Isioma Daniel

'I lit the match'

"What would Mohammed think? He would probably have chosen a wife from one of them." Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel's words about the Miss World contestants provoked religious riots in her country that left more than 200 dead - and a fatwa calling for her execution. Now, for the first time, she explains the events that changed her life forever

Isioma Daniel
Monday February 17, 2003
The Guardian

When it became definite that Nigeria was going to host the Miss World beauty pageant, slight grumbling could be heard from the part of the country governed by sharia. Earlier in the year a woman called Amina Lawal had been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery and a few of the pageant contestants pulled out in protest. But the Miss World wagon kept rolling. With all that money to make, no one was going to allow religious sentiments to get in the way.

On Friday November 15 last year, my editor at the Nigerian newspaper This Day rang me on my mobile. I was at the head office of an orphanage collecting photographs for a feature that I wanted to run in the following Saturday's edition. Thursday night had been production night, so my eyes were red-rimmed with deferred sleep and my brain sluggish. Nevertheless, I said yes to his request that I write the introduction to a story on the Miss World competition to be used on the cover.

Friday marks the final deadline for production. News pages are edited and laid out, so it is a busy day. Editing was shared among those reporters the editor considered reliable. I was one of them.

My editor briefed me on what he wanted. I struggled to write more than 600 words. What was there to say? I wanted the tone of the article to be light-hearted but questioning.

I remember feeling uneasy after completing the piece. It was breezy and sarcastic. My recent time in Britain, studying journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, had made me irreverent - there are no sacred cows in the UK. The tabloids have finished them off. I printed a copy and handed it to my editor. "Make sure you read it," I said. A few minutes later I reminded him. "I have sent the article to your computer, have you read it?" He read a few lines. "It's fine," he said.

I felt nervous and wired, but I didn't know why. Over the weekend I rested and forgot about the article.

Then on Sunday I got a call from my editor. He was furious. "How could you have said that about Mohammed? How could you have been so insensitive?" On and on. I was stupefied. I didn't say a word. He hung up. I picked up a copy of the paper and read my article again. What had I said wrong? I went to my father and told him. He said he didn't see anything wrong with it, but that some Muslims might find it offensive and that worse things have been said about Jesus. His words did not comfort me.

Monday morning brought dread. I didn't rush to the office, but tried to finish the orphanage article on the computer at home. A phone-call from a mentor at the paper told me that I had been moved to the business desk. That was when I knew it was serious. What I didn't know was how bad it was going to get.

In the newsroom I tried to talk to my editor. But he cut me off. His coldness hurt me more than anything else because it felt as if I was being abandoned. I was guilty. I didn't need anyone to make me feel worse. I tried to keep my head up and stay strong, but as the hours trotted on I felt tired and emotionally drained. The office phonelines were jammed with angry calls. All the editors were eating humble pie as every ringing mobile heralded yet another angry Muslim. That Monday, at the Saturday desk editorial meeting, I was stripped of my responsibilities. Journalism is a vicious enterprise and I knew there were quite a few people who gloated at what seemed like my downfall. Editors who once smiled greetings at me ignored me. But not all of them; trouble draws out your true friends and mine remained faithful.

On Tuesday, I received a note saying that I should report to the business desk. The paper carried an apology and a retraction on the front page. I came late to the office and kept to myself. Holding back tears is an exhausting experience and by the time I reached home I was drained. My father handed me a Bible verse which, in paraphrase, said: "I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until this disaster has passed."

On Wednesday, the paper's Kaduna office, in northern Nigeria, was burned down. The bureau chief went into hiding. The fragile strength I had built collapsed. My first instinct was to resign. I felt so guilty. I phoned my father, sent a text to a friend whose encouragement had been comforting, and typed out my resignation. It was an impulse reaction and everyone knows that panicky decisions are not the best ones. So I listened to a colleague's advice and decided not to hand in the letter.

The managing editor and the chairman of the editorial board instructed security not to let anyone know I was at work and insisted that I went home. "It isn't safe for you to remain here. Lie low until Ramadan is over. It is probably best that you stay with relatives or friends, so no one knows where you are. Don't talk to anyone, just go home. It is not safe for you to be here... " I heard their words but I wasn't prepared to leave yet.

