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The shocking story of Igbo Muslims and why they are going North (I)

They are referred to as “Hausa”, “Boko Haram”, “masquerade” and “saboteur”. Fresh converts hide their identity for fear of attack. Some young women alter their…

They are referred to as “Hausa”, “Boko Haram”, “masquerade” and “saboteur”.

Fresh converts hide their identity for fear of attack.

Some young women alter their names in order to fit in, and a few women now prefer the scarf to the hijab.

One respondent even inquired whether Igbo Muslims would enjoy freedom in the 21st century.

Another thinks that a new dawn has already formed as the trend now is for Igbo Muslims to travel up North seeking work and education.

Movement to the North is a symbolic protest against years of exclusion, rejection and denial of rights.

pokesmen to some of the state governments who responded to interview requests indicated that they are not aware of discrimination of any sort.

Ummi Okoro (not real name) thinks that the culture of sneering at Muslim women will last for many years. “We are called Hausa, masquerades; it’s normal here.” Okoro lives in Umuahia, capital of Abia State.

She recalls“They say to me, ‘A beautiful woman like you will take a rag and cover her body.’ They ask why I do that. We don’t listen to them because we know what we are into.”

“We have masquerades in the East. The nature of the masquerade is that there is a veil on the face and a small slit from which the person beneath can see. There may be a resemblance to the hijab,” says Rev Fr Emeka Ngwoke of the Department of Religion and Cultural Studies of the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), providing a cultural background to the widespread comparison with masquerades.

The cleric points out “Igbo Muslims are simply a few people, and democracy is the rule of the majority. They cannot be asking for a voice completely out of proportion to their number. Igbo Muslims are just whipping up sentiments to see how much they can get from the North that has political power, by playing on the fact that they too are Muslims.”

Not true – Journalist

Chinedu Aroh, a journalist in Nsukka, counters “It’s not true that Igbo Muslims are being referred to as masquerades and Hausa in Enugu State. I say this because I have many of them as friends and relatives. There is absolutely no difference between Igbo Muslims, Igbo Christians and Igbo traditional religious worshippers. We do everything in common.”


In Alor-Agu, Enugu State, Aisha Ibrahim Eze reveals that girls are not allowed to wear the hijab in school.

Hassana Suleiman holds a similar view, and numerous women present nod their heads in agreement.

Alor-Agu is famous for its large number of indigenous Muslims. Islam took root in the Nsukka area in the 19th Century; brought by Nupe horse and Hausa kola nut traders.

Children play along the road near the mosque in Alor-Agu, with a few of them wearing hijabs. Ahmed Ugwuanyi, son of the first indigenous Imam in the community, says although it is true that students might not be allowed to wear the hijab in school; they could freely do so in their homes.

Are you male or female?

“One day I was in a bank in Afikpo dressed in a hijab and a security man asked whether I was a man or a woman. When I tried to let him know that what he was doing was wrong, he wanted to get physical, until some people came and talked to him. Those of us who cover our faces are referred to as Boko Haram openly in the market,” explains Khadija Harun, a teacher at the Islamic Centre, Afikpo.

Children sing ‘Hausas are coming’ when I walk along the road, says Basirat Tijani

Hausa are coming

“Anytime we are going out they begin to say the Hausa are coming. Even children say so. When children see us coming, they run away as though they have seen something they had never seen before. Some call us masquerades. We are called Boko Haram and a number of awkward names. It can be so demoralising,” laments Basirat Tijani who also teaches at the Islamic Centre in Afikpo.

Aisha becomes Asisko

Years of exclusion and rejection have had impact on identity. Umar Musa Ani who recently graduated from the Department of Geography and Environmental Management of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, opens up on some of the challenges Igbo Muslim youths face.

“Some of our young girls here in Enugu don’t like putting on the hijab. Some of them tie the scarf instead. At a point some of them felt that their Islamic names were driving friends away. A girl named Aisha will change her name to Asisko. Maryam will alter hers to Mary Anne. This is to make the name less Islamic, and somewhat Western. I have seen a lot of such names on Facebook, and I know that those ladies are Muslims,” Ani explains.

Halima Musa Ani suddenly felt hands tugging at her hijab

Neither here, nor there

Azeezat Jimoh, the ameera or leader of the Muslim women in Abia State, comments on her experience, saying, “I can’t say they love Muslims, and I can’t say they hate Muslims. Once there is a little crisis, they will turn against us. That is the challenge we have.”

Salma Ibrahim, another lady in Afikpo, recalls “I got married here in the East. I had some sisters with me among those that attended the Nikkah (Islamic wedding ceremony). We were all together, and we had to walk through a market and we experienced strange things. We were called masquerades. We were not welcome there.”

During the wedding proper, neighbours trooped into the compound and saw her dressed in her hijab, and they ran away, saying, “There is a masquerade in the room.”

According to Ibrahim, “I don’t go out much because of the reaction and the reception. If you go out 10 times, you will receive an equal number of insults.”

Women are biggest victims

Aisha Obi, speaking at the Okigwe Central Mosque, Imo State, points out “We have learnt to live with the intimidation, the frustration and the insults. Sometimes when you are on the streets, wearing the hijab, which is mandatory for Muslim women, people will call you masquerade, slave and saboteur. At times I feel like leaving the religion. It’s not easy practicing Islam here.”

She confesses “When you are in a vehicle somebody will say, ‘I and this Hausa person cannot stay in the same vehicle.’ Another will rise and say, ‘I don’t want somebody to use a bomb to kill me here.’ They believe that because we are wearing hijab, we are working for the Hausa. If a little thing happens, you will find them threatening to eliminate us.”

