The letter below was published in my weekly column of Friday, 18th February, 2011. It is a letter addressed to the head of Nigeria's Electoral body complaining of discrimination against Muslims in the Southern part of Nigeria during the voters registration exercise which ended two weeks ago.
OPEN LETTER TO JEGA
I write to affirm my confidence in you. There is no gainsaying the fact that very few Nigerians can brandish the type of unquestionable credentials at your possession.
Like in most Nigerian affairs, spoil-sports appear where we least expect with the sole purpose of tarnishing good images built over decades of hard work. The last voters registration exercise is a good example. Some bad eggs among the ad hoc staff of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) did a lot to throw spanner in the works during the registration.
Whereas INEC instructions are very clear and unambiguous concerning the treatment of religious groups, some recalcitrant and unscrupulous officials who served in the southern part of Nigeria came with their parochial agenda. They ordered men wearing caps to remove them. Women wearing hijab were treated like lepers. They were intimidated, harassed and mocked. Yet in spite of the dehumanization, they were not registered.
Reports to higher authorities changed nothing. State INEC officials issued statements urging the field workers to change their attitudes towards Muslims but nothing changed. Islamophobia rented the air. Islamic organizations in the region performed creditably well. They reported to INEC state headquaters and appealed to their members to refrain from violent reaction.
Yet in spite of the extreme patience of the victims, in spite of fresh instructions from INEC state headquarters, the ad hoc staff oppressors persisted in their provocative stance. Some INEC officials at the state headquarters have expressed frustration at the refusal of field ad hoc workers to obey instructions in this regard.
On Monday 31st January, 2011, the name of Mrs Ishola was deleted after successfully thumb-printing simply because she refused to remove her hijab for the picture at the primary school, Ile Epo, Ilepa, Ogun State. Also on 22nd January, 2011, Mrs Abdul Rahman Lekkii was disallowed for wearing hijab at Lekki, Lagos State.
On Monday 24th January 2011, a distressed Muslim, Abdul Wasiu Abdul Rahman, called me. He had been refused registration on the ground that he was wearing a cap! This incident occurred at the voters registration center located at Idita Street, Imam Dauda area, Eric Moore, Lagos. The officer in charge refused to speak with me on phone. The victim's telephone number is 07083230115. His complaint to me can be verified by GSM providers.
The Imam of my mosque, Imam Abdul Rasheed Adebayo was denied registration for the same reason (wearing a cap) at Iba, Lagos State. There are so many other instances: Oja Ale Square in Ikenne; Ward 4, Orubo, Ogere; Nawarudeen School, Muwe; Iju-Ishaga; Baale Akinosi Community School, Olori Bus Stop, Lambe Road, Ifo; Ward 2, Oniyanrin, Ibadan; Amikanle, after Command, Ajasa; Ososa, Ijebu-Ode; Ado Primary School, Lamgbasa; Jolasco Bus Stop, Lambe Junction, Last Bus Stop, Akute; etc
The last place, Akute-Ajuwon area of Ogun State, was the most notorious victimization centre. The lady on duty there was called 'Ayo'. I could not get the rest of her names. Her supervisor, one Mrs. Ajimo, insisted that INEC instructed them to ask Muslims to remove their hijabs and caps. One of the victims managed to get Mrs. Ajimo's picture as evidence in case INEC investigators need it.
It was so widespread that millions of Muslims in the South-West were deliberately, illegally and unconstitutionally disenfranchised. The Allah-given and fundamental rights of many South-West Muslims were thus violated with impunity.
Dear Professor Jega, my real concern is the sustenance of the peaceful atmosphere in the South-West. My concern is security, law and order. This geo-political zone has always been described as peaceful. We are told that Christian-Muslim relationship in the zone is superb. But is this really true? Can the situation remain so for long if Muslims are treated like second class citizens?
Perhaps the reaction of a Christian reader to my article of two weeks ago in which I complained about this same phenomenon can be used as yardstick to gauge the way Christians think of and therefore treat Muslims in this area. A text message sent to me read partly: "I wished you didn't write that because you don't know how Christians are being treated in the North." I think this statement is an eye-opener.
Those who ordered Muslims to remove their caps and hijabs knew what they were doing. Those who robbed Muslims of the right to register and to vote were acting out a script. I hope the governments at federal and state levels are listening. I hope the international community is reading this. The first shots are already being fired by Christians in the South West.
But INEC must quickly redress the injustice perpetrated by some of its ad hoc staff who participated in the last voters registration exercise. Muslims in the region are greatly perturbed by this development. We are also constrained to warn that the palpably peaceful atmosphere in the South-West is cosmetic. This is because though we succeeded in persuading Muslims in this geo-political zone to refrain from resorting to violence, only justice can ensure durable peace.
The onus is therefore upon INEC to find and punish the perpetrators of Islamophobia during the registration exercise. I appeal to INEC to make arrangements for make-up voters registration in the affected areas to enable those Muslims who were cheated to register before the coming election. Only thus can the patience of the victims be rewarded while failure to do this is tantamount to promoting violence on the altar of dialogue. Also, only thus can the peaceful atmosphere in the South-West stand the test of time.
The disenfranchisement of thousands of tax-paying and law-abiding Muslims on account of their religious identity is illegal, unconstitutional and provocative. It is unpatriotic, callous and immoral. It is an unmitigated infringement on the civil rights of fellow citizens and an irresistible invitation to chaos.
Finally, I suggest that future registration exercises should be monitored the same way that elections per se are monitored. Experience has shown that most riggings are done during voters registration exercises.
Is-haq Akintola (Ph.D),
Associate Professor of Islamic Studies,
Lagos State University,
P.O. Box 10211,
LASU Post Office,
HO 102 101,
I remain oppressed untill the hungry are fed, the naked clothed,
the sick healed and the homeless sheltered