December 30, 2017 – Nigerian Chief Imam Treated Like King In Libya Blames Tortured Nigerians For Selling Themselves Cheap
Exclusive Report By Punch NG.
See excerpts of the Chief Imam of Idimu Lagos Millennium Central Mosque, Sharafdeen Ibraheem’s recent interview with Kunle Falayi on his experience as a student in Libya where he also worked with the Libyan Government years back.
You lived in Libya for some years in the 60s. What was it like for Nigerians living there at the time?
It was marvellous. Nigerians were living like kings. I was the only Nigerian I knew in Tripoli, working for the Libyan government at the time. I was treated like a king. They actually called me a prince. Nigerians were rated very high at the time. In fact, they saw us as higher people, thanks to the Egyptians living in the country.
How and why did you go to Libya at the time?
Many Africans were going to North Africa for Islamic studies. But the Libyan government wanted to woo people to the country to study because Libya was really good at the time. They had this huge wealth but a very small population. So, they were offering people scholarships.
It was an all-expense-paid education. I had heard of Nigerians going for Islamic studies in Libya but I was initially not interested because I thought all I would come back to do was teach in an Islamic school. I did not want to be just an Islamic teacher. I did not want that.
But I had a change of heart and through a friend, I got the form for the scholarship and I was offered an admission at the University of Mohamed al- Senussi, Al-Bayda, to study Islamic Theology. I got my Libyan visa in 1964 and left Nigeria that year. Al-Bayda was a remote location several kilometres from Tripoli.
You have heard of what is happening to Nigerians in Libya today. How would you compare this to your time there?
I do not know why a Nigerian would go to Libya and do horrible jobs. Why should our people go through the desert to go to Libya? I cannot wrap my head around it. It is obscene and very sad that Nigerians would go to the same Libya where they were rated very high in the past and be treated as slaves. It was unheard of that a Nigerian would travel to Libya to wash cars when we were there.
The way you present yourself is the way you would be treated. I went to Libya with dignity. I was very proud at the time. The Libyans said at that time that Nigerians were rich unlike the Egyptians that they called “35 million hungry people.” That was Egypt’s population at about that time. This was why they treated us with a lot of respect. It annoys and pains me to hear of what is happening to our people there today.
But these migrants say life is hard at home
Yes, it is and that is why I blame the government. But it is also the way Nigerian migrants presented themselves, that is why they (Libyans) dehumanise, rape and kill them. To make matters worse for them, they are going to Libya to live in places where there is no government.
Do you know of other Nigerians who graduated from the Libyan university in which you studied?
Yes. One Alhaji Bello, who graduated from there, came back to Nigeria to become the Chief Imam of the Nigerian Army. One Alhaji Karib Abakri came back to teach at the Ansarudeen College in Otta. My friends, Issa Salaudeen and Haruna Badmus, came back to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
What did you do after you finished from the university at al-Bayda?
I went to Tripoli after my graduation and lodged in a hotel. I did not know anybody in the city but I lodged in a hotel because I had cash. I found a job at Libya Palace Hotel. I was living upstairs and working downstairs in the hotel. People were civil with everyone in Libya at the time. Nobody was crazy like it is today. At the time, it was very easy to get a job. The Italians who colonised them did not train their people. They had to even hire typists abroad at the time. This is why I don’t understand why Nigerians would want to kill themselves going to Libya today. It is very appalling.
I later got a job with the Libyan Ministry as an Information Officer. It was a job I loved and all my superiors treated me well.
But you left the job after six years despite how much you loved it.
I did because I needed to have more education. Everybody wanted to have a good education and come back to Nigeria to contribute their quota in those days. But I did not come back to Nigeria when I left Libya in 1970. I went to the US for more studies. It was while I was leaving that the late Muammar Gaddafi became the country’s head of state. When Gaddafi got there, people did not have to pay electricity bills. If you were a university graduate, the government subsidised your living and everybody got allowances depending on the number of children they had. But he was a young revolutionary, who started doing things like killing his fellow revolutionaries who fought alongside him. It was unsettling to me.
Was that why you left the country?
The thirst for knowledge made me leave. I went first to London and some friends there tried to convince me to stay but I told them that my mind was set on the United States. Some of my friends there had told me about life there and I wanted to have a taste of it. They made all the arrangement. But when I got there, I realised my Nigerian secondary school certificate was not acceptable so I had to enrol in high school and got their diploma after two years before I could get a college admission. I later studied and got Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Baltimore.
How did you make ends meet in the US?
While studying, I was working as a taxi driver. You registered with a taxi company and paid $100 per day. If you bought your own cars and used their colours, the charges were different. I eventually rose to the level of co-owning a taxi company with an American.
How much were you making compared with your peers doing other odd jobs at the time?
You made a lot more money. At that time, it was a neat and convenient job. You could determine when you worked and when you rested. I was making about $1,000 a week and I paid $500 or $600 to the company. They charged $100 a day if you rented their own vehicle. But the maintenance was done by the company. You only paid for gas.
Since you left Libya in 1970, have you been back there?
