The Director, Islamic Centre, School of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Anofia, Afikpo, Ebonyi State, Mallam Isa Friday Okonkwo, was a former Director of Administration of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA).
He told Daily Trust how the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) used the #EndSARS protests to attack Igbo Muslims at the centre and the region. He also spoke on how they were ‘caged’ at the centre for days at the height of the crisis.
Before the #EndSARS, let me take us back to 2017, when one of our brothers, who used to be a Muslim, and by name Muhammed Nbono, submitted the names of about 26 Muslims in Igbo land to the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as those sabotaging the interest of having their country and thereby marking them for death.
For over a year, there were threat calls coming to all of us from all over the world, from members of IPOB. But after some time, it stopped.
During the #EndSARS protests, the names were re-published on their Facebook pages and the calls resumed. Daily, we get up to three calls from strangers, threatening to destroy us. So, this is on one side. On the other side is this Islamic Centre in Afikpo, which is a unique Islamic school in the eastern part of the country and the whole country.
It has been in existence since around 1953 and it took a new shape in 1983 and from 1983 until date, it has always been graduating scholars from that part of the country.
It is also important to mention that in 2003, there was an attempt to bomb this place. They came and raided the place. Eventually, the destruction was not too much.
So, this time around, they send messages after messages that they will be coming to attack the Islamic Centre. So, all this while there were protests, we have been living in fear. I could be attacked as the person of Isa Okonkwo and the centre could be attacked as the Islamic Centre.
What was your experience during the #EndSARS protests?
We were under siege throughout the protests. We could not even go out. We were in the school with all the students and there were about 300 student boarders from different parts of the country. We could not move anywhere.
So, when the threat was getting too much, we attracted the attention of the IGP, the director of DSS and even later, the governor of the state. That was when we started to have security agencies coming to protect us in the school. So, we first had some policemen who came to stay with us in the school. Later, the GOC of 82 Division instructed the commanding officer of Nkwangu Cantonment and they sent about seven soldiers. So, both the police and seven soldiers are presently with us on the school premises, 24 hours of every day.
How then are the students and the teachers feeling coming to the school to study with policemen and soldiers around?
It was when we saw the policemen that we even felt comfortable to teach and learn. It was so horrible when they were not there. Let me tell you one shocking incident that happened. The chief of the village used to park his cars in the compound of this school because of the cordial relationship between us and the village. So, at a stage, the chief decided to remove his cars. So, I asked the driver, why the sudden removal. He said that the chief said that IPOB is going to attack any moment from now. And that they said that the director is the first they will make sure they eliminate, so, he didn’t want his cars to be damaged because they could mistake his cars for the director’s.
So, you did not receive any support from the people that you are living with as neighbours or did you think this was something beyond them?
When the chief of the village removed his vehicles from the school, we didn’t want to wait for anybody else to tell us it is the right time we looked for security, because from the chief’s statement, which I will later confirmed, it was obvious that the last man that was supposed to protect us is the one running from being attacked or being mistaken for the director.
How many Muslims are in the area and what is the population of all the people?
The village is over 30 per cent Muslim. I cannot say for sure what the population is, but for sure, I think it is the second-highest population of Muslims within a locality in Igboland. After Nsukka, the next is that village, Afikpo. I am talking of indigenous Muslims, who are the citizens of the area.
What are your plans now, considering that the protests have subsided but the tension is still there?
We have a kind of think tank from the Eastern part of the country as Muslims. I have presented this to them. I am one of them, we have a series of meetings on how to intervene.
We have written letters to the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), intimating them of our problems; we have written letters to the IG of Police, to the DG of DSS, the National Assembly. We have also written letters to all the five governors of the south-eastern region.
So, we are planning to address a press conference. But we don’t have the press here in the east. So, we were thinking of coming to Abuja to do that, to let people know how we are living. Because the Americans will always say that the Christians are being victimized in Nigeria. When, they are the ones dealing with every other part of this country, but nobody tells our story, nobody hears us even when we want to shout. So, we are planning to go out and do the shouting. I am one of those persons that used my contacts to reach out to so many places and they started narrating our case.
We also intend to write to the Ohanaeze Ndigbo that have always vilified the Muslims in the east, so they would note what is going on.
They close their eyes as if they don’t know what is going on. So, we also intend to officially write to them. We also intend to write CAN in the eastern part of the country. So that all this will be on the record. So, some of us are planning to have a congress of all the Igbo Muslims all over the world.
But because of fear, we would not want to have a congress where we could all be wiped out at a time. So, these are just some of the thoughts and activities we are having presently.
But IPOB wanted to establish a country for the Igbos and you are Igbo, why do you think they are attacking you then?
People are mistaken their antics. It is not a tribal war. It is a religious war. They claim they are using is that of Biafra and the main actors of the Biafran Civil War were majorly Christians from the north. People like Yakubu Gowon. Today Yakubu Gowon is a chief in the east with red carpet reception because he is a Christian. T. Y. Danjuma is a chief in the east with red carpet reception because he is a Christian. Now, we have never said we are in support of Biafra, or we are against it, so why must we be the first target? It is just because we are Muslims, nothing else.
Now, the 26 names of the people they published to kill are all Muslims. They have never listed any pastor or reverend. What does that show you, it shows that if you are a Christian from the north, you are safe in the hands of Biafra; if you are Muslim from the east, you are unsafe in the hands of Biafra.
What message do you have for the politicians and the leaders in the region who are the ones that are supposed to protect you?
Our message to the federal, state and local governments in the region is that we are citizens of Nigeria, we are not foreigners, it is just by the design of our creator that we decided to profess a faith in a country that has a Constitution, which states that everybody is free to choose their association. We have chosen Islam as our religion and Allah as our God and we feel strongly that we have not committed any c crime by doing that. And they owe us the protection of our lives and properties.