In Depth

Blasphemy in Nigeria: a death sentence

Christian student killed by Muslim peers who accused her of insulting Prophet Mohammad

Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto, northern Nigeria, was once seen “as an oasis of knowledge in a vast land of aridity... a symbol of enlightenment and civility”. Not any more, said Dare Babarinsa in The Guardian (Lagos). Earlier this month, Deborah Samuel Yakubu, a bright young Christian student who’d done well in her exams, wrote to fellow students on a WhatsApp group saying “I thank Jesus for my success.” From then on, “death stalked her”.

Enraged by her praise of Jesus, some Muslim fellow students accused her of making blasphemous remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. Dragging her outside, they beat her to death and set fire to her body. When the suspects were arrested, a mob went on a rampage in the town, demanding their release and insisting death was the deserved punishment for blasphemy.

Even if her killers are convicted, said Abimbola Adelakun in Punch (Lagos), the real challenge lies “in confronting the world that emboldened” them. Nigeria is a supposedly secular state, yet it’s teeming with Muslim fundamentalists who justify violent deeds on religious grounds.

The extreme example is the jihadist group Boko Haram, which terrorises much of the north. But extra-judicial sectarian killings, often involving accusations of blasphemy, also occur with sickening regularity, and are all too often endorsed by religious leaders.

And all too often brushed aside by political leaders, said Ebenezer Obadare in Council on Foreign Relations (New York). Of the main party candidates running for president in next year’s election, just one has condemned the killing of Yakubu. The ex-vice president and presidential hopeful Atiku Abubakar did initially tweet his condemnation, but then deleted it, saying his account had been hacked.

This is all the result of the way the country is split, religiously and ethnically. The Igbo population in the south is mainly Christian; the Yoruba and ethnic groups in the middle about 50% Christian, 50% Muslim; the Hausa-Fulani in the north are largely Muslim. Given the political hegemony of the north, politicians are loath to provoke northern Muslims and the conservative religious establishment by highlighting blasphemy cases.

The “ideological chasm” between north and south has been the core issue threatening Nigeria’s unity since independence in 1960, said Obadare. And “the grip of conservative Islam on northern Nigeria is tightened by poverty and illiteracy”: the World Bank estimates that 87% of poor Nigerians live in the north.

What’s more, Sharia law holds sway in all 12 northern states, said Lasisi Olagunju in Nigerian Tribune (Ibadan), and under Sharia, blasphemy is a serious offence. It’s said “the quickest way to die is to be wrongly accused of blasphemy in northern Nigeria. If you’re lucky, you’ll get locked up by a Sharia court.” If not, you will meet the fate of Deborah Yakubu.

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