Inside the world of Igbo Muslims in Nigeria’s South-east region
“An average Igbo thinks Islam is the religion of the Hausa, but we are changing that belief gradually.”
Isa Okonkwo recalls the revolt he faced from his family members when he decided to build a mosque in his predominantly Christian Apu-Ugo community in Enugu State.
“The trauma is better imagined than experienced,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Okonkwo is the director of administration, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), the apex Islamic body in the country. He is also the director of the School of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Ebonyi State, affiliated with the Islamic World League in Saudi Arabia. The status did not deter the opposition to his decision from members of his community
Fear of Boko Haram
Mr Okonkwo chose his words with care in our interaction, but his demeanour betrayed his emotions.
“I got land from my father while he was alive in my village in Apu-Ugo, Nkanu West Local Government in Enugu State. The land was given to me and my siblings. However, because I decided to use part of it to build the first mosque in the area, family members seriously revolted. They argued that that mosque is a subtle way of attracting Boko Haram.”
The incident happened at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northern part of Nigeria.
Boko Haram, officially known as Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād, is a terrorist organisation with a significant presence in North-eastern Nigeria. The group is also active in Chad, Niger, and northern Cameroon. In 2016, the group split into two factions, with the other faction known as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province.
Boko Haram opposes western way of life and seeks to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria by force of arm and terror.
According to Mr Okonkwo, due to Boko Haram attacks, many people in the south, especially in predominantly Christian Igboland, became apprehensive of Islam and Muslims.
“And it wasn’t even a massive mosque, just a small establishment that can contain, say, 50 persons. Just a place I can come back home to pray with my family. Now, that was at the family level.
“At the community level, it was even more serious than that. It took only the willpower of someone convinced of the religion for that mosque to stand till today. I didn’t buy the land; it is my ancestral land that my father gave me.”
Like Okonkwo, like Zubair
Zubair Ugwu also had a harrowing experience identifying with the Islamic faith in Nigeria’s South-east.
Mr Ugwu hails from Alor-agu in Igbo-Eze South Local Government Area of Enugu State but attended schools outside the South-east where he converted to Islam. When he returned to the region, he was shocked by the reception.
“The first time I returned to the East, in Awka, I was called a ‘sabo’ (saboteur) because I identified as a Muslim,” Mr Ugwu told PREMIUM TIMES.
Messrs Okonkwo and Ugwu said their experiences typify those of the average Igbo Muslim in Nigeria’s South-east.
Islam in Igboland
The Igbos are one of three major ethnic groups in Nigeria. According to the CIA World Factbook, as of 2017, with an estimated 33 million domiciled in Nigeria, the Igbo account for 19 per cent of the country’s population. They are found essentially in the South-eastern part of Nigeria, regarded as their homeland.
In their study titled: “The Stages of Igbo Conversion to Islam: An Empirical Study,” Chinyere Felicia Priest and Egodi Uchendu quoted Ohadike, another scholar, who found that a unique feature of the Igbo group is their economic and migratory tendencies, informed by land scarcity and population explosion that date back to the ninth century.
The two scholars’ research was based on the analysis of interviews conducted with 30 Igbo converts to Islam who were drawn from different parts of Igboland. Their study shows that Muslim Igbos are more commonly found in Enugu – especially Nsukka, Owerri, Enohia in Afikpo North, Nakano in Afikpo, Afikpo town, Obollo Afor, Imilike Enu, Imilike Ani, Ibagwa and Okija
Mr Ugwu told PREMIUM TIMES that the religion has been practiced in those areas for over a century.
“Many Igbos believe an Igbo can never be Muslim. Yet Islam came to my village over a century ago. That is why we have an appreciable number of Muslims. Our forefathers have lived as Muslims for more than a century,” he said.
In terms of the spread of Islam in Igboland, he noted that Ebonyi and Enugu states have a substantial Muslim population. According to him, Islam is widespread in Nsukka, Enugu State, and Afikpo axis of Ebonyi, where there is an Islamic School.
He added that areas like Onu-eke in Ebonyi have a small Muslim population.
Elsewhere, Suleiman Njoku, a specialist in Shariah law and the chief imam of Imo State, painted a gloomy picture when asked about what it means to identify as a Muslim in Nigeria’s South-east region.
“There is a lot of frustration,” he said, his voice a mixture of excitement and worry.
“Immediately our people notice you are a Muslim; nobody will give you a job here. That’s certain. Look at what people are going through in the name of Hijab. As Igbo Muslims, we are in a challenging corner here. It has not been easy. But if you use wisdom, you will succeed. Some have been ostracized, chased away by family and all. But Alihamdulillahi (we thank Allah),” he said.
Mr Njoku explained that Muslims are mainly distrusted due to the Boko Haram factor and the temperament of “some of our brothers,” which he described as extremist.
“When people see things that do not relate to religion, they relate it to religion, like the belief that when you kill, you have 70 wives and paradise,” he said.
“When I came in here as the chief imam in 2019, I was able to bridge that (gap). I speak to them on radio, television, Facebook, and all of that. So many of them are beginning to have an understanding of what real Islam means. Unfortunately, some of our Muslim brothers here behave hostile too, and two fires cannot exist in one place.”
Mr Ugwu, on his part, says because of the identity conflict, many Igbo Muslims were fleeing the South-east.
“The irony of it is that because of the suffering they are subjected to, the preponderance of Igbo Muslims now find it comfortable to live in the North. For instance, about 90 per cent are in the North while 10 per cent are in the South-east. Many only come back, like me, after retirement. Most of the Igbo Muslims are in the North because that is where they are allowed to worship freely,” he said.
