NASCO has over the years remained a major employer of labour in Plateau and continues to contribute to the economic prosperity of the State and Nigeria at large through tax revenue and corporate social responsibility.”
Well that was the cover story, anyway.
In May 2021, a 96-year-old businessman died in Rome, Italy. In his lifetime, Ahmed Idris Nasreddin might have amassed a personal fortune of close to half a billion dollars, but the death of NASCO Group’s multimillionaire founder barely made the news. At first glance, the only extraordinary thing about his life story was that it embodied the African entrepreneurship dream.
Nasreddin was an Eritrean who moved to Jos in Nigeria’s Plateau State, and grew his father’s small manufacturing business into a $460 million conglomerate involved in everything from breakfast cereal and confectionery to pharmaceuticals, real estate and energy. After many years of growth and success, he eventually handed his sprawling business empire over to his son Attia Nasreddin, and retired at an old, satisfied age.
In an official statement released after Nasreddin’s death in May, Plateau State governor Simon Lalong said:
“NASCO has over the years remained a major employer of labour in Plateau and continues to contribute to the economic prosperity of the State and Nigeria at large through tax revenue and corporate social responsibility.”
Well that was the cover story, anyway.
In reality, as is so often the case in Nigeria, the gap between the facts and the information released to the public is so wide as to be scarcely believable. What on earth could this shrewd, respectable businessman who looked like he could not hurt a fly have done, to put him in the same article as a story about the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation? Why would the brand he built, which to many Nigerians evokes memories of a beloved childhood breakfast staple, appear in the same sentence as Boko Haram?
To answer these questions, our story begins on another continent in 1955, some 8 years before his father would move to Nigeria and establish NASCO Group.
The year is 1955, and a 33-year-old Islamic scholar from Gummi in modern day Zamfara State has made his way to Mecca for his first Hajj pilgrimage. Alongside him is a certain Ahmadu Bello, who is the Premier of Northern Nigeria. During this trip, the scholar impresses both Ahmadu Bello and the Saudi King Sa’ud with his Arabic translation skills. He rapidly makes a big impression on many locals and clerics in Mecca.
These relationships will later become his most valuable asset following the events that take place after his subsequent return to Nigeria. Upon returning to Nigeria, he takes up positions teaching Arabic Studies at Islamic schools in Kano and Kaduna. His style of teaching focuses on educating his students about the differences between Islamic religious doctrine and local customs. Based on his strict Sunni understanding of the Qur’an, he teaches his students to adopt a ‘pure’ Islamic identity at the expense of practises that he considered bid’ah (roughly translated as ‘innovation’ or ‘corruption’).
He also becomes the first Islamic scholar to translate the Qur’an from Arabic into Hausa, which puts him in a uniquely influential position comparable to that of Ajayi Crowther in 19th century southwestern Nigeria. Using this leverage, he becomes an increasingly powerful figure in Northern Nigeria, with his essentialist views on Islamic doctrine gaining popularity. To him, the existing Sufi orders of Northern Nigeria are polluted with bid’ah and unfit for purpose. He becomes well known for attacking the Tijaniya and Qadriyya brotherhoods during his appearances on Radio Kaduna, while advocating for a ‘return’ to ‘Islamic purity.’
Following the death of his friend and benefactor Ahmadu Bello, the scholar finds himself in a precarious situation. The new Nigerian federal government led by soldiers has a motive to crack down on anyone who is outspoken and influential. He may be a giant in Northern Nigeria, but he is a giant with feet of clay. His solution is to seek financial, doctrinal and political help from his friends in Mecca. The Saudis, as always, are ready to help.
His Saudi backers are keen to use him to espouse the Saudi Arabian state’s official interpretation of Islam, which is based on the work of 18th century Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. This fundamentalist doctrine, often known as Wahabbism fits very closely with the teachings of our hero in Northern Nigeria, and he enthusiastically sets about gathering support for this new Saudi-funded project. In the 2009 book ‘The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia,’ historian David Commins says:
“The [Saudi-funded Muslim World] League also sent missionaries to West Africa, where it funded schools, distributed religious literature and gave scholarships to attend Saudi religious universities. These efforts bore fruit in Nigeria’s Muslim northern region with the creation of a movement (the Izala Society) dedicated to wiping out ritual innovations. Essential texts for members of the Izala Society are Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s treatise of God’s unity and commentaries by his grandsons.
Reaching out to his erstwhile students across Kaduna and Kano over the course of the 1970s, the scholar-turned-politician slowly builds a coalition of strategically-aligned individuals who will someday become very powerful people in Northern Nigeria. In 1978, one of his prominent students, Sheikh Ismaila Idris takes charge of this increasingly powerful but somewhat unofficial movement, and calls it Jama’atu Izalatil Bid’ah Wa Iqamatus Sunnah (Society of Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of the Sunnah), also known as JIBWIS.
Based in Jos and known colloquially as the Izala Movement, this organisation will go on to become the most influential Islamic body in Nigeria over the next few decades. Its members will become some of Nigeria’s most revered Imams and clerics. They will achieve high ranks in the Nigerian Armed Forces.
JIBWIS will come to exert a level of influence over Nigeria’s national politics and governance that is unprecedented for a religious body in Nigeria. Soon, it will become almost impossible to achieve power in many parts of Northern Nigeria without identifying with the Izala Movement.
Among other things, the scholar states that Muslims should never accept a non-Muslim as ruler, which can be interpreted as a call for insurrection against a Christian Nigerian president. He is never held to account for this statement. In any case, he no longer believes that writing books or teaching people about Islam will on their own, lead to an Islamic renaissance in Northern Nigeria. Now he is all about partnership and politicking. He maintains his membership in Northern Nigeria’s legacy Islamic group, Jama’atu Nasril Islam (“Group for the Victory of Islam”), but he is unmistakably the beating heart of the new Izala Movement. To all intents and purposes, this is the birth of modern Salafist Islam in Nigeria.
Without firing a shot or winning an election, this Islamic scholar has become one of the most powerful men in Northern Nigeria
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