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Tribute to the Chief (but not the last) Imam – Punch Newspapers


J.K. Randle

Continued from Thursday

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).

The history of the Lagos Central Mosque, of which the late Chief Imam was the custodian, is truly fascinating. It was actually constructed by a Christian, Mr. Agbebi, who was both an engineer and architect. After attending church on a Sunday morning, he decided to inspect the construction of the mosque which he was supervising. Unfortunately, he fell from the roof and died.

Also, when the renovation and extension of the mosque was carried out under the leadership of the late Baba Adinni, Alhaji (Chief) Wahab Iyanda Folawiyo, the job was given to an Italian company, G. Cappa Limited, owned by a Catholic family.

Perhaps, I should digress and share with you the hilarious antics of a devout Muslim, Alhaji G. Thanni, who, after Jumat prayers, would stand outside the Lagos Central Mosque while the women textile traders walked back and forth as if determined to entice him. His cryptic reply was always: “Aje” which translates as “No dice”. The ladies would laugh merrily and threaten to come back the following week to tempt him again.

As for the late Chief Imam, he took his duties and responsibilities very seriously. Behind his gentle mien and calm disposition was a man of muscular faith. His sermons were direct and fearless – always emphasising the path of truth and faithfulness while admonishing the idle, the corrupt, the wayward, the wicked and the selfish. The message he conveyed was always profoundly moving and cerebral. It cut across generations. One of his most memorable sermons was on the fear of doing the right thing. Another was on the subject of abuse of power (and arrogance of power) without the fear of God. According to him, impunity is the work of satan.

Regardless of his status and the powers vested in the late Chief Imam, he was very accessible to both the rich and the poor. I had cause to interact with him on numerous occasions particularly at the Dr. J.K. Randle Swimming Competition (the oldest sporting competition in Nigeria) which commenced in 1928. He not only presented trophies, certificates; and cash prizes to the winners (both children and adults), he donated a trophy.

Also, my beloved Auntie Esther (a Christian at birth) donated her house at 14 Alhaji Bashorun Street, Ikoyi to the Lagos Central Mosque. As the surviving executor of her will, I had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court in order to ensure that the property was properly transferred, against formidable opposition, to the mosque in accordance with her wishes which I considered sacred. It was the Chief Imam himself who received the property along with the unassailable title deeds on behalf of the Lagos Central Mosque.

Indeed, it would only be appropriate to dedicate the property to the enduring love between Christians and Muslims in Lagos and name it the “Sheikh Garuba Akinola Ibrahim House”.

Unknown to many, the late Chief Imam played a quiet but crucial role in resolving many crises that could have degenerated into major conflagrations between ethnic or religious groups with dire consequences for Lagos and Nigeria. There was a particular occasion when blood was being shed in Sagamu and subsequently at Idi Araba. It was the powerful intervention of Christian and Muslim religious leaders that doused the fire that was about to engulf Lagos State.

Till the very end, the late Chief Imam wielded enormous influence, but it was always for the common good – never for self-aggrandisement.

All the encomiums, eulogies and accolades showered on the late Sheik Garba Akinola Ibrahim are truly well-deserved. He was a man of exceptional integrity and impeccable pedigree. His father was Chief Imam. So, also was his brother, whom he succeeded. Hence, it was no surprise that he was well-prepared to take office as the ninth Chief Imam of Lagos State at the age of 63. He was an Islamic scholar and charismatic preacher. He attended the famous Morcas Arabic School from 1959 to 1961.

The Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode FCA, was absolutely spot on when he delivered his audit report as a Chartered Accountant and Chief Executive of Lagos State.

“The late cleric was a great man of God who spoke truth to power not minding whose ox was gored, and contributed immensely to the growth and development of the state. He was indeed a respected cleric who was always mindful of his integrity and used his sermons to engineer positive changes in the behaviour and character of his followers. He was a devout Muslim, humanist and bridge builder and would be remembered for his fairness, boldness and thought-provoking sermons.”

Unknown to many, the late Chief Imam was a formidable force in the financial sector. For 32 years, he was a public servant at the Security Printing and Minting Company which is a subsidiary of the Central Bank of Nigeria. Regardless of the reputation of the sector in which he worked and the slew of scandals as well as the cesspool of corruption that undermined the management of our nation’s resources, the integrity of Alhaji Garba Akinola Ibrahim was never compromised. When he retired, his record was unblemished.

During his tenure as Chief Imam, whatever turbulence or conflict that arose found him preaching harmony and peace. One of such was the selection of a successor to Alhaji (Chief) Wahab Iyanda Folawiyo as Baba Adinni of the Lagos Central Mosque. Coincidentally, both Sheikh Ibrahim and Folawiyo died at the age of 79. (So also did Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas). Anyway, there were other issues of a very sensitive nature which the Chief Imam handled with a cool head, maturity as well as commendable and unflappable temperament.

Of course, no human being is perfect. Perhaps, the Chief Imam could have been more gender sensitive in an age when women can no longer be confined to “the other room”!

Also, following a conference hosted in Dallas, Texas, United States of America where Lagosians in America invited me as the Guest Speaker several years ago, I declined to participate in a proposed documentary on Lagos which would beam the searchlight on the slum areas of Lagos – particularly the area directly behind the Lagos Central Mosque. I am firmly convinced that such highly sensitive matters are better handled by gently prodding the government to pay attention and remedy matters in order to avoid a major social blight which could crystallise into a permanent underclass of those who are jobless and are prone to temptation to foment trouble. That is a subject for another day.

For now let us celebrate the exit of a titan. The choice of Tafawa Balewa Square (which used to be the Race Course) as the venue is very apt. In the days of yore, the Race Course was where all lovers of horse racing both Christians and Muslims congregated on Saturday to enjoy the sport of kings. Alas, it is no more.

What an irony, that the Eighth Day Fidau for the late Chief Imam was being held on a public holiday to mark the 57th Anniversary of our nation’s Independence from the United Kingdom, on October 1, 1960. That it rained fiercely in the morning only served as a reminder that the same thing happened when the Nigerian flag was hoisted up to replace the British, the Union Jack.

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