Blasphemy and the Constitution

Deborah killed for blasphemy

Deborah Samuel killed for blasphemy at Sokoto College of Education

By Gboyega Akinsanmi 

Deborah Yakubu, a 200-level student of the Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto, was stoned, battered and set ablaze penultimate week over alleged blasphemy. The way her assailants summarily ended her life raised valid questions about the acceptability of the 1999 Constitution as the country’s supreme legal instrument.

Sokoto, a northern state with the worst poverty and literacy indices nationwide, was on fire penultimate week. A mob of religious extremists flooded the streets of its sprawling capital, attacking Christian residents and demanding immediate release of two suspects arrested in connection with Deborah’s murder.

The extremists laid siege to the palace of Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubabkar. Sultan became a target because he condemned the mob action that abruptly terminated Deborah’s life. Also, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Dr. Mathew Kukah could have been a victim if not for the timely intervention of the police.

But the state governor, Alhaji Aminu Tambuwal saved the day by declaring a curfew after violent protests broke out across the capital. Eventually, public order was restored. But what triggered this violence? It is the same old reason: Deborah was accused of blaspheming Prophet Muhammad on a WhatsApp group.

As a result, Muslim students mobilised within and without the college. As shown in a viral video, they went for their target and bestially decided her fate without recourse to known laws. After they stoned Deborah to death in the public, the extremists set her body ablaze, a despicable action that has no place in law.

In Nigeria, Deborah is not the first victim of religious extremism. Before her case, some citizens, especially Christian faith, have suffered the same fate at different times in the country’s history. In 1994, for instance, a young trader of Igbo extraction, Gideon Akaluka was killed at the prime of his life in Kano.

Christiana Oluwasesin, a school teacher in Gombe, was stabbed to death on a trump-up allegation of blasphemy. Even though suspects connected to her death were arrested, none of them paid for the act of taking a human life. In 2021, Talle Kuwa was clubbed to death for the same reason, even at a police post in Sade, a community in Bauchi. Till date, justice has not been served in any of these cases.

Apart from these cases, recently, suspects have faced prosecution for alleged blasphemy in the north. In June 2015, a Kano Islamic Court sentenced eight men and one woman to death for saying Sheikh Ibrahim Naisse, founder of the Tijaniyyah order, was greater than Prophet Muhammad.

In August 2020, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, an Islamic gospel musician, had his own bite. A Kano Islamic Court found him guilty of section 382 of the Sharia Penal Code. On this ground, he was sentenced to death. Just last April, President, Nigerian Humanist Association, Mubarak Bala bagged a 24-year imprisonment for blaspheming Islam.

Across the North, these cases are common. But is blasphemy an offence in Nigeria? It is an offence under the Criminal Code Act, 2004, which classifies it as public insult. In Nigeria, the Act is the highest codified legislation, which provides grounds, principles and rules for criminal investigation, trial and awards of punitive measures against any suspects found wanting under it.

In Section 204, the code never recommends death penalty against any convict. Rather, according to the section, a convict shall be liable to imprisonment for two years only. The decisions of the Islamic courts, which sentenced the nine convicts to death in 2015, Sharif-Aminu in 2020 and Bala to 24-year imprisonment, are obviously nothing, but a nullity if subjected to judicial interpretation under the Criminal Code Act, 2004.

Under the 1999 Constitution, the decisions of the Islamic courts were serially erred. Under its section 10, the constitution stipulates that the Government of the Federation or of a State “shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” This provision, thus, raises a question about the legality of subjecting a Nigerian to Sharia Law, whose provisions are at variance with that of the constitution.

Also, this question is imperative in the light of Section 1 of the 1999 Constitution. First, section (1)(1) states that this Constitution “is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on the authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” Unequivocally, the grundnorm is superior to any legislation enacted whether by the federal legislature or by the state legislature.

Second, the constitution envisages that conflicts of law may arise in the course of socio-economic and political relations. This inkling inspires another provision, which expressly addresses all issues that may ignite conflicts of laws. Under Section (1)(2), the constitution stipulates: “If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.”

