We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may. – 11th Article of Faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
It was pathetic listening to Pastor Raymond Uzoechina on African Independent Television (AIT) last week when he told a heart-rending story of how he was denied access to his daughter, Charity, a 25-year-old polytechnic student, who was forcefully converted to Islam and married off in 2013. According to him, on the day his daughter was billed to return home from school, in Bida, he got a phone call, in which he was asked to come to the palace of Etsu Nupe, in Niger State over an issue concerning Charity. Perplexed and confused, the man kept the appointment and met the shock of his life.
At the Etsu Nupe’s palace, the pastor was told that his daughter had been withdrawn from school. He was told that Charity had not only renounced her Christian faith but also embraced Islam, which had been confirmed by a Sharia Court. Matters got worse when he was asked to sign a paper, accepting the decision of the Sharia Court that his daughter had converted to Islam.
Bemused by what he heard, Pastor Uzoechina said he demanded to talk with his daughter, who was brought to the Etsu Nupe’s palace that day, but was denied access to her. All his efforts to have audience with his daughter and also take her back home met a brick wall. His petitions to the police, at the state, zonal and national levels, were neither acknowledged nor acted upon. And efforts by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) to get Pastor Uzoechina retrieve his daughter, as it were, yielded no fruit. In fact, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s directive to then Niger State governor, Alhaji Babangida Aliyu, to get the young girl released was ignored. Today, three years later, Charity has been converted to Islam and married to a Muslim. And since she’s 25 years, considered as age of maturity and, therefore, old enough to decide what she wants or religion to embrace, she is living somewhere in Niger State, where her parents don’t have access to her. She and her parents have never met face-to-face while the father is facing charges, bordering on attempt to stop his daughter from converting to a religion of her choice, against her will.
The case of Pastor Uzoechina is one of the many others where young female Christians have been yanked off from their homes and taken to cities in northern parts of the country and converted to Islam. The case of 14-year-old Ese Oruru, whose trip to Kano with Yunusa became a national scandal, is still fresh in the memory of Nigerians. Ese’s father said she was abducted from their Yenagoa home by Yunusa and taken to Kano where she was converted to Islam and married. Although this schoolgirl is back with her parents, in Bayelsa, she is carrying a seven months pregnancy and will, for some time, live with the scar of her encounter with Yunusa.
There is also the case of 15-year-old Patience Paul, who was allegedly snatched by two men in 2015 and taken to the Sultan’s palace, with a plot to convert her to Islam. Luck smiled on her, however, as she was traced to the home of one of the abductors earlier this month and released. Also, Blessing (Nyimjir) Siman, a Christian JSS 2 student of FHA Junior Secondary School, Lugbe, Abuja, now 19 years, was said to have been kidnapped at age 14 in 2010, converted to Islam and renamed Kadijat. Her father, Mr. Siman Guje, is crying for her release.
The case of Ifeoma Nicodemus is dramatic. She was said to have left home in Zaria, Kaduna State in 2014 to a neighbour’splace, after a fight with her mother. The neighbour, Abdullahi, according to Ifeoma’s father, allegedly took her to Zaria and converted her to Islam. Her mother said she now lives as Aisha somewhere in Kaduna, after being married off to a Muslim. There is also the case of 14-year-old Ifesinachi Ani, abducted in Abuja and taken to Maiduguri, first, and finally Zaria, where she has been married off. One Abdul is in police custody over this.
These are cases of Nigerian girls, whose conversion to Islam and marriages have become a subject of controversy. The issue, to me, is not that they converted to Islam, since religion is personal, and people have the fundamental rights to embrace any religion they choose. However, the manner of their conversion to Islam is controversial. As the story goes, these girls were forced into Islam and then compelled to marry Muslims. Their parents or members of their families have also not been allowed to meet with them, to, perhaps, ask some questions.
Some questions suffice here: If truly these girls converted to Islam on their volition, why is it that access to them is being blocked? What is the role of an emir in the conversion of people to Islam? I ask the latter question because in the cases of Uzoechina and Ese, for instance, the Etsu Nupe and Emir of Kano were mentioned. Uzoechina was taken to the palace of the Etsu Nupe, where her father was invited. Ese was taken to the palace of the emir of Kano, where the emir, many months before the matter came to national limelight, ordered that the teenager be returned to her parents. If the girls were taken to Imams, for example, who conduct Muslim prayers or preach at mosque, just like Christian missionaries who win converts will take them to their pastors for baptism, perhaps, one would understand. But taking them to emirs looks like the presentation of trophies won at a contest.
Also, the fact that the girls, who converted to Islam, are all married to Muslims raises some questions. Isn’t it possible that a Christian girl, who converts to Islam, could marry a Christian man? Isn’t it also possible that these girls could have remained Christians and then marry Muslims, if that is where they find their love? There are cases of Christian women who are married to Muslims or vice versa and they do not have religious war at home. In the marriage, the men and the women keep to their respective faiths amid religious tolerance. There is a case of a former neighbour of mine, a Muslim from Edo State, whose wife is a Christian, also from Edo State. They live in harmony. Their children grow up to decide which faith to embrace. There is also a case of a friend of mine, a Muslim, who lives in Kaduna and married to a Christian woman from Imo State and they are living happily. If religion becomes a condition for marriage or love affairs, there is a fundamental problem. To say the least, there is the need for religious tolerance among Nigerians. There should be mutual respect and coexistence, with Nigerians choosing the religion to embrace in the worship of the Almighty God.
Nigeria will fare better if there is tolerance between Christians and Muslims. Peace will reign if Shites, Sunnis and other sects among Muslims tolerate each other. There will be religious harmony if Christians of Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal leanings tolerate each other. What happened in Lebanon, where religious and sectarian strife caused a major upset, is a case of what intolerance could cause.
To be sure, there is need for the government to investigate properly these cases of abduction of young girls and their conversion to another religion. Yes, Yunusa is currently facing trial over the Ese abduction saga. Abdul is in police custody over the abduction of Ifesinach Ani. Government should go beyond this.
It will be interesting to know if really an emir promised young Muslim boys huge cash, vehicles and houses if they convert Christian girls to Islam. It is important to know why the police never acted when Charity Uzoechina’s father, with the CAN, sent petitions over the girl’s conversion to Islam. There is the need to know why the police did nothing when the case of Ese was initially reported until the media ran a campaign on it and, therefore, forcing them to act. If there is complicity in the role the police played in these cases of abduction and conversion to Islam, the government should take action against those involved.
I am persuaded that if these cases of abduction of girls and converting them to Islam were swept under the carpet, other teenage girls would be at risk of suffering the same fate. But if those who play one role or another in the abduction/conversion to Islam saga are brought to book, this will serve as deterrent to others who may be contemplating such action in future. Government and parents must protect vulnerable Nigerian girl-child, who suffers, in the face of culture and other impediments: Lack of education, forced marriage, disinheritance and inequality. The time to act is now.