Tribute to the Chief (but not the last) Imam (1)

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J.K. Randle

On Monday, October 2, 2017, in the early hours, without any warning, Lagos was suddenly under siege from rain, thunder and lightning of sufficient dosage to provide a cause for alarm and speculation that what would follow might be a hurricane or tornado.

Then, came the signal from heaven at precisely the hour when the Eighth Day Fidau for the late Chief Imam of Lagos, Sheikh Garuba Ibrahim Akinola, would commence. Suddenly, everything calmed down in accordance with the divine intervention and command of the Almighty.

For the uninitiated, it was a miracle but for the true believers it was just another confirmation of the faithfulness of the Lord of all and mighty Creator that the gates of heaven had been opened to receive the soul and spirit of the Chief Imam who preferred to be known simply as the Servant of God.

Yes, he was a servant alright; but he was also a master and embodiment of the finest attributes of Lagosians – humility; compassion; kindness; generosity and above all, uprightness and probity.

He was indeed a role model to many – Muslims and Christians alike. Without question, he was a magnet in his own uniquely quiet way – always radiating peace and warmth. He was never flustered. His gait and footsteps were advertisement of his self-assurance and confidence that his life on earth was just a prelude to something and somewhere much greater – just a rehearsal.

His place in heaven at the feet of the Almighty was assured by his long years of devotion and service; and on the final day, he must have ticked all the boxes and passed all the subjects/ criteria with distinction.

The last time I saw the late Chief Imam was after the Jumat prayers which he had just concluded when special prayers were held to mark the anniversary of the demise of Alhaji (Chief) Alade Odunewu who had been a pillar of the Lagos Central Mosque.

He looked very frail but he would not shirk his duties. As he was being helped into his car, he gave me and others who had gathered around him a sign that meant “peace be unto you”. He could barely speak but he managed to whisper: “We pray for peace in Lagos and in our entire nation.”

For as long as I can remember, the doors of the Lagos Central Mosque have always been open to both Muslims and non-Muslims for prayers – births/birthdays; marriages; deaths; and special occasions such as coronation of the Oba of Lagos; installation of a new Imam; Nigeria’s Independence Day etc. Most of the families whose houses are directly behind the mosque (especially the late Alhaji Murtala Egbebi), or opposite/beside the shops next to the mosque are our family friends and relations. Being Muslim or Christian (or whatever) has never been an issue. Within the same houses or compounds, different faiths live together and have done so happily for ages. Nobody has ever bothered to carry out the census of marriages between adherents of different faiths or those who were born Muslims but converted to Christianity or vice versa.

Nobody batted an eyelid when in the 1950s, the Lagos Muslim Cricket Club was the darling of cricket fans. As for football, Christians versus Muslims was a major event in the sporting calendar. Indeed, on one occasion, the Gbajabiamila twins (Kehinde and Taiwo) played against each other in the cup final – one played for the Christians and the other was in the Muslim team. Neither was disowned by their family!

As for the Nigerian National Football team, the star performer was “Thunder” Teslim Balogun, a Muslim who played at centre-forward while the backbone of the team was Dan Anyiam, a Christian, who was like a fortress at right full-back. Typically, on Wednesday, they would be fierce competitors in the Muslims versus Christians match but come Saturday, they would be on the same side (in the same club e.g. PWD; Marine; Railways etc. or in the Nigeria versus Gold Coast (Ghana) match).

It was no big deal when Mashood Akanbi, a devout Muslim, became House Prefect, and School Captain at Igbobi College, Yaba (a Christian school jointly owned by the Methodist Church and the Anglican Church). During Ramadan, special arrangements were made for him to perform his prayers and also break his fast in accordance with Muslim rites. At St. Gregory’s College, Obalende (a staunchly Catholic School), Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi, a Muslim who is now His Majesty Oba Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi III, the Alaafin of Oyo, was the undisputed boxing champion. Not many people know that the Alaafin of Oyo and Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, the former Archbishop of Lagos, are first cousins. Chief Adebowale Durosaiye Akande, SAN, was also at St. Gregory’s College. He enrolled as Yahaya Akande but changed his name and converted to Catholicism of his own free will. His wife, Professor Jadesola Akande, SAN, was a Christian. Also at St. Gregory’s College Kayode Erogbogbo became the Senior Prefect regardless of his religion. He was a staunch Muslim.

