food crops and reared livestock, which were exchanged in the market for other products.

“We had practically nothing in my village. If we had green we exchanged for another green. We sold our goods and got in return something else.” She admitted. “I grew up not having three square meals in my house. But I regret nothing, if I come back to this world, I want to come back to my same family and the same village”.

In her Hinnah community, girls were forbidden from school because the first girl that went to school became pregnant. Her older sister, Aisha Ibrahim, now Aisha Magaji, was the first woman to go to a college. She did under a disguise perfected by her mother, who took her out of the council on the pretext she was going to the village to see her parents. Young Hauwa was also incorporated and was able to attend primary school.

By her admission, she neither learned English language in the primary school nor in any other form.

She developed her skills by hearing people speak English and adding it to her small vocabulary.

When she finally found herself at the University of Jos, she did not have the requisite result for admission. Instead, she was on the sub-supplementary list for the remedial programme and was only considered because she was from a catchment area of Gombe State.

The requirement into the remedial course was a pass in English. She, however, barely passed the subject by guesswork, ultimately enabling her to gain admission into the law programme at Jos.

“I wanted to do something with education but everybody was filling the form to read Law. I had never met a lawyer and I didn’t know what law would be used for, so I said why not me too. I ended up filling up the form to read law. I was in Jos for five years and graduated in 1989. I went to the Law School in Lagos and became a lawyer.” She said.

Afterwards, she enrolled in the Police but her uncle objected and convinced her to join the Bauchi State Ministry of Justice.

For seven years, she worked as a state counsel under the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mohammed Abdulahi Abubakar, who incidentally is the current Governor of Bauchi State. In 1996, she left on her own to start a private legal practice in Bauchi, the first female from the area to have a legal firm.

For two years her practice stalled as she had no clients. Her plight was not helped by the apathy of people in Northern Nigeria to female attorneys. But while in Bauchi, she decided to run a Women and Children clinic pro bono for women subjected to domestic violence.

She was in Abuja from 1998-1999 when Shariah was introduced in Zamfara. While doing a case in Bauchi, a woman called Asmau, drew her attention to a difficult case, which she wanted a woman lawyer to handle.

Through the new acquaintance, she was linked with Baobab, which sought her help in the Baria Magazu case. When she did subsequent cases of Safiya Husayn and Amina Lawal, they attracted global attention about women sentenced to death by stoning under the new Shariah code. She did those litigation without receiving a dime.

Although the coverage made her practice known, a fatwa was placed on her head by some extremists, who felt she should be killed for maligning Islam and Shariah.

In 2003, she left for the US for further studies and in part to protect her life that was constantly under threat. A year later, with a Masters in Law, she joined the University of Abuja and was teaching the Nigerian Legal System, in collaboration with Dr Alex Izinyon (SAN), who was her senior.

After her Sakharov Prize in 2005, the Saint Louis University School of Law invited her to the USA. And three years later, Harvard also offered her the opportunity to teach at one of the world’s Ivy League institutions.

She has been in the US since teaching at both the Human Rights Programme and the Islamic Legal Studies Programme at Harvard.

Her research on human rights for women led to the writing of the book: Practicing Shariah Law: Seven Strategies for Achieving Justice in Shariah Courts, published in 2013.

Years after defending women rights, Ibrahim pursued the act of giving to the poor after the Nigerian government invited her on two occasions to help in resolving contending social issues.

President Goodluck Jonathan extended the first of those invitations in 2014, to help in the investigation of the 276 schoolgirls that went missing after Boko Haram raided their hostel in Chibok, Bornu State.

Three years later, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo also invited her on issues of security and human rights abuse preferred against the Armed Forces by the Amnesty International in The Hague.

While in Jordan in 2014 and following the abduction of Chibok girls, she started a project, Mothers Without Border, to keep youths from violent extremism.

“When I returned in 2014, I felt the Chibok girls shared the same things with me. The difference between us is very thin: education. I bought into it because I wanted to do something, but I did not know what I wanted to do. When I was summoned by Prof Osinbajo, I saw the same me I saw in 2014 but this time I said to myself I want to do something”. She recalled.

Ultimately, the idea crystalised when she returned to Boston. She convinced her bosses that kitchen utensils and other items that had not been used for two weeks, with the exception of winter clothes, must be discarded as they had become superfluous.

All of a sudden, the slogan, “If you don’t use something for two weeks, you don’t need it”, became the catch phrase. Almost everyone in Lincoln joined the bandwagon by donating items. Some even brought their best, including brand new things. Even $300 was starched in one of the bags.

Three persons- Diana Smith, Tuker Colsen and Isabella Hepel-put the information together in the town newspaper.

When the donations arrived, they came in a deluge that Ibrahim’s three garages were filled to the seams with stuffs. And when there were no more spaces, she put up a notice, telling people she could no longer accept the donations.

Incidentally at that period, her friend Hajia Aisha Mohammed, who retired recently as a Deputy Clerk at the National Assembly, was in Harvard in 2015 attending a programme. The two women hatched the idea to bring the presents to Nigeria and give the needy.

The consignment was bundled into a 40 feet long container, shipped from Boston to Apapa and transported by land to Abuja.

“My target is to give those items to the people that have never been given with anything and they will find those things useful. And from my own background, I know those people exist and those are the people I want to reach”. Ibrahim insisted.

She collaborated with Kannywood actors and producers, notably Abubakar Garba, to help in distributing the items to the impoverished people in parts of Northern Nigeria.

The items are puts in bags and distributed in batches through a network of people she trusted would pass them to the intended recipients.

Ibrahim also swore there is no political agenda behind her initiative, adding she has no iota of politics running in her system.

“I just want to do a humanitarian service before I return to America. My prayer also is that the Boko Haram and all this insurgency should stop. I want to do something and put a smile on someone’s face for a day”.