The Incredible Story Of How Muslim Cleric Alfa Bisiriyu Apalara Was Brutally Murdered For Preaching Against Yoruba Religions Of Secret Oro And Agemo Cults In Lagos In 1953
1953 in Nigeria was a year when the country was in the full grip of the British colonial government and in the various parts of Yorubaland, the followers of the traditional religions were unbelievably potent and influential.
It is 2017 and the followers of Yoruba traditional religions still remain as powerful as ever, members of the Oro cults shut down entire parts of states for their bizarre ceremonies while those following the Egungun (masquerade) sects also impose barbaric curfew on the people.
As it is today, there was considerable friction between the practitioners of the imported faiths of Islam and Christianity and those adhering to the African traditional religions.
It is the one of the bloodiest outcomes of this ridiculous battle of supremacy between the various myths, both local and foreign, that I will be focusing on today. This is the very sad tale of Alfa Bisiriyu Apalara.
WHO WAS ALFA BISIRIYU APALARA?
Apalara was born in a town named Itoko, on the outskirts of Abeokuta, the capital city of Ogun State. He had his Quranic studies and primary school education in the same city before heading to Lagos where he worked as a carpenter.
In Lagos, Apalara lived in Mushin, a rugged place known for street urchins and thugs called ‘area boys’. While Apalara was living in Mushin, he was influenced and by 1945 he was in jail over charges of theft. But by 1950, Apalara had become a totally new man, he became more religious with his fasting and prayers taken more seriously. He transformed and in a bid to remove all the traces of his dirty past in Mushin, divorced his wife and focused on his new occupation as a Muslim preacher.
PREACHING AGAINST THE YORUBA TRADITIONAL RELIGIONS AND THEIR FOLLOWERS
In 1950, Apalara launched a crusade, his crusades were usually conducted in Ebute Metta and Mushin, normally on a street or at a junction of two or three streets.
Apalara was very eloquent and charismatic and in no time, he started gaining a real following, most of his followers being women. The fiery preacher lambasted the lukewarm Muslims and condemned ‘sinful’ acts condemned by Islam. But the most acidic part of his attacks were specially directed at the secretive and traditional ancient cults.
Apalara had intense hatred for the Yoruba traditional religions and regularly blasted them as pagan worship and in Islam, all pagan worshippers are infidels destined to burn in Allah’s Hell Fire (Jahannam).
The Muslim cleric went on to not just denounce the secret cults, he also mocked them in his sermons. The Oro and Agemo cults got the biggest brunt of his fury.
He was warned over and over but he was so determined to tear the Yoruba traditional beliefs to shreds and preach the way of Islam which he considered to be the one and only true path to paradise. As expected, he created many enemies for himself and not a few branded him a fool.
Apalara was treading dangerous grounds as he constantly stepped on the toes of a section of the dreaded ancient cult. He constantly threatened to expose them for prostituting the powers of the cult and for frightening the people from the streets whenever they want to carry out their smuggling or burglary expeditions.
Apalara knew all their antics and secrets and did not waste time in exposing the cultists who marked him as a dangerous firebrand who had to be neutralized at all costs.
THE INCESSANT CLASHES
It did not take long before the paths of Apalara crossed with the loyalists of the cults. In 1951, the skirmishes started when he clashed directly with the local cults and masquerades. The battle ground was in Mushin and that horrible day, Apalara was conducting one of his open air sermons when a cult and its masquerade were proceeding on their way to conduct some traditional rites when they bumped into Apalara’s crusade.
The cult gang made attempts to pass through the crusade but on the insistence of Apalara, his congregation blocked the cult from making any progress. The tense confrontation lasted a few minutes but the cult and masquerade eventually retreated. The battle line was redrawn.
In 1952, another similar standoff occurred and there was a skirmish between the masquerade group and the supporters of Apalara. The Muslim cleric started receiving constant threats to his life.
THE NIGHT OF TRAGEDY
On the evening of a Saturday, the 3rd of January, 1953, just few days before the United States President Harry S. Truman announced the United States had developed a hydrogen bomb, something very tragic happened in Nigeria. Upon an invitation from the people of Oko Baba, a neighborhood in Ebute Metta, Alfa Bisiriyu Apalara was going have what was going to have what was going to be his last preaching on earth.
