From Chijioke Agwu, Abakaliki
Enohia Itim in Afikpo North Local Government Area of Ebonyi State is the community with the highest number of Muslims in the entire South East. In addition to having three functional mosques, the community also hosts one of the most vibrant Muslim schools in Africa. The school is known as Centre for Islamic and Arabic Studies, Enohia Afikpo. It trains Muslim faithful in primary and secondary education. Apart from major emphasis on Islamic and Arabic studies, the school, like any other school, participates in the West African Examination Council (WAEC), National Examination Council (NECO) and other external examinations every year.
Daily Sun gathered that many Muslim families from different parts of the country prefer to send their children to the Afikpo Muslim School because of its reputation as one of the best Islamic schools in Africa.
History of the school
The Centre for Islamic and Arabic Studies was founded in 1958 by a son of the community, Sheik Ibraham Okpani Nwagui. He was said to have founded the centre upon his return from Senegal, where he embraced Islam. A member of the community, Hassan Uron, told Daily Sun that Nwagui embraced Islam in 1952 when he met a famous Muslim leader in Kaolack, Senegal, known as Sheik Ibrahim Nyias, whom he served for about five years before he returned to Nigeria. He was said to have died in his hotel room in Owerri in 1976, weeks after his appointment as Commissioner for Urban Development in the then Imo State Government. The death of Okpani affected the growth of the centre. It was gathered that the place remained redundant until 1981 when the Muslim World League came and took over the funding and management of the school, following an appeal made to them by members of the community.
Why community embraced Islam
Furthermore, Hassan, who said that he worked in the school for over 34 years before he retired in December 2018, explained that the entire Ehohia Itim was a complete Christian area, until the year 1958 when Nwagui Okpani, as he was called, returned from Senegal and started preaching about a new religion, Islam.
He explained that, because of Nwagui’s love for his people and his visible passion for helping the poor, the community met and reached a resolution to join him in his religion, which he said preached love, peace, unity and progress of one another.
“When he returned to Nigeria, Enohia Itim in particular, he started preaching Islam. Because he was a good man, our people loved him and believed in him. They met and reached a resolution to join him in Islam. After some time, the community gave him a portion of land to build an Islamic centre. He converted many of our people and established School of Islamic and Arabic Studies to teach our people and others the true meaning and benefits of Islam,” he said.
Civil war setback for Islam
But for the Nigeria civil war, which broke out in 1967, Islam would have thrived above Christianity in the community and penetrated many parts of Ebonyi State and Igboland beyond what it is today.
It was gathered that the turn of the civil war, which saw the killing of many citizens of the defunct Biafra Republic, made many Muslims in Afikpo to denounce the religion because of their belief that the killings were done by northerners, most of whom were Muslims.
Hassan said: “After the war, some members of the community who were Muslims denounced Islam because of the way Biafrans were killed. They could not separate Islam from the northern people. But some people refused to denounce despite serious pressure to do so within and outside the community. Before the war, Islam was the main thing here and people were embracing it, but the war came and changed the whole thing. We have about 42 churches in Enohia Itim and only three mosques.
“But the most important is that we have been living in peace since that time till now without any form of clash because Islam preaches peace and love for one another. At times, it is even us Muslims that help Christians to settle their differences when they have problems.”
School faces existential threats
However, the Centre for Islamic and Arabic Studies, Afikpo, is facing serious threats that, if not well managed, could see to the permanent closure or relocation of the school from the area. Daily Sun was told that hoodlums believed to be pro-Biafran groups, have been threatening to attack the school. They alleged that the institution was being used to produce dangerous weapons and to hide Fulani herdsmen, among other allegations.
But the director of the school, Sheik Isa Okonkwo, from Enugu State, dismissed the allegations as false, only intended to give the centre bad name in order to destroy it.
He said those peddling the falsehood were enemies of Islam and people of Afikpo, adding that the evil propaganda first started in 2005 when suspected members of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) attacked the place using improvised explosive devices. Sheik Okonkwo, who spoke during an inspection tour of facilities in the school on Monday, May 10, 2021, by stakeholders and people of the community, noted that the school had existed in Afikpo for over four decades without causing any trouble in the community. He said, instead, the centre has helped to train many sons and daughters of the community who are doing great in different areas of life.
