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Anxiety notes from Ndigbo Muslims’ summit in Enugu

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By Muhammad Ajah

The Ndigbo Muslims of Nigeria are getting twitchy and itchy. The recent summit of prominent Ndigbo Muslims at Enugu, penultimate week, was an opener with the shocking revelations and anxieties it raised. It was the first national summit, therefore, it was like an awaited opportunity for the Muslim minority faithful to physically see themselves together under one roof and interact with name bearers some had heard for long. They used the forum to also offload their heavy-hearts of itching matters concerning their status in Igboland. Some of them shared personal experiences that were quite touching, though revealing of a forlorn people who have groped aimlessly for comforters that are essentially exclusive.

There was hardly the assurance that the summit would hold. Several attempts had been made in the past to no avail to bring them together. There had even been such planned event by non-Ndigbo Islamic organizations but which recorded low turnout from the locals for fear of the unknown. This is in addition to the growing suspicion on the sincerity of purpose of some of the organizations whose lip services to the Ndigbo Muslims have proven quite unreliable. Such experiences portrayed some of the Ndigbo Muslims as victims of circumstances or parochial infliction. Some of them saw themselves between the lion and the red sea for accepting Islam. Some wondered how they have become people rejected by their own people of ancestral proclivity and deceived by their own people of the same devotion. Some of them, however, pointedly expressed gratitude to God Almighty that they accepted Islam before knowing Muslims, an expression of depression amidst abundance in divine mercy and defence.     

The chairman of the occasion, Muhammad Obiahu Ajah Jr. began to trace the origin of Islam and its challenges in the Southeast. Expressing optimism over the survival of Muslims amidst the challenges, he observed that unlike in the past, Ndigbo Muslims today have experts in all fields of life endeavior: in the academics, politics, socio-political activities, traditional institution, Islamic scholarship and creative art. He praised Ndigbo Muslims for their continuous struggle for excellence and string belief in Nigeria’s unity peace and progress. “Being a minority group does not mean that we must be subjected to discrimination, political exclusion, as well as high degree of religious antagonism”, he cried out, and warned the Ndigbo Muslim faithful never to get involved in any socio-religious and political activities that portend insecurity to Nigeria and the people of Nigeria, even while continuously demanding for legitimate rights as citizens of Nigeria.

The federal commissioner of the South East on the Board of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Alhaji Ibrahim Ezeani, frowned at the description of Ndigbo Muslims as Hausas by their people and government. “It is very unfortunate that our own governments do not recognize us because they do not want us to be Muslims. That is why they will give nine shares of any gift whenever they feel like to the Hausa and Yoruba residents in our states”. He regretted the attitude of the Southeast state governments but appealed to the faithful to remain focused, calm and resolute in Islam and in pursuit of collective set goals.

As for the executive secretary of Enugu State Pilgrims’ Welfare Board and deputy national secretary (South) of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Sheikh Adam Abdullah Idoko, the struggle for the liberation of Ndigbo Muslims had started long ago but the successive governments of the region have made it difficult for the minority religious group to thrive. According to him, the challenges which Ndigbo Muslims face and conquer often resurface after every new government comes to power and perfect their plots to keep the minority at base.

He expressed displeasure over the manner the majority have been treating matters relating to Ndigbo Muslims in Nigeria, though he was upbeat that they will overcome at the destined time by Allah. “Ndigbo Muslims should not hide their faces anywhere. They must be bold amidst their challenges”, he charged the participants. Narrating how a friend took offence for being referred to as Hausa Muslim, he wondered why Islam is deteriorating in the South while Christianity is fast growing in the North.    

On his part, the 2019 gubernatorial candidate of the Peoples Party of Nigeria (PPN) in Ebonyi state, Chief Haroun Ogbonnia Ajah, said efforts to bring Ndigbo Muslims together started in the year 2000. He asserted that the present Ndigbo Muslims are the 4th or 5th generation of the Muslims in the Southeast, an assertion that revealed the length of time Islam has existed in Igboland, though with sluggish growth and improvements. According to him, the systemic marginalization of Ndigbo Muslims by governments is deliberate even as unity and identity are in the forefront of the challenges. “We should be united and defend our identity. We must play politics to be identified at the local, state and federal levels”. 

