The claim by a young engineer, Sikiru Adebowale, that he was denied a job by the late promoter of the collapsed 21-storey building at Ikoyi, Femi Osibona on account of being a Muslim, has been weaponised by the Muslim Rights Council (MURIC) Director, Prof Ishaq Akintola.
To him, it is evidence of “the sufferings of Yoruba Muslims under their overbearing and selfish Christian overlords who want all political offices, all civil service vacancies, all teaching jobs, all construction works, etc. for Christians and Christians alone.”
Taking a cue from MURIC, other commentators have joined to denigrate the Yoruba people on what they consider religious intolerance, based on a false construct.
Yoruba people have never claimed exceptionalism when it comes to religious tolerance. Although I find the 2013 journal article, ‘The management of religious diversity in West Africa: The exceptionalism of the Wolof and Yoruba in the post-independence period’ by Dr Irene Osemeka of the University of Lagos, quite fascinating.
The dominant view, which is true, is that in Yorubaland, religion is not a predisposing factor when it comes to politics, business, or social interactions because there is hardly any family without adherents of both faiths.
For instance, there is still a generation in my village who would not know me until somebody reminds them that I am ‘omo Muni’ (Munirat’s son) because that is my late mother’s birth name as a Muslim before she became Felicia after marrying my father.
Although Osibona is no longer here to defend himself, I do not doubt the ‘testimony’ of Adebowale on the rejection that saved him from death in the collapsed building. But context is also important. It is possible that as at the time the interaction took place, Osibona might be playing to an audience, especially since Adebowale did not disclose the people who witnessed the drama.
But I am sure of one thing. On that same day that Adebowale was denied the job, if Alhaji Femi Okunnu (or Osibona’s friend, the Oluwo of Iwo) had sent two engineers who were Muslims, they probably would have been employed, even if it meant sacking some Christians to accommodate them! That is the way our elites work.
This is not to say there is no tension or competition between Muslims and Christians in Yorubaland. There are buried issues which explain the manner Adebowale was quickly absorbed by another company promoted by a Muslim.
In recent years, there has been a controversy around the wearing of Hijab and some Islamic leaders have complained about Muslims being marginalised in terms of appointments in a particular Southwest state.
I am also aware of the damage that might have been done to the psyche of Muslims who attended Christian Mission schools many decades ago and were conscripted into practices they considered alien to their own faith. These are issues that we should not gloss over and we can have meaningful conversations around them to facilitate better accommodation in Yorubaland.
However, as Simon Kolawole rightly pointed out in his last Sunday column, ‘Yoruba Muslims and Fifth Columnists’, until the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) campaigned for a ‘Christian’ to succeed Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN in Lagos in 2015, the politics of religion was largely muffled.
Simon cited several examples to buttress the spirit of accommodation that have for decades defined political interactions in Yorubaland, including the emergence in 1999 of a certain Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the candidate of the Alliance for Democracy (AD).
Although Simon concluded quite correctly that the Afenifere leaders who were predominantly Christians supported Tinubu, a Muslim, against Funsho Williams, a Christian, there is an important detail he missed. Five persons decided that outcome and by implication the governorship of Lagos in 1999.
They were Abraham Adesanya, Solanke Onasanya, Olanihun Ajayi, Ganiyu Olawale Dawodu (all now of blessed memory) and Ayo Adebanjo. As it would happen, Dawodu, the only Muslim among them, was the one who backed Williams while the ‘Ijebu Mafia’ quartet (all Christians) supported Tinubu!
I do not mind a healthy debate on the place of religion in Yorubaland and it is an issue that many scholars have interrogated. One of Nigeria’s foremost historians, the late Professor Isaac Akinjogbin, once argued that religion never defined Yoruba ethnic identity and inter-personal relationships essentially because there is no family tree that is purely Christian or Muslim.
In his 2015 Nigeria National Order of Merit (NNOM) lecture, ‘Bonds, Boundaries, and Bondage of Faith’, Harvard Professor, Jacob Olupona explored what he described as apparent contradiction in the Nigerian faith traditions, using the Yoruba worldview to explain his thesis.
Son of an Anglican priest, Olupona told a story that only Yoruba people can relate with. “In the early 1960s in my father’s church, the entire local community rejoiced and celebrated when the first Imam made the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), because it was considered an honour to have the first ‘Alhaji’ in their community.
The Imam’s extended family, mainly Christians, wanted to have a thanksgiving service in the Anglican church in celebration of this community honour. While this may seem incongruous to modern Nigerian sensibilities, this culturally pluralistic community—and indeed this was the case in many other locales in Yorubaland—saw the various religious systems as alternative traditions, to the extent that a devotee of one felt free to consult another.
The traditions engaged each other in meaningful, intellectual conversation and practical exchange, underscoring the cultural capital they represent for us.”
When Olupona and I spoke on phone yesterday and I told him what I was writing on, he said he had followed the debate but does not think it merits the attention many people give it.
“I would have been very worried if some of what I read were coming from highly respected Yoruba Muslim scholars like Prof Ishaq Oloyede, Deremi Abubakar or Amidu Sani. That would have disturbed me greatly. I am not worried about MURIC,” he said.
But I am worried about MURIC. Prof. Akintola presents himself as the voice of Islam in Yorubaland, at least within the public/intellectual space. It cannot be an accident that we only began to hear of him after the death of the former Secretary General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Dr AbdulLateef Oladimeji Adegbite.
If that is the vacuum Akintola wants to fill, then he needs to be more broad-minded. The legacy of the Seriki Musulumi and Baba Adini of Egbaland was a lifetime of promoting peace and harmony in Yorubaland and across Nigeria while standing for his faith. When Adegbite died in October 2012, I dedicated my column to him.
As I wrote in that piece, even when he had no hesitancy in proclaiming his Islamic faith for which he had no apology, Adegbite was not a man who would engage in loud professions of superior righteousness.
“But he earned the respect of many, including Christians like me, because he was honest, honourable and respected the rights of other people. This is being attested to by those who served with him in the inter religious council. The late Secretary General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs was a man of strong convictions.
“Yet he did not make merchandise of his religion, and his public interventions were usually devoid of the hypocrisy so commonly resorted to by many charlatans who play the politics of religion to command attention in our country, “
That piece will serve Prof Akintola and others who think like him in Yorubaland—whether they profess Christianity or Islam.