As for Chief Akin Disu, who is still very much a Muslim, he lived as a student at the C.M.S. (Church Missionary Society) Grammar School in Lagos in the residence of the School Principal/ Headmaster, Bishop Kale. He shared the same room (and bed) with a Christian, Chief Ernest Adegunle O. Shonekan, a former Head of State.

Over at Baptist Academy, Lagos, the late Molade Okoya-Thomas was actually a Muslim but there was no doubt about his sporting prowess on the football pitch or the athletics field. Indeed, the school’s formidable 4×100 yards relay quartet was made up of Okoya-Thomas, S.D. Shittu and two others who were also Muslims! No problem whatever. It was long after he had left school that Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas converted to Catholicism with uncommon passion. He was a captain of industry in addition to being the Asoju Oba of Lagos.

Also, Alhaji Musiliu Anibaba, a former President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria and the late Alhaji Kafaru Tinubu, a former Commissioner of Police, and later Minister of Health, were classmates at Methodist Boys High School, Broad Street, Lagos. They were not obliged to convert from being Muslims to Christians.

It was the same story with the girls. Alhaja Lateefa Okunnu (nee Oyekan and a former Deputy Governor of Lagos State), a Muslim, attended both Methodist Girls’ High School and Queen’s College, Yaba. She was not under any obligation to convert to Christianity.

Time and space will not permit us to dwell on the vast number of “mixed” marriages – Christians married to Muslims. However, one of the most remarkable was that of the late Chief Gaffar K. Animashaun (“Lucky GK”) who died a little over a year ago. His father, a Muslim, was the head of the Ansar-ud-Deen Society of Nigeria while his wife, Chief (Mrs.) Yetunde Animashaun, was the daughter of the Vicar of St. Patrick Church, Lafiaji. He later became a Bishop. The take-away is that the marriage was blissful and flourished for over 40 years. As for their children, they are free to choose between Islam and Christianity.

We shall require the services of those who are experts in the appropriate sciences to delineate and decipher the complex social tapestry of those whose family houses (and roots) are in the immediate environs of the Lagos Central Mosque. I have always been intrigued by the lattice of their DNAs and distinct social/ anthropological landscape.

Those who were at school with me happily bore a combination of both Christian and Muslim names and there was no way you could discern their religious preference or disposition. They are still illustrious names – Ariyo; Smith; Oluwa; Johnson; Doherty; Adewale; Kekere-Ekun; Oki; Jones; Thompson; Meadows; Ligali; Raheem; Rahman; Alli; Shitta; Dabiri; Iginla; Usman; Anifowose; Abina; Layeni; George; Wilson; Mcfoy; Augusto; Martins; Thomas; Oni Gbarago; Oni Orisan; Akinsemoyin; Giwa; Balogun; Ojikutu; Fuja; Kuti; Akinsiku; Gbajumo; Dawodu; Lawal; Williams; Jinuaid; Jinudu; Oseni etc.

What was a great thrill in those days was the dazzling spectacle of the two Ojikutu brothers on their way from Idumagbo Avenue, on Fridays, to the Lagos Central Mosque for Jumat prayers. They were on horseback bedecked in shimmering robes and intimidating turbans. On their way back from the mosque, they would stop at the homes of their Christian friends just to wave their flywhisk or horsewhip as a gesture of goodwill and blessings from Allah – to be shared with all and sundry.

It was even grander if they were preparing to make their annual pilgrimage to Mecca or were returning from the Holy Land. We used to skip school just to follow their horses while we chanted: “Alhaji to re Mecca” (The pilgrim is on the way to or returning from Mecca).

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