Two things that aren’t supposed to go together: bread and noodles. But if you do summon courage and with that audacity venture into the unknown, you are likely to find your taste buds surprised. Your surprise will then breed stories. Stories of delicious shock and wonder, that you will share on twitter, and that might go viral. But you know what other combinations aren’t supposed to make sense? A woman in hijab and a nationwide anti-police-brutality march. When you put them together though, you will certainly be surprised. And surprise, as I just suggested, is the mother of great stories.
Which is why the world cannot stop talking about Aisha Yesufu. Her ‘type’ doesn’t belong in the canon of civil disobedience—she’s a Muslim woman, she’s based in the North of Nigeria, she’s married with grown children. Yet there she is, there she always is, at the forefront, vociferous, relentless, even justifying why dying for one of the causes she’s pushed for more than five years wouldn’t be an unheard of way to go.
Earlier this week, while being interviewed on the combative TVC show, Fireworks, Ms Yesufu waved off the threats to her life because they have become common. What has she not been condemned to death for? “There have been calls for me to be killed,” she said, “that I’m not a Muslim, that I’m an infidel, that I hate Islam, that I’m a gay rights activist. And then ironically, of course, the gay people say I’m homophobic.” You wonder how she’s able to sleep at night with such rife glowering pointed at her.
Something must kill a man—or woman—is how she frames it. And she’d rather her death, while she deliberately lives her life “to the fullest” every day, isn’t meaningless or stupid. “For me death is when I’m unable to speak against injustice because I’m afraid to die,” she said. “I would rather die standing and on my own terms.”
But why? What does Aisha Yesufu want? From where has she materialised? What makes a 46-year-old middleclass woman, born to Edo natives and raised in Kano, a university graduate (Bayero University, Kano), and is married to a civil servant, continually conscript herself into some of the most blatant public confrontations with the government?
From when she burst onto the Nigerian psyche in 2014 as a cofounder of the Bring Back Our Girls group—the movement to pressure Aso Rock to find and rescue by any means necessary the 276 schools girls who had been abducted by Boko Haram from a high school in Chibok, Borno State—to the Say No To Social Media Bill in 2015, and now the #ENDSARS protests, she is constantly on the streets, fighting, mostly with biting words. These battles cannot be ignored because, as she sees it, the Nigerian population has become an endless supply of sitting ducks that are plucked off randomly. Somebody has to do something. Now, if that somebody happens to be Aisha Yesufu, why not?
“Yesterday’s victims were once survivors, today’s victims were yesterday’s survivors, tomorrows victims will be today’s survivors… Being a victim in Nigeria today is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
The superficial incongruity between Ms Yesufu’s persona and her social justice mission aside, she has since learnt and mastered the friendly, relatable cadence of social media, especially Twitter — which is usually the place to kick-off mass action. Yesufu’s timeline isn’t an infinite stream of anger — she speaks of other things, too, like the syrupy love affair she has with her studious husband. Sometimes she permits herself to engage in amusing back-and-forth with her followers, or she could talk about her money-making investments such as her property, renting for worth N2 million ($12,500) in 2007 but, due to the naira’s steady tumble against the dollar, rents today for N2.5 million, a ton of money in naira but, exchanging for only $5,000, is just atrocious.
Strange, constant, twitter-savvy, congenial outside her battlegrounds, Yesufu rose to icon status in 2020. Two things have happened to confirm this. The second is her naming this week to the BBC 100 Women list. The broadcaster writes on its site that, to be included, the women either made headlines or influenced important stories over the past 12 months. Aisha is in the company of Bilkis, the 82-year-old protest leader; Erica Baker, a director of engineering at GitHub; Jackie Kay, Welsh poet; and others of just as illustrious profile—doctors, actors, models, an astronaut, singers, and politicians.
How about the first thing that happened to seal her legend? It was that picture. You’ve seen the picture. She’s in her hijab. Wind blowing. A crowd behind her. Her fist raised. Some say it’s Nigeria’s version of Lady Liberty.
The photo was taken on October 10 at the police headquarters in Abuja—early days of the #ENDSARS demonstrations. Protesters who had gone to present their demands to the Inspector General of Police had just been told that the man was away. Aisha was in the back of the group. Everyone vowed they’d wait for the IG, no matter how long it took for him to return to his office.
“That was when I came to the front,” Yesufu said, “and I stood and said to the police: ‘If you are going to shoot at them, you will have to put a bullet through me first’.”
That was the moment. Cameras clicked. History made.
Perhaps the future will place her as a marker to that history. In the meantime, she has said she would keep pushing for that thing that started her on this journey six years ago — the truth. “Accountability and transparency will always trump anything. And where you have opacity, that’s where you have corruption”
This story first appeared in The Guardian (Nigeria) on November 28, 2020.