HRH, the Offor of Umuofor Kingdom and chief Imam of Oguta in Imo state, Dr. Abdul-Fattah Emetumah who was represented, urged for peace amongst the Muslims of the region especially the resident faithful who are supposed to protect the interest of their brethren of the Southeast states. He called on Ndigbo Muslim scholars to lead the cause of unity and leadership for the minority group. The senior special assistant (SSA) to the Abia state governor, Hon. Musa Iheakaram said that the governments of the area were not very difficult or inaccessible but everything bore down to the disunity amongst the Muslims which the governments capitalize upon to marginalize them. “We are blessed with men and women of substance. We have no reason to be deterred. Rather, we must eschew the pull-him-down syndrome that is inherent in us. We are lagging behind in the requisite mode of Islamic propagation”.     

While Dr. Suleiman Ogah, a senior lecturer of the Federal University, Lafia, was of the opinion that foreigners who came as traders are becoming stumbling blocks between Ndigbo Muslims and their state governments, the South East Director of National Directorate of Employment (NDE), Arch. Zubayr Usman Ugwu, sought the advancement of Islam through any little position available. “Our struggle has just begun. We must remain focused and bold.”  

The Southeast coordinator of Federation of Muslim Women Associations of Nigeria (FOMWAN), Hajiya Ruqayyah Ahmad Mika’il who was represented, expressed joy that Islam was advancing to the next level irrespective of the challenges. She sought for the separation of religion from politics, refrain from hate speech, support for the less privileged, encouragement of family ties through intermarriages and promotion of education and scholarly prospects amongst Ndigbo Muslims.

The guest speaker, Alhaji Suleiman Afikpo recounted Islam entry in the area, saying that Southeast Nigeria did not have direct contact with the early heralds of Islamic religion in Nigeria, neither was the area influenced by the religion until 20th century. Ibagwa in Nuskka north was the first Igbo town to receive a sizeable number of Muslim migrants early 19th century traced to the influence of the Nupe, Igala and Hausa/Fulani settled traders and the intermarriages that occurred between the migrants and their Igbo host communities. This is in addition to the Igala conquest of parts of Ibagwa and the imposition of a Nupe Muslim warrant chief by the colonial masters on the Nsukka division.

However, Islam acquired strength in Igboland in the late 1950s when Sheikh Ibrahim Nwagui returned his journey to Islam in 1958. He started open-air preaching in Igboland, taught Islam in Igbo language, built Islamic schools, Mosque and residence. He also influenced the spread of the religion to many towns across eastern region. Nwagui’s foundation has, he said, produced more educated and quality Ndigbo Muslims who have championed the spread of the religion to other parts of Igboland. He noted that the Ndigbo Muslim community does not in reality need a one-man leader in its present un-united state, but definitely needs constitutional institution with mandate to impose and execute laws. Igbo ewe eze or ‘Igbo has no kingship’ is not an abstract, he recalled.

The opportunities practically available for the development of Islam and Ndigbo Muslim, he asserted, are aggressive da’wah, purposeful leadership, indigenization of Islam, redefinition of identity, religious tolerance, assurance and insurance of population and database, proper migrants’ management and the acceptance of “unity in diversity”. He concluded by quoting Dr. Ausaf Ali that: “Progress never comes without the pain that is caused by new ideas, new interpretations, new constructions, new paradigms, new theories, and new stocktaking of the situation.…To demand that everyone say only the things said before or look at things in accordance with the established opinions and the decisions of the organized groups or the government of the day is to foreclose all possibilities of any conceptual breakthroughs and thereby ‘stagnate the rich resources for advancement and progress of the community’’. The director of Islamic Center Afikpo, Ustaz Isa Christian Friday Okonkwo, prayed for the late Ndigbo Islamic propagandist, Sheikh Ibrahim Okpani Nwagui and the progress of Ndigbo Muslim Ummah of Nigeria.

Muhammad Ajah is an advocate of humanity, peace and good governance in Abuja. E-mail mobahawwah@yahoo.co.uk.