No. I have not had any reason to go back there.
Do you remember if any Nigerian decided to stay behind and live permanently there?
In our days, people did not want to stay and live in other people’s countries. We all wanted to come back home to do something and hold important positions in our country. Nigeria was rich then, we had nothing to complain about. We were among the richest countries in Africa.
How did you come back to work for the Nigerian Government?
In January 1977, the Olusegun Obasanjo’s military regime recruited many of us from different disciplines from the US. The Federal Government officials came to the Nigerian embassy in the US and asked that those of us with university degrees who wanted to come back home should signify. We filled some forms and that was it. They paid for the relocation of our family. The government paid for flights and everything. Something like that cannot happen in Nigeria anymore. Government officials would rather steal all the money.
When I got to Nigeria, I started with the Ministry of Labour. I was a labour officer and I was controlling all the factories in Ikeja. I saw how terrible Lebanese citizens were treating Nigerian workers
So, it has been like that since that time?
Even then, it was worse. I went to some factories where I saw Nigerians working as casual workers for eight years without being staffed. I wrote a strongly-worded letter to the director of the ministry at Ikoyi and he summoned me. He told me they were doing us a favour and I should tread softly on the matter. I did not know what he told them, the companies started bringing different gifts to my house during festive periods. I realised then that was what was killing Nigeria.
Did you get married in the US?
I got married before I left Nigeria for Libya. I already even had a child. Immediately I started working in Libya, I relocated my wife and child. When I went to the US, I sent them back to Nigeria. When I settled down in America, I also sent for them. By that time, I already had two children. My wife and children then studied over there.
What else did you do after you got back to Nigeria?
I did a bit of politics and was a foundation member of the National Party of Nigeria. I contested for the House of Representatives but they did not vote for me. I could not cope with the sort of politics played in Nigeria because I couldn’t see black and call it red. I realised I was not a politician and I left politics.
How do you think the government should handle the issue of Nigerians still trapped in Libya?
All I can suggest is that the government should have a large scale of mechanised farms so that all the Nigerians they are able to relocate can have something to do when they arrive. Many of them would find it difficult to survive because they have sold all they had to travel. I think it is the lack of hope that has made many Nigerian youths to go through the desert to go and live like slaves in other countries. In our days, we all wanted to go and come back. Nigerian youths are not ambitious; they just want to make money.
However, Nigeria has vast land wasting all over the country. All these could be used to establish large farms. If you build small houses on the farms and put basic amenities there, all these Libyan returnees would be glad to work there and earn salaries.
How long did you work at the Ministry of Labour?
I spent two years there. Then I went to Leventis.
Was it that you could not cope with the ‘bad’ things you saw in that public office?
The orientation I got in the US is that when you graduate, you should not stick to one job. You must move around. I went to Leventis purely for career advancement. I also spent three years there as Administration and Personnel Manager. I just applied and I was called for an interview and I met the Chairman of the Leventis Group, Mr. Ade John. I enjoyed my time there absolutely. But I got another job at Shiroro Hydroelectric Company, where I was for about four and half years. I was also the head of the company’s industrial relations and personnel management department. I had to manage 3,000 workers with 600 expatriates.
What was it like and how did you relate with so many foreigners?
It was a good experience for me. The foreigners even honoured me. The hydroelectric work was a big project.
Were there some stressful occasions you had to deal with problems among workers?
Yes, there was a time the workers went on a break and when they were driving back to the site, two of them fell off and died instantly. The others refused to go back to work. Every work was stalled. It was not ordinary work; there was so much concrete mixture involved. I was called on the walkie-talkie and I got there and met them shouting and making noise. But when I got to the project site, I called all the foremen and appealed to them that the work was being done with “our” money. I told them if they did not work, we would be losing a lot of money. We arranged for the bodies to be conveyed to the deceased’s hometowns in the east. I was very happy when they agreed with me and went back to work. The expatriates said I was fantastic when they saw how I persuaded the Nigerian workers to go back to work.
It was after that I came back to Lagos to do my own business – fish farming. I had a lot of money then and did not know what to do with it. But when the people were buying most of the fish on credit, I closed it down and went to live abroad for some time.
You moved around a lot in your professional life. Would you advise the new generation to do the same?
You have to go round to acquire as much experience as possible. It is when you get experience from different places that you become a great person. I worked with the government and private sector and this gave me an opportunity to cope when I got to a large organisation like the Shiroro Hydroelectric Company.
When you relocated to Nigeria, did your family feel reluctant to come with you considering that they had tasted life in the Western world?
Our thinking then was that we should study abroad and come back to Nigeria. We did not like the idea of staying abroad permanently. It was joy to come back and work to develop Nigeria. My wife and four children came back with me. My wife studied Computer Science while I studied Industrial Relations and Personnel Management at the University of Baltimore.
Because I studied Arabic, people in my neighbourhood just said I should come and take the place of my father who was an Islamic cleric. He used to preach as far as Ghana before he died. An Imam even said I did not know anything about Islamic teachings because of my western education. I became Chief Imam in 1987.