Addressing the people of Afikpo on the premises of the Islamic Centre, he said: “I was raised and brought up in this land. My coming back here to head this school is a wonderful homecoming. You have touched lives; this community has touched lives and you can never be forgotten in the history of man. You don’t know the length and breadth of where your touches have reached.
“We are here today because of some ill feelings that brought about some allegations that have been going on now for a period of time. And I call it a tactic used when you want to hang a dog, you give it a bad name. This Islamic school has existed here for a period of 40 years, 40 glorious years. Great men and women have been produced in the course of these years and it has been a very robust relationship with the entire Afikpo clan and particularly Enohia community. But in 2005, something strange and unlike Afikpo happened here in the Islamic Centre; MASSOB attacked this centre that year. They came very early in the morning when people were praying in the mosque. They tried to explode about 13 bombs here in the centre but only three managed to explode with very minimal damage. It took the community by surprised as they were not expecting such. After a very serious investigation, it was discovered the attackers came from outside and no one from this community was part of it. In 2017, IPOB came out, they marked 26 of us from South East for assassination, for no other reason but because we are Muslims. They published our names, phone numbers and states of origin. They call us almost every day threatening us. Out of the 26 persons about seven are from Afikpo. Sadly, after EndSARS protest, the threat continued in a higher tempo; they were sending us text messages that they were coming to bomb this centre. Now, there is a video trending that they are coming to bomb the centre because, according to them, we are producing dangerous weapons here for herdsmen.”
He added that the essence of the invitation to stakeholders and journalists for the tour was “to probe us and inspect our facilities to see if there is anything harmful we are doing here. If you have anything bad here, we will leave.”
‘Attack on centre is attack on Afikpo’
After inspecting the centre, members of the community appealed to members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to discontinue their alleged plot to attack the Centre, stressing that there was nothing evil going on there.
Traditional ruler of the community, Eze Boniface Oti and the youth President of Enohia Itim, Uro Akpu, who spoke on behalf of the people of the area, said the facility belonged to the community, stressing that it was built by their son for the community.
Eze Boniface noted that the Centre had been of great benefit to the community in terms of education, empowerment and community development.
He said: “The stories flying around that this Centre is producing dangerous weapons or housing Fulani herdsmen is false. This Centre has been here for decades and our sons and daughters have passed through this school. It is our property and the people working there are Afikpo people and Igbo people. We are saying any attack on the Centre is attack on Afikpo people.”
The youth leader spoke in the same vein, appealing that the purported attack will be counterproductive.
“I am a Christian, a deacon for that matter. This school didn’t just start. We grew up to meet this school and many of our people graduated from here. We have lived with the Centre for years without any problem at all. It bothers us how outsiders who are obviously not happy that the school is here will be making unfounded remarks about the school. If there is anything bad about the school, Afikpo youths can never keep quiet. The school is in our community and we are using this opportunity to say it again that there is nothing wrong with the school. Any attack on the school is an attack on our community”, Akpu stated.
Afikpo stakeholders sue for peace
Meanwhile, traditional rulers, clerics and other stakeholders of Old Afikpo block in Ebonyi State, comprising Afikpo North and Afikpo South local government areas of Ebonyi State have sued for peaceful coexistence in the area.
In a communiqué after a town hall meeting with Governor Daivd Umahi in Abakaliki, recently, they expressed belief in upholding the fundamental human rights of all citizens as enshrined in the Constitution with emphasis on freedom of religion, right to freedom of movement including freedom of settlement by any Nigerian in any part of the State.
Chairman of Ebonyi State Universal Basic Education Board (EBSUEEB), Chief Hyacinth Ikpo, who read the communique said: “We also believe that the same freedom should also provide for the right of movement and religion of any Ebonyi indigenes in any part of Nigeria, in the spirit of harmony, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.
“We encourage our people to resist the urge to be lured into causing unrest, unleashing turmoil and setting Ebonyi State ablaze by the prittle-prattle of a stranger in a strange land, by the casuistry of historical revisionists, idle demagogues and peddlers of myth and cargo-cult mentality”.