The second layer of the identity problem, he said, is the stage of denial. Mr Ugwu said many Igbo people would never admit that there are Igbo Muslims. He recalled an experience he had with a fellow Igbo friend who thought he was a “northerner” and related with him quite well until they realised he was Igbo.
“You can see the level of hatred; he had no problem with me as a Hausa Muslim but would not relate with me as an Igbo Muslim.
“An average Igbo man thinks Islam is the religion of Hausa men, but we are changing that belief gradually. With time, they will start appreciating that we are Muslims and Igbo,” he added.
It is easier to acquire land to construct recreational centres than to get a property to build a mosque or Madrasah (Islamic School) in Igboland, said Nkiru Mohammed, an indigene of Abia who now lives in Niger State.
Mr Mohammed said he relocated to the North after his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme because of the ease the region affords him to practice Islam.
“It is very difficult to practice Islam in most parts of the South-east; the people can be hostile,” he said.
Commenting on land acquisition for mosque projects, Mr Okonkwo said it is easier if the federal government owns the land.
“That’s why most of the mosques you see here are in Hausa-Fulani communities or within federal government-owned facilities. In places where there is land to build a mosque, the Muslims would not be rich enough to build it, and they don’t have the support that will give them the privilege. Most of the mosques in the South-east are sponsored by Muslim organisations from outside the country,” he said.
He further explained that it is easier to acquire land in rural areas.
“It is no problem in areas where there are indigenous Muslims who own land, especially in rural villages like in the northern parts of Enugu State. But in urban centres, it is an uphill task. It is difficult to come up with designs of mosques or madrasah, except it is second-hand.”
Last November, an angry mob attacked Muslim communities in parts of the university town of Nsukka, Enugu State, following a disagreement among residents.
The altercation is believed to have started after a Muslim woman selling tomatoes boarded a commercial tricycle from a village market to her shop, and an argument ensued between her and the driver over the fare.
This reportedly led to the destruction and burning of properties belonging to Muslims in the area by some residents of the host communities and the subsequent burning of two mosques in the town.
The Enugu State Governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, immediately called for restraint among the warring residents. He visited the sites and promised to rebuild the mosques.
“The governor is a peace-loving man. He presented those two mosques- redesigned and rebuilt, to the Muslim community, just recently,” Mr Ugwu said.
“Also, three years ago, Igbo-Eze North Local Government headquarters was burnt by unknown arsonists, he rebuilt it. That is the governor. There was a governor before him who never thought in that direction; that’s why I said it (reconciliation efforts) depends. He has promoted peace and understanding among religious groups in the state.”
Commenting on stereotypes, Mr Ugwu said people of different religious persuasions react in different ways, and their actions should not be seen as representative of their religion. He said before the Enugu crisis, a bishop was captured on video preaching against the building of mosques and calls to prayer, two days before the two mosques in Nsukka were razed down.
“When this bishop was inciting a mob against Muslims and mosques, a mosque was burnt the same day in Orlu, Imo State, and another bishop within that diocese was the one that mobilised people to go and chase away the hoodlums,” he said.
“That was a peace-loving human, a Christian defending Muslims. So it depends on the human.”
Mr Njoku, however, said it is the responsibility of Igbo Muslims to change the negative perception non-Muslims in the region have about Islam.
Path to Peace
A peace and conflict resolution expert, James Igwe, told PREMIUM TIMES that leadership plays a vital role in forestalling crises and promoting peace and tranquility among adherents of different religions in the South-east and elsewhere.
He called on leaders across the region to ensure the integration of religious groups towards giving them a sense of belonging and promoting peace.
Mr Okonkwo on his part argued that the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees freedom of worship and association.
“That is a plus, not only for Igbo Muslims, but for other religious minorities,” he said.
“Again, at the highest levels, there is the Nigeria inter-religious council which promotes peaceful co-existence among members of all faiths. The co-chairmen are the Sultan of Sokoto, the President-General of NSCIA, and whoever is the chairman of CAN (Christian Association of Nigeria).
“You can’t practice your religion well by killing the other person or preventing him from practicing his. No religion tells the practitioner of the religion to kill the other. Once these two bodies promote peace and those whose duty it is to implement the laws of the land live up to their responsibility, religious intolerance will be a thing of the past, whether in Igbo-land or where we have other minorities like Christians in Hausaland.”
A peep into the future
On what the future holds for Igbo Muslims in the South-east, Mr Mohammed said the prospect is clouded in uncertainties. He said he does not see himself returning to the region anytime soon, because the socio-political tension in the country does not help matters.
According to Mr Mohammed, the division and mutual suspicion among adherents of different religions in Igboland have been heightened by politics. However, he said, leaders across the religious divides were working round the clock to ensure harmony and mutual understanding.
￼Afikpo School of Islamic Centre
Mr Njoku too is optimistic about the future. He, however, called for dialogue and mutual respect among residents, irrespective of religious persuasions.
“In recent times, things are getting better. I speak and relate with reverend fathers; they visit me, I visit them.
“Islam tells us that if you save just one person’s life, it is as if you saved humankind. If you kill one person unjustly, it is as if you have killed the whole of humanity. These are the teachings of the Quran. So that is what I teach them: that Islam is peace, love, truthfulness.”
This reporting was supported with a grant from ICFJ in conjunction with Code for Africa.