Before his congregation, he started his fiery sermons against the secret cults that he hated with so much passion, he was dead set on eradicating the Awo Opa cult. You need to know that the Oko Baba was one of the major strongholds of cultists and they took this to be a proper confrontation, that the dog had entered the den of the lion to challenge it.
It was during one of his crusades (called dawah in Muslim circles) that the Oro cultists attacked and whisked Apalara away. With him that fateful day was Mr. Simeon Odetoki, his interpreter who had become a Muslim.
Remember that Apalara had been receiving constant threats to his life and he was scared. He took the threats so serious that he paid a policeman to protect him during his crusade in Oko Baba.
He commenced his fiery sermon as usual but as he was doing so, a group of cultists stormed the venue and abducted him. The policeman became Usain Bolt and vanished, just like most of the congregation. The preacher was struck with an object before he was initially dragged to a nearby building and later to the edge of a town with 300,000 inhabitants. Alfa Bisiriyu Apalara was murdered that very night with blunt trauma inflicted by a weapon believed to be an axe.
AFTERMATH AND GETTING JUSTICE FOR APALARA
After Apalara was murdered, that was when the real mystery began because no one knew where his body was, no one knew if he was dead or alive. Like Razaq Gawat, no one had precise details of what happened to it. However, the revelations came to the fore during the trial when the prosecution witness confessed.
He narrated how the murderers put the body in a canoe and took it to an unknown destination across the lagoon. The general belief was that his body was put in the canoe that dark evening and then dropped overboard with a stone tied to his neck about eight miles into the lagoon away from Jebba Street. That was what many people believed until more details came up.
The news spread all over West Africa and the murder of Apalara became the greatest crime mystery in the region. A Muslim preacher vanished and all sorts of questions arose. What happened to him? Who abducted him? Was he murdered? Was he held in custody by kidnappers who wanted ransom? No one knew.
However, the whole case eventually took an interesting twist when Detective Sergeant John Aboderin stumbled on some very curious facts about the tragedy. One night when Aboderin was sleeping, he heard a tapping on his window. A man was staying outside and he was a member of the dreaded secret cult. He whispered through the window:
‘I know something you want – something you are looking for.’
The startled police detective jumped to his feet and threw his blankets aside but as he swung his legs off the bed, the voice rang again:
‘Don’t come to the window or put on the light. If you do, I shall disappear.’
So the police detective took his notebook and pencil and he whispered in return:
‘All right, talk on.’
The voice said:
‘I know those who killed Apalara.’
But before he divulged more information, the voice made the detective swear by all that was dear to him that he was never going to disclose how he had received his name. The man then went ahead and reeled off fifteen names and disclosed the name and address of one prominent personality who was not connected to the murder but knew everyone in it.
The voice then went ahead and explained how Apalara was given the death blow with a machete at Number 8, Tapa Street at Ebute Metta. Afterwards, they hauled his corpse to the lagoon foreshore and dumped it into the canoe.
The detective sergeant said:
‘One secret password spoken by the night visitor not only revealed to me that this man was a member of the secret Awo Opa cult – to which I also belong – but convinced me that he knew what he was talking about. To this day I do not know who he was, or why he risked his life to tell me these things. He has never returned for thanks or reward. ’
From the information relayed to the police detective, he went to Number 8, Tapa Street and made a very detailed examination of the area. His faith in the night caller’s sincerity was confirmed when he saw blood stains, he said:
‘ I followed the trail of blood which led me to the foreshore. There I found quite a pool of blood – and what last bit of doubt I had that I was on the right trail disappeared.’
