Remembering Bilkisu Yusuf: The Nigerian journalist and feminist who died in Mecca stampede

In a few weeks, Muslims across the world will enter the month of Ramadan and begin a 29/30-day fasting. The holy period comes with an obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the religion's five pillars.

It's a perfect time to remember Bilkisu Yusuf, the Nigerian journalist and feminist who died in a tragic stampede in Mecca five years ago.

Before Yusuf made the long trip across many oceans to the holy land as her religion instructs, she had made a name as one of Nigeria's finest journalists.

After going through her primary and secondary education at Ansar Primary School, Kano (1964) and Government Girls College, Dala, Kano respectively, Yusuf went on to obtain her bachelor's and master's degrees in political science at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the University of Wisconsin–Madison in Madison, Wisconsin, United States. And in 1986, she also earned an advanced degree in journalism from the International Journalism School at Moscow State Institute of International Relations in Moscow, Russia.

Yusuf later worked with several reputable new organisations such as Sunday Triumph in Kano, New Nigerian and Citizen Magazine in Kaduna, as well as Daily Trust and Leadership in Abuja.

As a journalist, her dedication to truth, accountability and fight for women's rights and liberation set her apart from her peers.

It was her devotion to providing solutions to societal issues directly affecting women that led her to found several NGOs including the Women In Nigeria (WIN), the Federation of Muslim Women's Associations in Nigeria (FOMWAN), among others. She also held the position as Executive Director of Advocacy Nigeria and was appointed as the adviser to the Nigerian President on International Affairs.

Through her many NGOs, Yusuf built schools, hospitals, orphanages, and conducted numerous adult literacy classes, skills acquisition workshops and income generation projects nationwide.

At the AUN-API International Conference on Peace and Development, where scholars, public service officers, and students discussed the 'Role of the Media in Peace' on June 12, 2014, Yusuf said, "the media is in the position to promote peace— we (the media) manufacture conflict, promote conflict, and sustain conflict, but we are supposed to inform the people, and not misinform them," before going on to add that "the challenge before us is to promote journalism that has the peace element in it and also the truth."

Tragic death

On September 24, 2015 Yusuf, alongside 200 other Nigerians, breathed her last during a tragic incident while observing the holy pilgrimage in Mecca. The 62-year-old was one of the pilgrims who were on their way to cast stones at pillars to symbolize the stoning of the devil before heading to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, when a stampede occurred. Over 2,000 pilgrims were trampled to death during the stampede.

President Muhammadu Buhari, while reacting to the tragic news, eulogized Yusuf as an "exemplary, dedicated, knowledgeable, very credible, highly-respected, outstanding editor and columnist who, even in death, will remain a glittering role model for journalists, within and outside Nigeria."

Former minister of education, Oby Ezekwesili also said, "Bilkisu fought all her life for child education. She has been consistent in her advocacy. She never wearied until it was time to go."

Covid-19 impact on pilgrimage

A lot has happened since Yusuf's death at the holy land five years ago. This year, for the fifth time in the last 1,400 years and the first time since 1892, the annual holy pilgrimage which sees about 2.5 million Muslims from around the globe visit Mecca every year may never hold.

On March 19, 2020, Saudi Arabia became one of the first countries in the world to effect a lockdown in order to enforce social distancing and limit the spread of Covid-19. Authorities suspended the holding of daily prayers, the weekly Friday prayers inside and outside the walls of the two mosques in Mecca and Medina, as well as the Umrah year-round pilgrimage, after the kingdom recorded its 274th case of the virus. The 2020 pilgrimage is supposed to start in late July but authorities have advised Muslims to wait for a while before making travel plans.

Hajiya Bilikisu Yusuf may have died under tragic circumstances in the course of serving God, but she'll never be forgotten for her advocacy for women's rights, child education, and justice.

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