Kneeling for Imams of Northern Nigeria

Kneeling for Imams of Northern Nigeria

By Lasisi Olagunju   

A minister suffered severe abuse and reprimand from the elites of the North last week because she asked the North to choose mass education first before mass marriage.

 Sixty-four years after independence, we are still struggling to understand Nigeria’s Muslim North and its ways.

 A 1950 letter to the editor of Gaskiya, northern Nigeria’s preeminent Hausa newspaper, should tell us something about the mystery of the region.

The letter appeared in the newspaper’s number 391 of 8 March, 1950 on page 2.

It reads:

“To the Editor – I beg to lay this complaint before you, so that you may approach the Sultan in order that I may achieve my desire.

I am of slave descent, belonging to one of the families of court slaves. Both my father and mother were slaves of a certain emir.

My mother’s name is Munayabo, and my father’s Ci-wake. A well-to-do man has fallen in love with me, and I love him too, but he has got four wives already. For this reason, we find it difficult to make arrangements for living together. I asked a learned mallam, who told me to ask my father’s consent first, according to Islamic law, and also that of the authorities. If they agree to the proposal, I can become his concubine, Islamic law allows it.

 This is what the mallam told me. Well, Mr. Editor, my father, Islamic law, I myself and the rich man have agreed, only the authorities remain. May they agree to make proper arrangements for me so that I may be allowed into the harem of the man. My father’s and my mother’s names show that I really belong to a family of former slaves.

“I believe there are quite a number of girls such as me in the North. We have found that if girls in our position were allowed by the authorities, as is permitted by the law, to live as concubines in the harems of princes and well-to-do and important officials, the number of prostitutes who walk the streets would be reduced considerably.

In this way, it may be possible for some of us to give birth to children who will one day be useful to the country. In this way, I may give birth to a son who may even one day become an emir. This will be better than our walking about in the towns and giving birth to children without proper fathers. Our religion permits it, but it is the authorities that are closing the door against us. I am sure that if the authorities allowed it, certain great houses in the North would accommodate thousands of us.

“Mr. Editor, I have given you a full explanation. We have come to an agreement with the said rich man, and are only waiting for the consent of the authorities on behalf of the Sultan. I wish you would lay my statement, as set out here, before the authorities and not allow room for destructive criticism.

 I should like the critics to understand that it is not my father who is trying to sell me into slavery. It is at my own free will that I desire to live in a big harem with a man who has already got four wives. I adjure you by Allah, Mr. Editor, to publish this letter so that I may get a reply and permission from the authorities.

I got the above letter from Joseph Schacht’s ‘Islam in Northern Nigeria’, published in Studia Islamica, 1957, No. 8. The author said the signatory of the letter was “a well-educated young girl who had passed with distinction through the modern Government College for Girls.”

Note that the letter was not written in the 19th century. It was written a few years before independence.

For better or for worse, a lot has shifted since that letter was composed. I do not think girls are still born over there into ‘slavery’ and thus have to beg to be allowed to marry. What I know (and everybody knows) is that the North routinely stages mass weddings for hordes of nameless girls and ladies. Are they children of slaves?

I am a Muslim from southern Nigeria and each time strange things happen in the North in the name of Islam, I exchange glances of surprise with my brothers here. Schacht (1902-1969), the author of ‘Islam in Northern Nigeria’, was a British-German professor of Arabic and Islam at Columbia University in New York.

He was the leading Western scholar on Islamic law. In that article, he said the Muslims of our North whom he saw in 1957 “form a very isolated community.” He wrote that “most of their isolation is voluntary and intentional” and that “they are generally afraid of being contaminated by modern ideas, and particularly by the non-Islamic South.” I strongly believe they still prefer their isolation from “modern ideas” and from the South. And we are still in the same country.

I am being very careful choosing my words as I write this. I have written some paragraphs and cancelled them because I am, like the girls of Niger State, an orphan with no capacity for self-defence. But it would appear that northern Nigeria’s biggest business today is mass wedding and mass production of children.

After child-making, it has religion, very economically lucrative political religion. With this combo, it wrecks itself and stunts the country, and sows contagious poverty across the land. I hope no one is going to contest these.

I will be shocked if you did not follow last week’s big fight between the Minister of Women Affairs, Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye, and the northern elite led by imams from Niger State.

The woman offended the North because she said no to a plan to shell out 100 orphaned girls to some randy men in a mass wedding. And because of that, press conferences and acid rains of sermons poured across the swarthy region on Friday. They said the ‘condescending’ female minister from the South overstepped her bounds.

They said it was their religious culture to assist female orphans to solve their problems by marrying them off en masse, so that they can multiply and fill the earth with children. They did not tell us if their culture has plans only for the girls while male orphans are left to roam the street as Almajirai.