Obi dwells on related matters “We have been enduring a lot. They say if we don’t leave Biafra, when the Biafra war comes, we would be the first to be killed.

“The women are the biggest victims because of the dress code of our religion. They will say, ‘She is Hausa. This country cannot allow you to stay here; go to your own country.’”

Imam Suleiman Njoku decries the deep seated marginalisation of Igbo muslims
Imam Suleiman Njoku decries the deep-seated marginalisation of Igbo Muslims

I don’t belong

“I feel that I don’t belong to the state, or even to the local government, because of the way Muslims are treated,” recalls Daud Nwagui in Afikpo. He remembers a day when Muslim girls in the community were sent home from a secondary school because of a disagreement over the hijab.

Nwagui reasons, “A Christian should not be against the veil, because Christianity preaches modesty. Anywhere you see a painting of Mary, you see her veiled. Anywhere you see a reverend sister, you always see her veiled.”

Secret Muslims

Suleiman Njoku, the Chief Imam of Owerri, Imo State capital, speaks on recent converts to Islam “There are some secret Muslims in Imo. Because of persecution, some of them have been hiding their identity as Muslims. I noticed this when I became the imam as many of them were not coming out. This was about a year ago. They were of both sexes and they could have been up to a hundred in number. In the past, fresh converts to Islam used to be killed, or they were eliminated by poisoning. Many had to run away from here.”

Njoku notes that Section 38 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution guarantees freedom of worship and that there was therefore no justification for anyone to ask about an individual’s religious preference.

He indicates that some imams in the state have also come across secret Muslims who hid their identities and said their prayers in secret to avoid being lynched by their neighbours and relatives.

Zainab Igwe is one such closet Muslims in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State. She became a Muslim but hid this fact from her family, friends and neighbours. When her father found out, he immediately halted all financial support to her.

Igwe mentions that two other fresh converts in Abakaliki recently had to revert to Christianity, as a result of pressure from their families.

Isa Okonkwo, the Director of the Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies, Afikpo,  had to go underground at a point “Before I accepted Islam, I was a Catholic; I was a mass servant. When the story went round the town that I had become a Muslim, for three years I could not come out. I heard that I was declared wanted. I was in seclusion; avoiding everybody because of the threats that were coming to me from every angle. This is the same story you are told by fresh converts in this part of the country. At this stage of my life people still insult me when they get to know that my name is Isa Okonkwo. They say that the combination is not possible. I have to struggle to explain to them why I am Isa, as well as Okonkwo.”

It’s called hijab

Sheikh Haroun Ajah, a Commissioner with the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) sheds light on the difficulties Igbo Muslim women go through “The situation affects women so much. Women wear the hijab because a Muslim woman does not want to show her precious parts before the public. Her body is precious and there is a prescription of the kind of dress they ought to wear. It’s called hijab.

“However, somebody will come forward and ask why you are wearing this. Some of them who are not strong may choose to go half naked as the society wants. People are persecuted for wearing hijab. People are going about naked, and some people are trying to protect their precious parts, and you are against it.”

Central Mosque Alor-Agu. The Community is famous for its population of indigenous Igbo Muslims
Central Mosque Alor-Agu. The Community is famous for its population of indigenous Igbo Muslims

No denial of rights

On the allegation by Igbo Muslims of neglect and marginalisation, Ngwoke who specialises in systematic theology, argues “There is no attack, no denial of rights anywhere in Igbo land. There are a few towns in this diocese that have significant Muslim populations. They are able to practice their faith without let or hindrance.”

However, Ugwuanyi points out “Whenever our Igbo brothers see a woman wearing hijab, they will ask whether she is Igbo. Some Muslims have had to revert to Christianity because of hardship, which affects feeding, clothing and access to basic things. Some Igbo Muslims have even had to revert to the traditional religion.”

Equal opportunities in Enugu

Bala Ardo, a former Special Adviser (SA) to the Enugu State Governor on Inter-Community Affairs, posits “Igbo Muslims who happen to be indigenes of Enugu are qualified to apply for any vacancy without any hindrance or discrimination. As far as the state government is concerned, there are equal opportunities for all natives of the state without any discrimination.”

Government not aware of discrimination

On the allegation of discrimination in respect of religion, Ardo comments “The state government is not aware of such. Remember, the Igbo as a people are not known to discriminate against their fellow Igbo brothers simply because of religious belief. People can disagree over belief, but this should not be translated into discrimination. The Muslim Igbo instead should educate their fellow Igbo brothers about Islam.”

Allegations completely false – Imo gov’s aide

In Imo State, Nwamkpa Modestus, the Senior Special Assistant (Print Media) to Governor Hope Uzodinma, while dismissing the allegations made by Igbo Muslims, adds “Ironically, Governor Hope Uzodinma is even being accused of being too pro-Muslims in Imo.”

Modestus responds, “It is completely false to allege that Muslims are being discriminated against. In Imo under Governor Hope Uzodinma, Muslims are not discriminated against in any way. I am from Imo and I can tell you that this is the first time I am hearing that Muslims are being discriminated against, or that they are being described as masquerades because of the wearing of hijab.”

Freedom of religion guaranteed – Falana

Renowned civil rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), argues “The constitution provides that everybody is entitled to freedom of thought, freedom of religion. Once official impunity is institutionalised in any country, the rights of citizens are routinely violated, and what citizens are supposed to do is to get organised, collaborate with human rights bodies in order to have their rights protected. In this situation, the media also has a duty to expose the violations of the rights of the Nigerian people.”

However, Falana laments “Is there anywhere in this country where people are not discriminated against on the basis of religion? It is the fault of government which does not respect the rights of citizens generally.”

By Tadaferua Ujorha who was in South East, Kaduna, Nasarawa & Niger states

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