The gruesome murder of an Islamic preacher who clashed with the ancient Oro cult became the most sensational crime in the annals of Nigerian criminology at that time. But it also provided a unique dilemma for police detective sergeant Aboderin for he was a most devoted member of the cult. As a man dedicated to the police service and the dreaded cult, Aboderin was in a serious dilemma. Was he going to betray the police to the cult or vice versa? He said:
‘As a police officer, would I betray the police to the cult? And as a member of the cult, would I betray the cult to the police? Strange as it may sound to those who do not belong to the cults, I have no such dilemma. There never has been any conflict between the true ideals of the cults and the mission of the police. That is why I was able to maintain my membership of both. And my membership of the cult has accounted for a large measure of my success as a pursuer of criminals. The Apalara murder itself is a case in point. ’
Aboderin did his job excellently and the court later discovered that the grisly murder was the culmination of a conflict with the Oro cult. It was also further revealed that it was actually a faction of the cult that carried out the killing. As Aboderin explained:
‘What is not generally known other to the public is that even within the Oro society itself, there are cabinets and inner cabinets of oaths. The innermost cabinet operates in complete secrecy from the inner one, and so on. It is often quite easy for new rotten branches to stem from the main trunk. And it can be appreciated that even within that section there are many members who are not party to, if cognizant of, the corrupt and often criminal practices of the inner circle. I was able to convince the cults that I was out to help them break the crime ring and to clear the good name of the cults.
This is how the notorious wing of the Okobaba Oro men operated that night. Apalara had no chance of escape as all routes – four of them – had been securely barred by the gangsters. They wore loin clothes and were otherwise stark naked, to make escape easy and leave no blood stains.
At the given Oro signal, they threw off their covering cloths and approached the scene of the murder stark naked. Even juveniles were employed in collecting the cover cloths, and in minor roles near the scene of the crime. Thus the gangsters were able to make a ‘clean getaway’, leaving, as they believed, no clues behind them.
The canoe-men who had been hired for the operation then refused to carry the dead body – it would leave stains on the bottom of their canoe. So a member of the gang had to fetch his own canoe. In the delay, the blood from the hideous cuts left me one of my most valuable clues on the foreshore.
The detective sergeant did not stop there, he gave more chilling details:
Another factor that aroused so much interest during the trial was speculation as to why the body of Apalara was never found. The jury themselves attached great significance to a well-known maxim specifically attached to the Oro cult from time immemorial. That is: Aki ri ajeku Oro, literally meaning, ‘No one is ever expected to see the leftover of the Oro.’
This tradition arose a long time ago when a certain rich man, not a member, desired to be taken to the meeting place of the Oro men – usually deep in the forest and secluded from prying eyes. He sought to know their secret.
He was escorted there, but has never been seen since. And it has been a tradition of the Oro people never to leave any traces of food and anything behind at their meeting spot. In keeping with this tradition, the body of the late Apalara was cut up into little pieces and thrown piece by piece into the lagoon from a moving canoe.
But remember, it was to true, honest members of the various cults that I owed almost all the clues which ultimately brought eleven men to a just death.’
On the 12th of June 1953, all 20 men accused of the murder of Apalara were charged at the Yaba Magistrate Court. The first accused person was Joseph Ogundipe, two Oteka brothers were also among those apprehended.
The hearing of the case took approximately five weeks. The jury reached this unanimous decision in October 1953 and six other men were acquitted. The condemned were sentenced to death for the murder of a person whose body was not found.
The eleven men who orchestrated the murder and fed Apalara to the fishes of the lagoon were all hanged on the 27th of May, 1954 in a highly-celebrated execution following the court orders of Justice Henry De Comarmond, Judge of the Supreme Court of Lagos. The case was based on circumstantial evidence with the trial judge saying:
‘His belongings were found in his house, and he has never been seen again, and we have got the evidence of the attack upon him and you know that blood (which was human) was found leading from that place, Tapa Street, to the foreshore.’
The convicts were disgruntled and said they were not satisfied with the decision of the court and they lodged a notice of appeal before the West African Court of Appeal (WACA) where they urged the WACA to quash their convictions.
After the appeal was heard, Mr. Alli Balogun appeared for the first appellant, Mr. A. Tejuoso for the third, seventh, eighth and eleventh appellants, Mr. GBA Coker for the second, fourth and ninth appellants, and Mr. Tejuoso, led by Mr. Coker for fifth and sixth appellants, the tenth appellants argued his own case and the Crown was represented by Mr. Madarikan. But the high hopes of the appellants were dashed. While delivering, the WACA said:
‘We have examined the evidence against each appellant with anxious care and are satisfied that there was evidence against each one of them upon which the jury could properly come to the conclusion they did.’
