The impious utterance causing gruesome killings in Nigeria

Nigeria claims to operate a secular society but blasphemy is still an offence. Blasphemy in Nigeria is punishable by the body of laws in the country. The laws in this case refer to the criminal code (operational in southern Nigeria), the penal code (operational in northern Nigeria) and sharia (Islamic) law (operational in majority Muslim-dominated states).

Blasphemy is a sensitive issue which often attracts the death sentence in parts of Nigeria when the issue is not properly managed. When the courts are not involved, the people will involve themselves. The gruesome murder of Deborah Samuels, a College of Education student, in Sokoto is still fresh in our minds. Efforts by the authorities to identify and arrest those involved in her murder have been met with protests, with many justifying her death for allegedly blaspheming against the Prophet Mohammed in a WhatsApp chat with her classmates.

Recent events have led to the question of what blasphemy is and the laws about blasphemy in Nigeria. Let’s throw more light on the issue to understand what it is.

What is blasphemy?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines blasphemy as great disrespect shown to God or something holy, or something said or done that shows this kind of disrespect. Over the years, blasphemy has been connected to religion. However, the act has been extended to mean “irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable”. In other words, blasphemy is deemed to be more than a religious offence. It is labelled as some sort of a violation of human rights when the comments made by one person disrespect what another person holds dear or sees as sacred.

Issues of blasphemy in Nigeria

Issues of blasphemy in Nigeria

As earlier mentioned, Nigeria operates both the penal and criminal codes and the sharia system, which all have the authority to oversee blasphemy cases. The sharia system operates across 12 Muslim-dominated states in the northern region. Blasphemy is a punishable offence under all the mentioned court systems.

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Under sharia law, blasphemy is a serious crime which is punishable by death. The penal code and criminal code are less severe in terms of punishment, with those convicted sent to jail. While there have been death convictions under the sharia law in Nigeria, this body of law, the criminal and penal codes stipulate that suspects must be given a fair hearing by a competent court of jurisdiction in the country.

Sadly, many have died, often gruesomely, via extrajudicial means after being accused of blasphemy. Jungle justice was meted out to suspects leading to their death, as in the case of Deborah. The “lucky” ones have either escaped to other more friendly regions or countries, while their homes and properties were destroyed by angry residents or jailed for many years in prison.

There are numerous cases of killings based on blasphemy in Nigeria. Deborah’s case is just one out of many. Perpetrators often believe that they are “doing God’s work”. Their perceptions are enhanced by the way that they are often allowed to go scot-free, a tactic way of endorsing their actions by relevant authorities. To this day, only two students have been arrested for Deborah’s murder, even though the faces of her reported killers are all over the media. These arrests have generated protests across the region, with protesters demanding the release of the two suspects.

Many persons have likened the extrajudicial killings “on behalf of God” done by the masses due to the heightened poverty and illiteracy, especially in the northern part of the country. According to the World Bank, northern Nigeria has about 87 per cent of people living in poverty. Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) also revealed that illiteracy is concentrated in the north, with Yobe State having a “7.23 per cent literacy level, the lowest in the country”.

A report by the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) estimates that 13,241 Nigerians were killed extrajudicially between 2011 and 2021. According to the same report, “these unlawful killings go largely unpunished” because the essentially religious nature of “blasphemy”-inspired vigilantism comes with a different layer of complication.

So, while sections 38 and 39 of the Nigerian Constitution guarantee freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression, the freedom is not absolute as they are heavily limited by the penal and criminal codes, as well as the sharia law. Therefore, blasphemy is an offence punishable under recognised laws in Nigeria.

However, most of the Nigerian political elites choose to keep quiet about the extrajudicial killings not recognised by Nigerian laws against the so-called blasphemers. They do this in the interest of their political ambition, knowing fully well their condemnation of the killings could backfire during elections. This lip service by the political class is part of the reason why killings based on blasphemy have become more brazen over the years.

History of blasphemy cases in Nigeria

Deborah Samuel, a female student killed in Sokoto on May 12, 2022Deborah Samuel, a female student killed in Sokoto on May 12, 2022

Blasphemy is as old as when man began to know the existence of God and anything or anyone that is considered sacred. Although blasphemy in Nigeria has existed for decades, the first recorded case happened in December 1994 when a mob stormed a jail in the northwestern state of Kano to capture Gideon Akaluka, a young Igbo trader, who was being held by the police. Akaluka was arrested after his wife allegedly used pages of the Quran as toilet paper for her baby. The mob killed and gleefully paraded his decapitated head around the city.

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In July 1999, a Muslim mob beheaded Abdullahi Umaru for alleged blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed in Randali village in Kebbi State.

In 2002, more than 200 people were killed in widespread rioting after Isioma Daniel, a journalist for ThisDay Newspapers, joked that Prophet Mohammed would have chosen a bride from one of that year’s contestants for the Miss World competition. Arsonists torched the newspaper’s office in Kaduna while the Zamfara State government reportedly issued a fatwa, urging Muslims to consider killing the journalist a religious duty.

March 2007 witnessed Christiana Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, a schoolteacher in Gandu, Gombe State, being beaten and stabbed to death after a student falsely accused her of tearing a copy of the Quran. Sixteen suspects were arrested but they were eventually released without being charged.

In June 2015, an Islamic court in Kano sentenced nine people (eight men and a woman) to death after they were found guilty of blasphemy. The nine allegedly uttered “Niasse was bigger than Prophet Muhammad” during a religious gathering in honour of Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse, founder of the Tijaniyyah order.

In August 2020, a Kano Islamic court sentenced gospel musician Yahya Sharif-Aminu to death by hanging for blasphemy, after he allegedly violated Section 382 (B) of the Kano State Sharia Penal Code. His case has been sent for retrial.

In that same month, 13-year-old Omar Farouq was sentenced to 10 years in prison for blasphemy by a Sharia court in Kano. Following a global outrage, his sentencing was overturned because he was a minor.

In March 2021, a water vendor, popularly known as Talle Mai Ruwa, was dragged from a police post in the village of Sade in Bauchi State and beaten to death by a mob for allegedly insulting the Prophet.

In April 2022, Mubarak Bala, the 37-year-old President of the Nigeria Humanist Association, was sentenced to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to eighteen charges of “blaspheming Islam.”

In May 2022, Deborah Samuel Yakubu, a 200-level student of Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto was beaten and burnt to death by a mob of Muslim students. Deborah, a Christian, had allegedly commented on WhatsApp, criticising the religion-related posts that Muslim classmates discussed in the study group she believed should have been reserved for academic purposes.

Laws about blasphemy in Nigeria

Laws about blasphemy in Nigeria

Nigeria operates two codes – Sharia penal code and criminal codes. The penal code applies in the north, where there is a Muslim majority, and the criminal code in the southern part of the country, where there is a Christian majority.

Blasphemy in Nigeria is an offence under the Sharia law which operates in most states in the northern part of the country. The list of the Sharia penal codes is contained here.

Meanwhile, Section 204 of Nigeria’s Criminal Code, entitled “insult to religion,” states:

Any person who does an act which any class of persons consider as a public insult on their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.

It is also worthy to note that the Supreme Court of Nigeria recognises blasphemy as “a serious crime which is punishable by death” under sharia law. However, the court noted that it “has to be established through evidence before a court of law” and that “the killing is controlled and sanctioned by the authorities”.

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