Activist who defied Boko Haram, Nigerian military to demand husband’s freedom, dies

Kellu Haruna [Photo: Amnesty International]
Kellu Haruna [Photo: Amnesty International]

A local female ‘activist’, Kellu Haruna, who spent the last five years fighting for the release of her husband and other men detained by the Nigerian military as suspected members of Boko Haram, has died.

She died after suffering a heart disease complication.

Mrs Haruna gained media attention after she wrote a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari in 2018 asking for the whereabouts of 1,269 men arrested and taken away by soldiers in the insurgency-ravaged North-eastern Nigeria.

Working under Knifar Movement, Mrs Haruna and about 2,000 women demanded justice for their detained husbands, brothers and sons with whom they lost contact since their arrest about five years ago.

Working with Amnesty International, the Knifar Movement gained global recognition for their peaceful protest and demand for justice.

In October 2017, the Nigerian government began the trial of some 1,669 detained Boko Haram suspects, some of whom had been in detention since the beginning of the conflict in 2009.

Most of the suspects were charged with giving “material and non-violent support” to the group. The trials were done in batches and were not open to the public.

A statement issued by Amnesty International’s Advocacy and Research Director, Netsanet Belay, said Mrs Haruna died on Wednesday.

“We lost an incredible human being, Kellu Haruna, one of our most valued partners and leader of a women’s movement in north-east Nigeria, the Knifar movement – a group of more than 2,000 Nigerian displaced women who campaign for the release of their husbands from military detention,” the statement reads.

Ms Belay described Knifar as “a movement of women, mothers, daughters, and sisters of those disappeared or killed by the Nigerian military.

“Most of them are also ‘survivors’ of prolonged detention in the notorious Giwa Barracks run by the military. They live in various IDP camps, with their own children and those of others.

Read also: Seven soldiers killed, seven missing in Boko Haram ambush

“When the rest of Nigeria chose to remain silent, they found the courage to organize themselves, in their thousands, and speak out – to demand answers about their loved ones and to seek justice for the crimes they suffered.

“We travelled this journey with them, supporting their initiative from the beginning, and they are now a force to be reckoned with.

Ms Belay said “Kellu was a driving force in the movement. Strongly believing in solidarity and justice, she always went the extra mile to reach new members and document information about their missing men.

“Kellu managed to get attention for their situation by writing to the National Assembly, testifying before the Presidential Investigation Panel, visiting the National Human Rights Commission and meeting with the Prosecutor of the ICC.”


Mrs Haruna was from Andarra village in Bama LGA. She, her husband, Haruna Modu, and her four children survived Boko Haram rule in 2015.

“They travelled to Cameroon where the Cameroonian army stopped them and handed them over to the Nigerian army,” said Ms Belay.

“After being separated from her husband, Kellu and her children were transferred to Bama Hospital Camp where they suffered immensely. There was not enough food and Kellu lost her son and mother. Severally malnourished, she was transferred to Maiduguri in June 2016, and soon after started her struggle for justice.

“Her inspirational leadership made many women join the Knifar movement.

“Kellu had long complications from heart disease, perhaps the result of the years of suffering she went through: displaced from her home, suffering from severe malnutrition and having lost her husband, who remains disappeared.

Read also: Five Boko Haram terrorists surrender to troops – Army

“Her life and struggle a much bigger story. The heartbreaking reality of passing without seeing justice, courage amidst despair, a voice that was loud but yet to be heard.

“I recall the day I met her in Abuja, on November 2017, when I went to testify before the Presidential Investigation Panel set up by the government in large part due to the pressure built by the successive reports we issued together exposing crimes committed by the military. She traveled with dozens of victims from Maiduguri to see us, also in the hope they too would be heard.

“Her voice, she looks, her pain is still fresh in my mind. It was one of those rare life-changing moments for me, to witness such courage and resilience where it is humanly impossible to expect it. I cry as I write, feeling defeated.

“Kellu passed away a few days after Fatou Bensouda, the Prosecutor of the ICC, visited Abuja to meet state officials. Kellu met her the last time she came to Abuja, looked her in her eye and told her they need justice and answers today, not tomorrow.

“Fatou came and left this time, giving little clarity on what the ICC intends to do. We reacted to this in the strongest way possible, telling the ICC to wait no more; that the government of Nigeria is willingly unable to bring perpetrators to justice. We’re still in search of answers, but for Kellu and many others, it’s already too late. She was a brave woman and activist who died before she achieved the goals she was fighting for.”

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