As Alhaji Abdulkadir A. Obiahu strolls down the road, those who know him address the new chief as Igwe, in reverence. And, though he is not a king, the Chief takes it in his stride; he, in a way, has just become a sort of king: he has been conferred with a chieftaincy title.
On Saturday November 17, the Eze Igbo 1 of Abuja, His Royal Highness Eze Nwosu Ibe, conferred on Alhaji Abdulkadir the chieftaincy title of Onye Nchekwa Okwukwe Ala Kuba Na Ala Igbo, that is, the Defender of the Islamic Faith in Igbo Land. To Alhaji Abdulkadir, the significance of the occasion went beyond just installing him as a member of the Supreme Council of Igbo Traditional Rulers; it was, according to him, the first time a Muslim is given such an honour in the whole of Igbo land.
It was also a sign that, finally, Muslims are being publicly acknowledged and given pride of place among the Igbo people: "[With this] chieftaincy title, my people have recognised me as a perfect Muslim, if at all there can be someone like that", Alhaji Abdulkadir told Sunday Trust.
The chieftaincy title will also, in the words of Alhaji Abdulkadir, afford him the unprecedented opportunity "to be received and welcomed by my Igbo people in the name of preaching".
The Igbo people, Alhaji Abdulkadir believed, have finally decided to accept the reality of the existence of Islam because they realised that it cannot be wished away. "What they told me is that as Christianity will not finish in Nigeria, Islam will not finish, the best they can do is to recognise the Igbo Muslims".
The recognition was also received warmly by others beside the Igbo community as, according to the Onye Nchekwa Okwukwe Ala Kuba Na Ala Igbo, thousands of people from all over the country and abroad attended the conferment ceremony. More importantly, the occasion marked the first time "we shouted Allahu Akbar in the midst of Igbo people".
Islam in Igbo land, Alhaji Abdulkadir said, used to be preached in secret because of the dislike the people displayed towards the religion and its followers. The Muslims, he said were not even employed by government: "Even in Afikpo, (Alhaji Abdulkadir's home town), where Islam has been practised since 1958, the government doesn't recognise them, doesn't employ them".
An engineer by training, Alhaji Abdulkadir said he used to be a Sunday school teacher before he embraced Islam about 25 years ago. "I embraced Islam on 15 May 1982", he said, adding that some of the people he taught in the Sunday school have also embraced Islam through him. "I proved to them that Islam is the religion whose foundation Allah laid right from the time of Adam".
As a result of his decision to embrace Islam, Alhaji Abdulkadir faced many problems. His wife and children were taken away from him, and he was virtually cut off from the society he lived in. "When I embraced Islam, my first wife was taken away. So also were my two children because, they said, a Muslim was a devil. My family denied me; in fact they took away all I had", he said.
He was, however, not fazed by this development. Rather he became more astute and dedicated himself not only to the new religion he has chosen but also to work to foster the understanding of its teachings among his people. "I knew that Allah would never disappoint me. When I had that problem, Alhaji (Abubakar) Mahmud Gumi told me that Islam is like a seed. If you plant it, and rain comes, it will germinate". In addition to that, he set aside 20 percent of his salary to help the cause of Islam in Igbo land.
"To get this far, 20 percent of my salary moves to Igbo land to help in the struggle for this cause", he told our reporter. It was because of this work that he has been recognised and honoured by his people.
"Today, in Ohanaeze Council, a Muslim is sitting there to discuss and contribute in matters affecting Igbos on behalf of Igbo Muslims.... When I attend meetings I'd say 'let's pray the Islamic way' and they would".
Alhaji Abdulkadir described the condition of the Muslim community in Igbo land as pitiful, saying "they are beggars; let me put it that way". He cited the condition of the Chief Imam of Owerri to drive home his point: "Others will come with their drivers but the Chief Imam of a whole state will enter a passenger bus". He however quickly discredited the practice whereby some people go round mosques begging, claiming that because they had embraced Islam, they were sent out of their homes or sacked from their jobs. "I don't encourage someone who says he is a Muslim looking for alms. No. Even the Prophet condemned that and said when you're hungry don't beg for food. Rather go to the bush and chop wood to sell and earn money. Islam doesn't condone laziness". Adding that "an Igbo man is born to struggle", he said that "Islam cannot make him to beg".
To the generality of Muslims, Alhaji Abdulkadir said when such people are seen, they should not be given money. Rather, they should be given Islamic books "because a proverb in Igbo land says 'if you see a goat running away, what you have to do is to look for a rope and tie it up so that it will not run away'". He also stated that when his attention is drawn to this type of people, he will be able to intervene to ascertain that the claimants have really converted to Islam or are just dupers.
The Defender of the Islamic faith also lamented that when the Ebonyi Muslim community pooled their resources and wanted to buy a building for their use, the then governor of the state, Sam Egwu, refused to give it to them. "I had to write letters to him and other Muslim governors and members of the National Assembly appealing to them to talk to him. We have not yet made contact with Governor Martin Elechi, but we are working towards that", he said.
He added, rather sadly: "If you go there and see how these people are being punished because they are Muslims, you'll sympathise with them".
Although he has been honoured as a result of the work he has been doing, Alhaji Abdulkadir was convinced that the honour was only an incentive to do more: "Allah will be happy with your being a Muslim, but what did you do for Islam to grow in Igbo land?"
Despite everything that has been done to frustrate the Muslims in Igbo land, Alhaji Abdulkadir said, their concern has always been to live in peace. And in this he has often played a prominent role: "I preach peace among the people, including the non-Muslims. I don't allow anybody to be cheated, whether he is a Muslim or not. And if anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, is fired in his place of work, I go and find out why. If they have a problem, I'll go and help them-their welfare is my concern. That's why they recognise me as Onye Nchekwa Okwukwe Ala Kuba Na Ala Igbo".
Alhaji Abdulkadir was confident that his chieftaincy title would be a boost to Islam. "We have the opportunity of acquiring land and building mosques in any part of Igbo land", he said enthusiastically. He continued: "We'll also have the opportunity of building Islamic schools in any part of Igbo land, if supported by Muslim brothers (in other parts of the country) and I believe they will [support us]".
Alhaji Abdulkadir was also hopeful that with the public acceptance of Muslims by the Igbos, one of them would soon be called upon to serve his country at the federal level. "There are enough Igbo Muslims who are qualified to hold any government position and I believe that, insha Allah, you'll soon see Igbo Muslims appointed ministers and permanent secretaries".
He however said that Igbo Muslims cannot achieve what they want to achieve, despite being accepted in the larger Igbo society, without the support of Muslims from other parts of the country. "I want my Muslim brothers to come together, since the Igbo people have given us this opportunity-to build mosques and schools-and go into the east, buy land and start building mosques and Islamic schools and preaching".