It was midday and the newsroom was empty. Leaving felt a lot like running off. I had caused some damage and I couldn't just walk away. As the evening drew near and the newsroom began to fill up, I knew that I wasn't strong enough to face the whispering and murmuring of journalists once they heard. I completed my last article for the paper. The orphanage story was finished. The page was laid out. I left a handwritten apology for my editor. Then I went home.

I was in shock, so I slept for hours. My aunt flew into the house waving an evening paper. The news about the burning was on the front page and she had worried herself sick about my safety. The general word in the house was that I should not worry, that it didn't matter if I never worked again, that the Muslims were overreacting and it would all blow over. We decided not to tell my mother. She was in America visiting family friends and we knew she would grab the first plane to Lagos once she heard.

I got a few calls that night from colleagues who just wanted me to know that it would be all right. My editor finally broke his silence in a text. I sent him the Bible verse that my dad gave me. I couldn't pray. I conjured the verse up to suffocate my panic.

On Thursday I nearly went to the office. The suburb had another indefinite power cut and I didn't know what was happening. My phone rang. The voice said that riots had broken out in Kaduna and Muslims were killing Christians. People were trying to find me and I shouldn't leave the house. That night on national television the Sultan of Sokoto appealed for calm and peace. On the flip side, the minister for Abuja, Nigeria's glossy capital, broke down in front of the camera, weeping that I had blasphemed the prophet.

Then on Friday, riots began in Abuja. We bought every newspaper. I listened to a radio announcement claiming that all those involved with the article would be brought to book. I turned off the radio. The need for normality was what I clung to. I chatted to my brother and sister as if nothing had happened. Yet I packed my bags because my father was convinced I couldn't remain in Lagos. I got a call saying that state security wanted to see me. It wasn't serious, just a routine check and I wouldn't be arrested.

I didn't believe them. That evening I left Nigeria. Not for America, as the press reported, but for the Republic of Benin. Urgency was the driving force and I could get to Cotonou, Benin's capital, a lot faster than I could pass through American bureaucracy.

It was on Friday that my guilt crystallised into anger. I felt a wave of indignation and fury and I suspect that other Nigerians felt it too. Nothing justified a religious group killing people simply because they considered a remark offensive. Who did they think they were? God? Surely God can fight his own battles.

On Monday I heard of the fatwa by email. I used one cyber-cafe but later had to move to different places because there were too many Nigerians and I was worried that someone might cotton on. When I browsed through the Google news site I read the fatwa by the Zamfara state government through their spokesperson, Mamuda Aliyu Shinkaf. "Like Salman Rushdie, the blood of Isioma Daniel can be shed. It is abiding on all Muslims wherever they are to consider the killing of the writer as a religious duty." I felt calm. It was then I realised that there was no going back to Nigeria. This was no longer a lie-low-until-it-all-blows-over-then-you-can-come-back scenario. Two hundred people dead; in the name of religion.

Was I scared? I didn't sleep too well that night.

The Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International guided me through the resettlement process. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees swiftly processed my application and I left Cotonou for Europe. I saw my parents for one last time at the airport. My mother returned from America calm but remade. An experience like this changes you. She was disappointed that my application to the US wasn't processed quickly enough, but we resigned ourselves to the strange place I was going to. We were grateful for their acceptance.

In this article I have tried to tell the story - one that I can narrate forever - in just 2,000 words. I missed out the opinions and editorials I read about the riots, one opinion by a female writer who regretted that I went unhurt while people were killed. Well, my dear lady, physical pain is not the worst kind of pain, so you are wrong. I unknowingly lit the match. I haven't dropped it yet; it is still in my hand.

The "irresponsible journalism" mantra lost ground. It seemed evident that Islamic clerics and imams egged on the riots for political reasons. They were keen to utilise the blind fervour of idle youths.

Now I am trying to understand my new home. I wonder if I will be able to write again. Nothing edgy and beautiful has come out of African literature since the great days of Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and Wole Soyinka. It is my dreams that tell me I have a future. If I lose them, then I am a goner.