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Blasphemy-Related Killings: Any Way Out?

Deborah Samuel

June 20, (THEWILL) – Killing in the name of religion is fait accompli for some people as witnessed in the casual murder of Deborah Samuel by fellow students of Shehu Shagari College of Education Sokoto on Thursday, May 12 2022. She was accused of blasphemy. Instead of charging her to court to establish her guilt or innocence, the irate students and mob played the accuser, prosecutor and judge all at once.

Under such circumstance, the verdict can only be too predictable. Guilty, of course. Sentence? Death by stoning! The mob proceeded to do just that and then added a macabre twist to it: they burned Deborah’s corpse as if symbolically dispatching her, in their reckoning, to hell where she belongs.

Although it didn’t go viral as Deborah’s unfortunate premature death, a similar incident had happened a month before in April but only recently reported in the Metro pages of Nigerian newspapers. With sickening disbelief, Nigerians got to know how one Hannah Saliu, a sex-worker, was similarly casually murdered and her body set afire by her killers in Alaba Rago Market Lagos state.

Only a glancing distance from Lagos State University in Ojo local government area of the state, the sprawling market is home to settlers and traders mainly from northern Nigeria. Like Idi Araba, Ijora and Mile 12, Alaba Rago is sometimes the first port of call for traders hoping to sell their merchandise – goats and rams, grains and tubers, sugar canes, fruits and poultry.

Like the unfortunate student in Sokoto, the prostitute was accused of blasphemy. But unlike Deborah who shared her views via a WhatsApp message, Hannah made no such offending post. She had, as her profession demands, satisfied a customer in her hotel room and got paid a thousand naira for her timely service. By the time her customer departed, she discovered that her five thousand naira was missing.

Faster than a premature ejaculation, she bolted after the chap, caught up with him and then accused him of stealing her hard-earned money. Whether the said customer is a regular or first timer isn’t quite clear. But it is true that when first-timers visit brothels, they don’t go in the same way they stroll confidently to a church or a mosque. They sneak in and out to avoid being seen – a self-condemnatory attitude very much like Adam shamefully acknowledging his nakedness after the act.

With that dodgy attitude, nothing can be more humiliating than a prostitute you just had sex with accosting and accusing you in public of purloining her money, possibly holding on tight to your shirt as startled onlookers begin to close in – forming that inevitable semi-circle.

So it was on the day Hannah the prostitute planted herself in front of Abubakar Musa at Alaba Rago Market. The rational thing to do, as anyone will reasonably expect, is to search the customer right there. Nothing of such was done. Instead, with the prostitute leading the way, they (Musa and his accomplices Sarauta Monsur and Surajo Yusuf now in police custody) proceeded to her hotel room. From then on, it was as if fate already had a hand in the bizarre drama that was about to unfold.

By the time they searched Hannah’s room, they found no money. But they found a more ‘incriminating’ evidence under her pillow – a Quran. Everything turned against her almost immediately. In their reckoning, it was sacrilegious for a prostitute to have the Holy book of Prophet Mohammed under her pillow while servicing her customers. From being an accuser, Hannah had become the accused.

Like the students and mobs in SSCE Sokoto, the boys beat up the prostitute, killed her and then set her body ablaze. Shikena!

But the matter has not ended just like that. The trio of Musa, Monsur and Yusuf are in detention awaiting their day in court – that is if they’re ever charged in the first place.

Cases of blasphemy-related killings are not entirely new around here. They are almost always carried out by an incensed crowd or mob who become the accuser, prosecutor and judge at the same time. No resort to any court of law for any form of trial. The judgment is nearly always instantaneous and most times ending tragically.

Sometime in December 1995, one Gideon Akaluka was looking forward to spending Christmas with his folk back in one of the towns in the south east where he was born some thirty-something years before. As is customary with Igbos in the diaspora, Easter and Christmas holidays are times for reunion with those they left behind in their homelands. A resident in Kano, Akaluka woke up one day that December to find himself the centre of attention by young Muslims who invaded his home in Sabon Gari quarters of the city. What was the trouble?

His wife, they fumed, used a page of the Quran to wipe her infant’s butt. Faced with that challenge, the police stepped in and spirited Akaluka away to their station so that no harm will come to him. It turned out even the police station was not safe enough.

Growing ever larger and more belligerent by the minute as they marched on, the irate Muslim youth invaded the supposed safe haven, got their man, beheaded him and paraded his bodiless head around the city, chanting Allah Akbar, that is God be praised as the sated procession moved on.

It is possible that, outnumbered by the mob, the officers took to their heels when they surrounded the station. It is also possible that, like Pilate’s symbolical washing of hands to absolve himself of any blame/ guilt in the imminent crucifixion of Christ, the officers turned their eyes away as if to say, well, the accused brought it upon himself.

It turned out in the end that Akaluka was falsely accused. But the man died anyway. One of the principal players on that day of infamy was a former Imam of a mosque in Kano who later became a top banker and subsequently a first class traditional ruler.

Also playing a prominent role in the death of Sunday Achi a 400-level law student of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University Bauchi was the Imam of the mosque in the institution, Dr. Isa Pantami, now Minister of Communications and Digital Economy. At the time in December 2004, Achi was leader of ECWA Student Ministries. What was his crime? He was said to have shared Christian religious tracts in the mosque. The action fetched him a death sentence.