The image a mass-wedding evokes in me is that of tethered rams at sallah markets. Or, more appropriately, a mass of what slave merchants called dabukia (female with plump breasts) and farkhah (female with small breasts) in mid-19th century Sokoto, Kano and Katsina slave markets.

I have read some defences for the botched mass wedding of Niger State. Some said the girls and their families begged for it and the speaker paid as a man of God. Let us assume the girls truly begged for the weddings, couldn’t their helper just give the ‘help’ without the humiliation of a mass sale?

Yet, it is said that the loud mass weddings we see in the North are followed almost immediately by quiet mass divorces. Yusuf M. Adamu and Rabi Abdulsalam Ibrahim, both of Bayero University, Kano, did a seminal work on what they call “The rashness of divorce in Hausa society.”

In their ‘Spheres, Spaces and Divorcees in Zawarawa: A Hausa movie (2018)’, quoting Solivetti (1994:252), they say Hausa Muslim society has “one of the highest rates of divorce and remarriage in the world.”

 It is also in that piece that I see a raw passage on commodification of marriage in Hausa land. A character in the movie exclaims: “The prices of things in Nigeria are rising, especially crude oil, gold and diamond. The prices are rising.

But why has the value of women fallen so low? (Tattalin arziki ya na ta tashi a Nijeriya, musamman ma na man fetur da gwalagwalai da lu’ulu’u. kullum dada hauhawa su ke. Amma farashin mata, ya a ke ya fadi wanwar?).”

Read the various defences in support of the controversial mass weddings in Niger State. Do a character assessment of the suitors, especially the two said to have assisted their in-laws to pay ransom but now want “marriage without delay or their money back.” Have the angry Imams and mallams asked what kind of husbands those ones will be?

Nigeria is a composite of contradictions; what is poison in the south is sweet sauce in the north. The Ovimbundu (Bantu) people of Southern Africa say that the mist of the coast is the rain of the desert. In the place where I come from, mass children are interpreted as mass misery (omo beere, òsì beere). We also warn that marriage is easy to contract, what about soup money?

Mass weddings were conducted yesterday, last year and in the last decade in the North. What happened to them? Where are the benefits beyond their adding to the hardship of the destitute? Where I come from, we say a mother does not feel the weight of her baby (omo kìí wúwo l’éhìn ìyá è).  But the trunk of the North’s elephant is, by choice, made a burden for it to carry.

 The North’s way of life hurts where I come from – Western Nigeria. I am not the only one who has this thought. While the southern bird avoids waters that degrade the girl-child, the duck of the North preens and bathes in it. Embarrassing stories such as of this mass weddings stuff are so common with northern political and religious leaders. A hail of threats against counter views comes common too. And when they happen, questions are asked down south about the sense in sharing this Nigerian complex.

‘Season of Migration to the North’, described by a reviewer as a “sensual work of deep honesty and incandescent lyricism”, is a 1966 novel by Sudanese novelist, Tayeb Salih.

Its setting should have been northern Nigeria. Forced marriage is part of that story. And, in that story, we hear the voice of Hosna bint Mahmoud promising “like the blade of a knife” that “if they force me to marry, I’ll kill him and kill myself.” And, she does just that. Such involuntary, fatal nuptials are routinely tied in our North. They always do it. We will always beg them to stop because their way hurts us.

The people I am begging here are the real kabiyesis of the North – the Imams and the mallams. They make the rules and reign as the lords of the north-west, the north-east and parts of the north-central. But, will they listen and stop? They will not. They are what the Yoruba call kò níí gbà, omo elétíkunkun. And we won’t keep quiet.

Nigeria is an unending struggle against conscientious ignorance. The fundamentalism that rules Afghanistan has its professors in northern Nigeria. It is not edifying to faith. Read again the letter I started this article with. Pre-independence northern Nigeria had what was called ‘Fight Against Ignorance Committee’.

There is no need to ask what the result of that initiative was. If the committee succeeded, the North would not have the world’s largest number of out-of-school-children; it would not attack a minister for asking it to choose education over marriage; banditry and terrorism and mass poverty would not be the region’s stable staple.

So, when we ask the elite of the North to drop their bad ways, it is not because we hate them and their North. No. It is because we benefit from the Hausa wisdom that emphasises peace over pie: “it is easy enough to find food but hard to get away to a place where you can eat it in peace (Ba samu’n abinchi ke da wuya, wurinda zaka chishi ke da wuya)”. We live in the same house with the North, and while doing so, we strongly believe that we deserve our peace.

That was why that woman minister from the south, Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye, tore the North’s mass-wedding scroll and insisted on Nigeria adding real value to the lives of those 100 hapless girls.

 It is the reason I wrote this.

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