Johannesburg — Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo have thanked a Muslim cleric whose heroism earned him the International Religious Freedom Award from the U.S. State Department in its first ceremony to honor extraordinary advocates of religious freedom from around the world.
In the 17 July ceremony in Washington D.C., Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented Imam Abubakar Abdullahi, who on 23 June 2018 risked his life during clashes that targeted predominantly Christian communities when he hid hundreds of people fleeing the attacks inside his mosque and home. Before the Imam left for the United States, Osinbajo received him at State House in Abuja, along with community leaders and international diplomats. The president, through a spokesperson, said that "a Nigerian national has written his name in gold in the international arena and his deeds will resonate wherever and whenever there are discussions on religious tolerance, cordiality between Christians and Muslims in the country and around the world".
A comment published in Daily Trust said the Imam should be first on a list for a Nigerian national award "for shielding 262 Berom Christians in his house and mosque in June last year when herdsmen launched a bloody attack on 10 villages in Barkin Ladi, Plateau State. Against the false narrative of Islam and Christianity being two parallel lines that could never meet, Imam Abdullahi demonstrated compassion and uncommon humanity".
The 83-year-old Muslim cleric says on the day of the attacks around 3:30 pm, shortly after the mid-afternoon prayer, gunshots were heard some distance from his village of Yelwan Gindi Akwati. The intensity increased as the attackers got closer, and soon they were in his village.
Imam Abubakar, who is from the Hausa ethnic group, alongside his assistant Umar Abdullahi, who is Fulani, allowed hundreds of people fleeing attacks by suspected bandits in Yelwan Gindi Akwati, Swei and Nghar villages in the Barkin Ladi Local Government Area of Plateau to seek shelter in the mosque and Imam Abubakar Abdullahi's home. The two men went outside to plead with the attackers to spare the lives of those they were sheltering, during what Abubakar describes as an intense moment.
"Since the mosque was opened we allowed Muslims and Christians to come in for protection and also my home for shelter. We asked everyone to lie down to avoid being hit by flying bullets," he said during an interview with the U.S. Embassy. "The attackers had their faces covered, I kept pleading with them and I even started to cry and eventually they left."
After the attacks the people remained in his mosque where they shared meals together and they later moved to a displaced person's camp.
As a teenager Abubakar had wanted to join the army to fight in the Nigerian civil war, but his father objected, and after his death, Abubaker was appointed to be his successor. Though he cannot remember the exact day and year he was appointed as an imam, he says it must have been about 30 years ago.
He says he decided to help the fleeing people because for a long time he had been living in harmony and in peace with them as neighbours - they never had any problems with each other. He describes the experience as traumatising, saying that he could not sleep for at least a week after the attacks, but because of his strong faith and trust in God, he has been able to endure the shock and stress.
"The non-Muslim natives gave us the land in which the mosque is built because of the trust and understanding between us," he said.
He describes Christmas and Eid as a time to celebrate together, sharing food and gifts. Young people party together while the elders exchange visits.
The ongoing clashes between the country's Christians and Muslims has left thousands of people dead. Nigeria's 'Middle Belt' is also contending with violence between farmers and herders, and from kidnappers and cattle wrestlers .
According to Nigeria expert at the Council on Foreign Relations John Campbell, climate change and poor natural resource management contribute to some of these violence acts.
"As the Sahara expands, people have to travel further south, which brings them into conflict with farmers," Campbell says.
The escalating conflict between Nigerian herders and farmers has killed over 1,300 people since January 2018 and is said to have become more deadly than Boko Haram's insurgency.in the north of the country.
Imam Abdullahi says he continues to pray that God touches the hearts of those behind these attacks.
His message to peacemakers is that they should acknowledge that God created everyone differently.
"No one has a reason to question the existence of the other. We must embrace diversity as God created us and strive to live in peace anywhere in the world. If God wanted us to be the same he would have done so, but he brought us all together and mixed us together so that we can live in peace together. My main message is that we should all respect one another. Follow the rules and be selfless advocates for peace. We have conflicts because people are greedy and self-centered which leads to conflicts and causes destruction."
AllAfrica's reporting on peacebuilding is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.