In an interview last April, Achi Senior disclosed that contrary to reports then, his son was not stoned to death but strangled right in the mosque for his alleged crime of blasphemy. His ward, Achi insists, never uttered any profanity against Islam or Prophet Mohammed.

But as if giving full endorsement to the brutal killing of the law student, Islamic scholar and cleric Pantami declared thusly: “We are happy whenever unbelievers are killed.”

The same fate would possibly have been meted out to another law student in another institution of higher learning in Nigeria but for the prompt intervention of elders of a mosque at University of Ibadan in August 2010, six years after Achi was killed for his profanity.

It was the Jumu’at service at the institution’s Central Mosque on the first Friday of Ramadan. Of course, the prayer ground would have been bursting at the seams with worshippers. Among them was a Christian, Seun Olagunsoye, who, in retrospect, did not come to pray. She had embarked on a proselytizing mission to convert Muslims to become Christians. It was also almost suicidal.

Her method was both reckless and unwise. In the quiet of the hall, Olagunsoye suddenly stood up and began to shout at the top of her voice, telling the assembled worshippers that, ”no matter the amount of congregation, you won’t enter Paradise. Allah is not God; Jesus is Lord. Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and saviour….”

If ever there was any sacrilegious act, this was it. And yet, the young woman was spared. No one stoned or burned her to death for her obvious and premeditated blasphemous pronouncement right in the mosque. As recounted recently in the wake of the Deborah tragedy, Professor Martins Fabunmi of UI said elders of the mosque envisaged what might happen after Olagunsoye’s unexpected faux pas in the mosque.

“After the prayer, the Muslim Youths had besieged the female quarter where Seun was. They had huffed and puffed to mortally wound her till she eventually land in hospital or lay in her grave,” Prof Fabunmi was quoted in the interview. But the “Muslim elders in the mosque had envisaged what might really happen. So, they rushed out to protect the lady and quench the protest.”

The level of tolerance shown by the school authorities, elders of the mosque and even students was simply astonishing, Fabunmi went on. The institution quickly formed a four-man committee, including members of the mosque where the incident occurred. Though the Vice Chancellor then, Professor Bamiro, was keen on handing the student a suspension, they appealed on the student’s behalf. The VC lent them a sympathetic ear.

Needless to add that the law undergrad was allowed to sit for her exams and has been called to the bar since then and practicing now. Even so, the don lamented the difference in both situations. Seun, Fabunmi said, “committed a more grievous offence in UI and she escaped. Deborah who allegedly committed a less grievous one paid with her life in Sokoto.”

Already benumbed with the spate of taunting attacks by insurgents and terrorists, killing on account of blasphemous remarks or actions is a frightening enough spectre for Nigerians. President Muhammadu Buhari, for instance, found Deborah’s killing objectionable. Muslims all over the world, PMB said, demand respect for the Holy Prophets including Jesus Christ and Mohammed, insisting that “no person has the right to take law in his or her own hands in this country. Violence has and never will solve any problem.”

On its part, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) speaking through its General Secretary, Joseph Daramola, said the unlawful and dastardly action of the perpetrators must not only be condemned by all right-thinking people but security operatives must fish them out and prosecute them. In the same statement, they blamed the attack on “the failure of the security agencies and the government to rise up to such criminalities in the past that gave birth to terrorists and bandits. And as long as the state fails to bring these beasts and criminals amidst us to book, so also the society will continue to be their killing fields.”

The spiritual head of the Muslim faithful, Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar himself condemned the attack, calling it “unjustified.” The Sultan also urged security agencies to fish out the criminals.

In separate interviews with the BBC Pidgin English a day after Deborah’s killing, two Islamic scholars, Oluwatoyin Yusuf and Sheikh Nuer Khalid condemned the perpetrators. Those who stoned and killed Deborah, Imam Yusuf said, are murderers and their actions do not represent Islam.

Described as a digital imam on account of reaching out to Muslim faithful through social media, Nuer Khalid admitted that though punishment for those who blaspheme the prophet or the Quran is death, still the responsibility does not lie with them to pronounce judgment or even carry it out. The criminals who killed Deborah, he went on, would have reported the matter to the appropriate authorities, a competent court of law, say, to try her for blasphemy.

After pronouncing the fatwa on Rushdie in 1988, Khomeini urged the Islamic faithful to execute his orders. “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the “Satanic Verses” book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death,” Khomeini said then. “I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.”

By some funny coincidence, Rushdie was to have a live interview on the day the death sentence was pronounced by Khomeni. So, as he arrived the station, someone handed him a printout of the death sentence. What does he think of this? In his characteristic manner, Rushdie dismissed it, saying that “this was not a sentence handed down by any court that he recognized, or that had any jurisdiction over him.”

Of course, those who killed Akaluka, Deborah and Hannah had no jurisdiction over them but it didn’t stop them from seeing their evil actions through from start to finish. It also suggests religious intolerance and extremism on their part, a point made clear by Professor Fabunmi of UI.

“Adherents of all religions should show mutual respect, love and tolerance for others with different religious beliefs and ideologies,” Fabunmi advised. He also cautioned against incautious pronouncements. “Children should watch their utterances and actions at all times. Majority of the youths in the North are out of school children who are bitter at the circumstances that the system puts them. They may attack after a slight provocation or misinformation.”