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Tribute to the Chief [but not the last] Imam

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Thursday, November 30, 2017 2:45PM /Bashorun J.K. Randle 

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

Then came the signal from heaven at precisely the hour when the 8th Day Fidau prayers 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 – moslems 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 moslems and non-moslems 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 late Alhaji Murtala Egbebi); or opposite/ beside the shops next to the mosque are our family friends and relations. Being moslem 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 moslems but converted to Christianity or vice-versa.
 

Nobody batted an eyelid when in the 1950’s, the Lagos Moslem Cricket Club was the darling of cricket fans. As for football, Christians versus Moslems 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 Christians and the other was in the Moslem team. Neither was disowned by their family!!

As for the Nigerian National Football team, the star performer was “Thunder” Teslim Balogun, a moslem 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 Moslems 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 moslem 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 moslem rites. At St. Gregory’s College, Obalende (a staunchly Catholic School), Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi a moslem who is now His Majesty Oba Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi III the Alafin of Oyo was the undisputed boxing champion. Not many people know that the Alafin 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 moslem.
 

As for Chief Akin Disu who is still very much a moslem, he lived as a student at 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, former Head of State of Nigeria.
 

Over at Baptist Academy, Lagos, late Molade Okoya-Thomas was actually a moslem but there was no doubt about his sporting prowess on the football pitch or the athletics field. Indeed, the school’s formidable 4X100 yards relay quartet was made up of Okoya-Thomas; S.D. Shittu and two others who were also moslems!! 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, former President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria and Late Alhaji Kafaru Tinubu, 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 moslems to Christians.
 

It was the same story with the girls. Alhaja Lateefa Okunnu (nee Oyekan and former Deputy Governor of Lagos State) a moslem 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 moslems. However, one of the most remarkable was that of late Chief Gaffar K. Animashaun (“Lucky GK”) who died a little over a year ago. His father, a moslem, was the head of the Ansar-ud-Deen Society of Nigeria (ADSN) 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 forty 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 environ 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 moslem 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 moslem, 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 moslems 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 conflagration between ethnic or religious groups with dire consequences for Lagos and Nigeria. There was a particular occasion when blood was being shed in Shagamu and subsequently at Idi Araba. It was the powerful intervention of christian and moslem 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.

Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode FCA, the Governor of Lagos State 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 thirty-two years, he was a public servant at Security Printing and Minting Company (NSPMC) 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 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. Co-incidentally, both Sheikh Ibrahim and Alhaji (Chief) 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 days of yore, the Race Course was where all lovers of horse racing both christians and moslems congregated on Saturday to enjoy the sport of kings. Alas, it is no more.
 

What an irony, that the 8th Day Fidau prayers for the late Chief Imam are being held on a public holiday to mark the 57th Anniversary of our nation’s Independence from the United Kingdom, on 1st October, 1960. That it rained fiercely in the morning only serves as a reminder that the same thing happened when the Nigerian flag was hoisted up to replace the British “Union Jack”.
 

I was one of the students who served as ushers at the entrance of the V.I.P. stand with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister as the Chief Host. The seat reserved for Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Opposition was most inappropriate. The Prime Minister would have none of it and ordered one of the junior ministers to vacate his seat. The youngest ministers were Alhaji Shehu Shagari (who later became president in 1979) and Chief M.T. Mbu. A suitable seat was promptly provided for Chief Awolowo.
 

On a lighter note, as the dignitaries arrived, their names were announced on the loudspeaker. When Mr. Aja Wachukwu was on his way, his car splashed rain water on one of the by-standers. As the announcer merrily hailed the arrival of Aja Wachukwu, the victim of the water splash protested angrily: “If the Aja (Yoruba word for dog) of the Minister can do so much damage, we should expect worse from the Minister himself”. Nigerians have never stopped protesting and complaining against their ministers.
 

On one thing we are all agreed is that Sheikh Garuba Akinola Ibrahim was a true minister of God. He has earned his place in the bosom of the Almighty.
 

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