Imam Abubakar Abdullahi, 83, became famous after he saved about 300 Christians in Yelwan Nghar during attacks by an armed militia on June 23. Our correspondent travelled the very bad road to Yelwa in search of this man and the remarkable community he helped saved.
One of the bridges has been nicknamed ‘Gadar Mutuwa’ (Bridge of Death), insinuating that should one fall off, the outcome would clearly be unfortunate. The dilapidated bridges show signs of wear and tear. They have endured decades of repair through joint community efforts. Parts of Gadar Mutuwa were however washed away following floods in August before it was later patched back together by youths.
To get to Yelwa, in Gashish district of Plateau’s troubled Barkin Ladi Local Government Area, one would have to pass through Exland to Soi before getting to Nghar and then Yelwa, which the famous Imam calls home.
The difficult terrain especially during the rainy season stretches the less than one hour journey into two uncomfortable hours. Together with nine well trained men from the Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN) in Barkin Ladi, Daily Trust took the journey at a time the season made the terrain even more daring.
Deplorable road conditions are common in Nigeria’s hinterlands but the almost 15 kilometres dirt road from the main road of Gashish to Yelwa village is certainly an eye sore. While certain sections of the road are rocky and bumpy, other sections are muddy, slippery and damaging to vehicles. But for a driver’s experience and luck, vehicles could easily get stuck in the mud. The difficult terrain explains why it took security agents several hours to deploy when killings were taken place in late June.
“It took hours before the military APC vehicle could cross the two bridges into Yelwa. At a point, the security personnel doubted if it could go through the last bridge and almost gave up but systematically they were able to cross through without the bridge giving way,” said Samaila Mohammed, a member of the VGN in Barkin Ladi.
Sitting on a praying rug and reading the Qur’an at the time of the visit to his home, Imam Abdullahi exuded a sense of simplicity. For a Muslim man who has gained international fame for endangering his life to save over 300 Christians, he didn’t show any sign of fear that the publicity gained since the June 23 attack could put him in harm’s way.
“I cannot protect myself,” he said, “Only God can do that and till date, I am still shocked that I survived the attack of June 23 to tell the story.”
With 10 tiny rooms to spear in his old mud home, it was easy for Imam Abdullahi to accommodate as many people as he could during the attack on the community. Cramped in tiny rooms for days, the people he accommodated alongside himself and his family drifted in and out of sleep in sitting positions.
“Only the little children had the privilege of lying down in small spaces, but we all slept while sitting. My spot was by the door because we feared the attackers may return.”
At 83, Imam Abdullahi, the son of a miner, still farms mostly cassava, maize, and other grains which he stores for the year. To ease his movement, he sometimes rides an old bicycle he keeps behind the main door of his house. His stash of grains came handy during the attack.
“I have been storing grains for years because when my father was alive, I used to feed a lot of people. I think then I used to exhaust about 60 bags of grains in a year. So that helped us during the attack and since we were harbouring the entire community, some of the elders were able to sneak into their own homes to also get some food stuff,” he said.
“My father built a house here,” he said. “He came here to mine tin and after my studies, I joined my parents with intention to enrol into the Nigerian Army to fight the civil war. I had signed to join but because my father had aged, I felt he needed me more at home and so I stayed back. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be,” he said.
Imam Abdullahi has always lived a simple life and preached love and unity among Muslims and Christians in the community. It is from his preaching and the attitude he exudes that many in the community said inspired them to live with their neighbours in peace even in the midst of years of religious and ethnic division.
Like Imam Abdullahi, the assistant Imam, Abdullahi Umar Hassan also showed bravery in the face of death. Hassan, a Fulani man, had in the midst of the attack left the mosque in search of terrified victims hiding in bushes and ushered them either to the mosque or the Imam’s house.
While narrating the incident, he said, “The bandits made announced their arrival with gunshots shortly after Asr prayer. Initially we heard the gunshots from afar but gradually the sound came nearer and nearer and in minutes we saw people running.”
He described the attackers as bandits saying they had looted the community’s properties before setting homes and shops ablaze. “They stole many things like our animals our motorcycles, food stuff, mattresses and even groundnut oil. They only burnt down homes or shops after they must have looted everything.”
He said though initially in the mosque with others taking refuge, the sound of people screaming forced him out to go search for other victims. “I took the risk to come out because we all didn’t know what exactly these people wanted, why they were killing our people so I joined the Imam and when we saw them taking a direction we would block them and beg them. Twice they tried to enter the Imam’s house because they knew we were hiding some people but he blocked them so they went to the mosque and seeing the shoes outside the mosque they knew we were harbouring people but we used our body as shield to block them again.”
Though Nghar, which is close to Yelwa, is today a ghost town with almost the entire community living in IDP camps, leader of the Hausa community in Yelwa, Isa Haruna said cordial relations between Muslims and Christians had made Yelwa and Nghar a pride for many years and a reference point for other communities.
Haruna who is a Berom Muslim said, “Since Plateau’s 2001 crisis, we have never had disagreements with our Christian brothers. Before I became a title holder, I was a member of the vigilante and sometime during the 2001 crisis, when the violence extended to Exland, places of worship were being destroyed so we came together as Muslims and Christians and agreed that the Muslim youth would guard the churches while Christian youth would guard the Mosques. That was how we coexisted until the recent attack.”
The people of Yelwa and Nghar are mainly farmers and miners. They mine tin and cultivate maize and vegetables.
About 11 vehicles were burnt down in the attack and what is left in the community are not more than three cars that convey people in and out of the area. With the people of Nghar now living in IDP camps, the people of Yelwa say all they want is for government to not only rebuild Nghar community but to beef up its security so that their brothers can return home.