By Nontobeko Mlambo
Johannesburg — On June 23, 2018, Imam Abubakar Abdullahi risked his life during clashes that targeted predominantly Christian communities when he hid hundreds of people fleeing the attacks inside his mosque and home.
Now the imam’s heroism earned him the International Religious Freedom Award during the U.S. State Department’s first-ever ceremony to honor extraordinary advocates of religious freedom from around the world which was held on July 17.
The 83-year-old Muslim cleric says on the day of the attacks around 3:30 pm, shortly after the mid-afternoon prayer, they started hearing gunshots some distance from his village of Yelwan Gindi Akwati, the intensity increased as the attackers got closer and soon they were in his village.
Imam Abubakar, who is Hausa alongside his assistant Umar Abdullahi, who is Fulani, allowed hundreds of people fleeing attacks by suspected bandits in Yelwan Gindi Akwati, Swei and Nghar villages in the Barkin Ladi Local Government Area of Plateau to seek shelter in the mosque and Imam Abubakar Abdullahi’s home, while they went outside to plead with the attackers to spare their lives during what he describes as an intense moment.
“Since the mosque was opened we allowed Muslims and Christians to come in for protection and also my home for shelter. We asked everyone to lie down to avoid being hit by flying bullets,” he said during an interview with the U.S. Embassy. “The attackers had their faces covered, I kept pleading with them and I even started to cry and eventually they left.”
After the attacks the people remained in his mosque where they shared meals together and they later moved to a displaced person’s camp.
As a teenager he had wanted to join the army to fight in the Nigerian civil war but his father objected to his plan, and after his death he was appointed to be his successor. Though he cannot remember the exact day and year he was appointed as an imam, he says it must have been about 30 years ago.
He says he decided to help the fleeing people because for a long time he had been living in harmony and in peace with them as neighbours – they never had any problems with each other. He describes the experience as traumatising, saying that he could not sleep for at least a week after the attacks but because of his strong faith and trust in God, he has been able to endure the shock and stress.
“The non-Muslim natives gave us the land in which the mosque is built because of the trust and understanding between us,” he said.
He describes Christmas and Eid as a time to celebrate together, they share food and gifts, the young people party together while the elders exchange visits.
The ongoing clashes between the country’s Christians and Muslims has left thousands of people dead. But the country is not only faced with this conflict, but also violence between farmers and herders, and from kidnappers and cattle wrestlers .
According to Nigeria expert at the Council on Foreign Relations John Campbell, climate change and poor natural resource management contribute to some of these violence acts.
“As the Sahara expands, people have to travel further south, which brings them into conflict with farmers,” Campbell says.
The conflict between Nigerian herders and farmers has been escalating leaving over 1,300 people dead since January 2018 and is allegedly now deadlier than Boko Haram‘s insurgency.
Imam Abdullahi says he continues to pray that God touches the hearts of those behind these attacks.
His message to peacemakers is that they should acknowledge that God created everyone differently.
“No one has a reason to question the existence of the other. We must embrace diversity as God created us and strive to live in peace anywhere in the world. If God wanted us to be the same he would have done so but he brought us all together and mixed us together so that we can live in peace together. My main message is that we should all respect one another. Follow the rules and be selfless advocates for peace. We have conflicts because people are greedy and self-centered which leads to conflicts and cause destruction.”
AllAfrica’s reporting on peacebuilding is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.