Tahir Sherrif: Northern Clerics, Muslims & Boko Haram

About three years ago, I heard the news of a bomb blast at Madalla. Newspapers, radio and television broadcasts carried the shocking story of a bomb which had gone off exactly after a Christmas day service. For me, a series of Facebook status updates condemning the act and some discussion with friends that Boko Haram had begun giving Muslims in Nigeria a bad name.

Two days ago, I sat in front of two people. One, Mr, Ugochukwu a trader in Madalla market who had lost one of his eyes in the blast and the second one was functioning at around 55%. The second person Lucy Unyi had completely lost one of her legs in the blast. It was amputated because her family did not have enough money for an alternative solution at the time she was undergoing treatment.

Lucy said at first she thought that I was a member of an NGO sent to distribute aids or donate money to victims of the blast and that she wanted to inform whoever would come around that since the blast she has been unable to secure a job, and this was because of her leg. She mentioned that she came all the way from Suleja (some 15minutes drive Niger state) when she was informed we were coming to ensure she was present.

Over 30 other people sat in waiting, and they shared the same thoughts as Lucy. With all the courage I could muster, I went over to them and explained that I was stringing for an international media agency and I needed just four people with whom I planned to do a story about their lives after such a tragic event. They thanked me, and remained.

Vitalis Ugokwe explained to me in vivid description how he was holding a gallon of fuel for a customer when the bomb went off and he incurred severe burns leaving him completely unable to use his both hands. Onoja Sunday told me how it felt like a dream when his car somersaulted twice while on fire and landed in front of the church.

I stood in front of the church, i imagined myself standing with friends and families on Christmas day. I pictured a bomb blast. People Screaming, others running, children crying, cars burning and the voice of Kabir Sokoto over the noise of the chaos shouting, Yayi kiau (that’s good in Hausa) and I almost started crying.

Walking back to the church premises, I was stopped in front of the gate by a woman who kept shouting “My son!!! My Son!!”. When I walked over she said in hushed tones.

“My son, please don’t neglect me. My son was about your age when the bomb blast killed him. He was just 27years old. I lost my husband over 10 years ago. I am a double widow, please don’t leave me”

I knew like the others she also felt compelled not to miss out of whatever it was the event may yield. I knew instantly that she could not remain cool and let what may seem like an opportunity pass her by.

“Mama, calm down. I am here for you” I intentionally lied. I knew no other way of allaying her fears. I felt cheap, I felt dirty, the Madalla bomb blast up on till that exact moment had simply been another of those ‘sad news’ to me.

“My son, after my husband died, Peter became my backbone. He was my hand, my feet my eyes. He was my only support in the world. He did not want to come to church that day, I begged him. I told him he had to pray specially about unemployment. I made him come. I killed my son”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I held her hands, they were shaking, she was crying also. She complained about the government officials who came around and yet failed to fulfill their promises. She said she had no place to go.

“This Muslim people are so heartless, they have ruined my life” she said. I was dumbfounded. I imagined telling her my full name was Mohammed Tahir Sherriff and that I was Muslim.

After collecting her number and making a promise to call her again, I walked towards the Parish Priest Reverend Father Rapheal Imole. I told him that I was a Muslim and that being in the premises and talking with the survivors made me feel partly guilty for what had taken place. He listened calmly at first then replied to me.

“Young man, I spent over 14years in Sokoto state, a part of Nigeria now known as Kebbi state, I have Muslim friends. You are not the problem. The problem I think is largely a failure of the Muslim clerics in northern Nigeria. They failed to do their job and now we are paying the price. We are being condemned for our faith.”

He led me to the grave site where the victims had been buried; he explained that the vehicles had been painted with anti-rust agent to keep it memorable. He showed me the graves of the 26 people out of the 42 killed, whose families allowed their burial inside the church.

On the wall, in sequence, I saw the names.

2. Dike Lillian 10years.
3. Dike Emmanuel 4years.
4. Dike Richard 6years.

Three kids in one family, all gone. Their only crime being that they came to church on Christmas day.  I thought hard. How would I feel if a bomb went off at the national mosque on Salah day and hear afterwards that a radical Christian group had claimed responsibility? How would I feel, going to church every Friday with a fear at the back of my mind that this may be my last service?

I thought slowly, and deeply with Father Raphael’s words playing slowly in the background. I knew what he meant, there was no denying it. Muslim clerics in Northern Nigeria had really failed at their responsibilities, they had failed northern Nigeria. They failed to build the necessary platforms for social and political integration. They left the daily growing masses in the northern region at the mercy of self interest seeking political office holders, and by so doing, they contributed the most in the creation of the menace Boko Haram.

I cannot sit here and say that Boko haram is not part of our Islamic teachings, even though I know otherwise. I cannot even start arguing that these guys are not Muslims or deny the semi-conscious involvement of Muslim leaders in northern Nigeria. Not when Boko Haram like its predecessor Maitatsine began from the pre-dominantly northern region, not when most of its members chant Allahu Akbar and also observe Salat in congregation, not especially when churches, and Christian communities are a significant percentage of its attacks.

Today, as I write, over 200 girls have been held captive for over 45days by Boko Haram, and over 4,000 have died from its 5year campaign of violence. I have but only one view and this is mine alone. If Muslim communities in northern Nigeria had provided a sustainable platform for mutual integration, we won’t be where we are today. Yes, Boko Haram is a Nigerian problem, but most of all, we must begin to accept hat it is also a problem of Islamic communities in northern Nigeria, a Muslim problem.

Article written by Tahir Sherrif from Abuja


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