The court went further saying the evidence in each case:
‘…was carefully and fairly dealt with by the trial judge in his summing up to the jury, who had the advantage of seeing and hearing the witnesses, and there is, in our view, nothing which would justify our interfering with the verdict of the jury, in any of the cases, on the ground of appeal in question. It appears to us that there was ample evidence, if accepted by the jury as it clearly was, that Apalara died on the night of the 3rd of January, 1953, as a result of injuries inflicted upon him, and we are of the opinion that this aspect of the matter was clearly and adequately put to the jury by the trial judge when he summed up the case to them.’
WACA affirmed the conviction of the appellants.
LEGACY AND REMEMBRANCE
- In 2002, a book titled Apalara The Martyr was launched to celebrate the 50th year anniversary of the late cleric. Interestingly, the master of ceremony at the occasion was the popular Muslim broadcaster Alhaji AbdulRazaq Aremu Gawat who shortly after, also vanished without a trace till today. Many Muslims regard both Apalara and Gawat martyrs who lost their lives in the service of Allah and believe Paradise will be their abode.
- The late blind minstrel, Kokoro (Benjamin Aderounmu) did a musical tribute in honour of Apalara in 1954. You can listen to it below:
This is a very sad story because no one deserves to die for what they believe in. Apalara was murdered primarily because of his religious beliefs and that is one of the most despicable crimes ever. However, you will notice that in his case, justice was relatively swift due to the brilliant investigative job of the police officer.
What I am trying to drive at here is that without a strong judicial system, Nigeria will not make any tangible progress. You also notice the effect of community policing, if that mysterious man did not report to the police what he saw, the killers of Apalara might never have been caught.
If a colonial government of the British can get justice for a Nigerian preacher murdered by his own fellow Nigerians, is it not a massive shame that in 2017, the Nigerian judicial system cannot get justice for the slain Redeemed Church of God female preacher, Deaconness Eunice Elisha? Her killers still walk free today in the society and that, is because there is no efficient judicial system.
A new Chief Justice of Nigeria has been officially sworn in by the acting president but I am in no way excited, let us hope he will push for the badly-needed reforms in the judiciary or else we will keep deceiving ourselves. The rights of preachers like Apalara should always be protected, freedom to believe, freedom to express, freedom to move around are all fundamental and the seriousness of a society is gauged by how willing it is ready to get justice for its most vulnerable members. We are not a serious nation yet.
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.
- DRUM, July 1955.
- January 1953
- How Female Redeemed Preacher Was Killed During Morning Evangelism
- Alfa Apalara
- Apalara the Martyr: Late Alfa Bisiriyu Apalara by Surajudeen Odetoki, Hazek Publishing Company, 2002.
- http://sunnewsonline.com/the-resurrection-of-apalara/ The Resurrection of Apalara
- Ajagbemokeferi: The Missionary by Gbolagade Azeez and Abidoye Sarumi, Caltop Publications (Nigeria) Limited, 1992
- The Times Cuttings: Africa West, Xerography, University Microfilms, 1954
- Issues In The Practice Of Religion In Nigeria by MT Yahya, Nigerian Association for the Study of Religions (NASR), 2006
- Nigeria: Shadow of a Great Nation, Lai Joseph, Dubeo Press Limited, 1995.
- Readings In Selected Nigerian Problems by Segun Johnson, Okanlawon Publishers Limited, 1990.
- Religion And Peace In Multi-Faith Nigeria by Jacob Obafemi Kehinde Olupona, December 1992
- Religion And Politics by R ‘Deremi Abubakre, RA Akanmidu, Olu E Alana, Nigerian Association for the Study of Religions, 1993
- How Apalara, Islamic Preacher Was Killed http://nationalmirroronline.net/new/how-apalara-islamic-preacher-was-killed/
National Library of Australia http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/62516350