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Finally, punishing suspects arbitrarily for blasphemy, whether by mob actions or by Islamic courts, has again violated Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution. Indeed, this section is a global practice, which apparently aims at encouraging inter-faith tolerance and promoting religious freedom and cross-fertilising a culture of peaceful coexistence among Nigerians.

As this section stipulates, every person shall be entitled “to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

Altogether, these provisions are obviously on trial. With the rising cases of blasphemy-related killings, Nigeria is now a federation where laws that brazenly contravene the 1999 Constitution are deployed to determine the fate of innocent citizens. Also, political elites are unwilling to confront the religious extremists for fear of their political aspirations and futures.

Given the bestial way Deborah was murdered, Nigerians are calling for justice. Such demands for justice can only be seen to have been served by fair prosecution of the suspects. Also, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has petitioned the UK and US, citing diverse religious killings in Nigeria and their implications for national unity.

In Deborah’s case, whether justice will eventually be served is evidently in doubt, at least for two reasons. First, whether by commission or by default, no suspect of religious killing has been successfully prosecuted in the history of Nigeria. Second, a number of northern leaders never see any wrong in the way the religious extremists took into their hands and clubbed their targets to death on the pretext of fighting for Prophet Muhammad

Unlike previous cases, however, some progress has been recorded in the search for justice for Deborah. Already, the state government has started prosecuting two suspects, Bilyaminu Aliyu and Aminu Hukunci arrested in connection with her murder. Also, the police have declared four other suspects wanted, which suggests that Deborah may not eventually die in vain.

As the prosecution of two suspects kicked off last week, a team of 34 lawyers appeared in defence of two suspects. This team is led by a Professor of Law, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Prof. Mansur Ibrahim. Again, this high profile representation attests to the conspiracy of the northern elite, which often encourages the recurrence of religious killings.

But the world is waiting for the outcome of the criminal justice dispensation, the lack of which a senior lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana argued, had triggered the recurrence of religious killings in the North. Even if justice is served in Deborah’s case at last, that may not be an end to religious killings in the north due to inherent socio-economic issues that plague nearly all northern states.

In the North, injustice is pervasive. First, those who are killing in the name of religion are facing heinous social and economic injustice, which according to diverse reports, has reduced them to captives of bestiality. Findings further show that they are largely able young men who have no access to education; who are grappling with extreme poverty and who are victims of poor governance that put Nigeria on the precipice.

Recent indicators support these claims. Last week, for instance, UNICEF released its new report on out-of-school children. Now, there are18.5 million nationwide, representing an increase of 76.19 percent above 10.5 million recorded in 2018. At least, majority of them are from the North. From this rank, according to analysts, Nigeria is breeding citizens who will be ready tools in the hands of criminal groups.

Like out-of-children records, literacy level is abysmally low in the North, though with the exemption of Taraba. In its 2017 report, the National Bureau of Statistics put Yobe’s literacy rate at 7.23 per centl; Katsina 10.36 per cent; Sokoto 15.01 per cent; Zamfara 19.16 per cent; Kebbi 20.51 per cent and Niger 22.88 percent.

Besides, northerners are grappling with endemic economic injustice, which impoverished not just their bodies, but also their minds. Nigeria Poverty Assessment 2022, a report by the World Bank, also lends credence to the depth of economic injustice, with which the majority of northerners are battling by the day.

In Sokoto, as spelt out in its report, the bank put its poverty headcount at about 87.73 per cent; Taraba 87.72 percent; Jigawa 87.02 per cent; Adamawa 75.41 per cent; Zamfara 73.98 per cent; Yobe 72.34 per cent; Niger 66.11 per cent; Gombe 62.31 per cent and Bauchi 61.53 per cent.

As these indicators show, ensuring justice judicially alone will not end religious extremism and killings in the north. Apparently, it will entail conscious pro-poor policies tailored at addressing the roots of economic and social injustice, which most analysts agree, often spurs most northern youths to kill in the name of religion rather than embrace the justice system under the 1999 Constitution.

-Akinsanmi, a journalist, writes from Lagos

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