By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo
Patience Agbaheme has been consumed. Religious extremism and ethnic bigotry haven’t had their fill. Religious murderers and arsonists have for so long enjoyed unmitigated impunity. Soldiers of God. That impunity fortified the hedges of apparent legitimacy mischievous interpretation of religious duty built for a most wicked act. That ordinarily horrendous unconstitutional act of chasing and hacking to death suspected blasphemers. Sinners executing people for God. A Kano mob in the throes of religious passion, rejected all pleas and, smashed a woman’s skull.
‘Saints’ cleaning up ‘filth’ for God. But these murderers are neither perverts nor deviants. Despite all the ‘shock and horror’, they can’t even be described as daring. It had to be in broad daylight. It was nothing that sinister and didn’t have to be done clandestinely. Her husband and perhaps a thousand others were made to watch. Death for blasphemy in Kano? Why is it now so so shocking?
A mob chanting to the heavens can lapse into a delirium and lose contact with reality. But this mob was clear headed. Like boko haram, they were contemptuous of the constitution. Theocracy may be good but it is not practicable in today’s Nigeria. In a plural society, the interpretation of texts must meet the demands of peaceful coexistence with others. Consequently peace must be the priority of any religion in the public affairs of a free democratic society. The constitution sets the standards that would allow diverse religions, all laying claims to supremacy, coexist.
A society on whose grounds such mobs can sprout must accept total responsibility. The Kano society set the wolves on the sheep. Lagos has millions of Muslims and Christians but not one of such incidents. This doesn’t relieve the perpetrators of criminal responsibility. It only implicates a grave vicarious communal liability. The community is the source of the mob’s sense of righteousness. That mob is representative of the dominant religious sentiments in the Muslim north. Except the standards are reset , these murders will not abate.
Kano it was that furnished the retards that decapitated Gideon Akaluka. If there is an outpouring of intense disgust now, there was none then. The city lacked the civility that could have prevented a mob from taking a man out of police custody and having a triumphant procession with his head held aloft a stick. Akaluka was an Igbo Christian. Some elders sat in secret and nodded approvals to youths made bloodthirsty by a perverted sense of religious duty. Condemnations were muted, muffled and served merely as weak appeasements to the ‘interests of national unity’. They did not seek to correct the textual interpretations that furnished the mob its fervent righteousness. They did not seek to banish such murders. I will tell you why.
After Akaluka, Isioma Daniel , a journalist , was accused of blasphemy. She tendered heartfelt apologies. The then deputy governor of Zamfara issued a Fatwa, sentenced Isioma Daniel to death. Sharia was in vogue and identification with religious fundamentalism atoned for all political shortcomings. He urged Muslims to fulfill a religious duty, to execute Miss Daniel. A cacophony of timid voices rose to query the authority of Aliyu Shinkafi to speak for Nigerian Muslims. Few feeble voices of political correctness emerged reluctantly to nurse the bedridden “interests of national unity”.
Riots broke out. 200 people predominantly Igbos were killed. Miss Daniel scurried into a hole , and then fled into exile. She is an Igbo christian. Aliyu Shinkafi has not been arrested for attempted murder. Will never be arrested. No one was in doubt that fanatics would perceive his position as conferring on him an authority that commands obedience. No one doubted that fanatics would then consider it a compelling duty to murder the lady as instructed by an Ayatollah’s deputy. Yet Shinkafi was deemed not to have committed any criminal offence. A timid Nigerian state, in succumbing to murderous religious zealotry, sent a message. That message legitimized the actions of Shinkafi and past, present and future Kano mobs.
The message was…….. “ that the Nigerian state cannot always defend the supremacy of the constitution. The state lacks the stamina to confront the dangerous assumptions that founded a deputy governor’s temerity to order the summary execution of another citizen. The state then warns all not to commit the grave crime of blasphemy because it shares jurisdiction on such matters with fanatics like Shinkafi. Woe then betides anyone who attracts even the merest suspicions of having committed this offence or whose enemies choose to harbor such suspicions.
The state understands the limits of its sovereignty and will in some circumstances let the interpretation of some religious texts trump the constitution. Once a mob rises against a real or imagined blasphemer, the state may run into hiding. Or watch helplessly as the mob renders swift justice. Be thee warned! “ Why then are people shedding crocodile political tears in Kano? Criminal offences are not statute barred. If the police let Shinkafi go, why are they pretending to be serious with these murder suspects? Are they unlucky because they are poor? Okay, this is the dispensation of ‘change’?
But I read the president’s response. It was prompt. But poorly worded. The president should have had an emphatic absolute focus on the barbarity of murders motivated by religious extremism. His statement could be read to mean that the victim committed an offence and perhaps invited tragedy. He should have told his fellow Muslims that they have no right to touch any blasphemer. The president has to be seen to be ruthless in protecting lives.
But this cancer will not be excised by cosmetic touches of political gimmickry. Neither will it be contained by strict and predictable application of criminal sanctions alone. Though that will be invaluable in curbing impunity. A lot will be achieved by denying extremist readings of religious texts legitimacy. But freedom and peace in a plural secular society cannot rest on the willingness of a group to tone down their gospel. The fundamental question resides in the acceptance of the supremacy or otherwise of the constitution. Is the constitution accepted as superior to all interpretations of religious texts? Are there persons or group of persons for whom the supremacy of the constitution is unacceptable?
The Sultan of Sokoto has made it clear that Islam doesn’t decree murder for blasphemers. Islamic clerics may have a role to play in correcting the assumption on the streets that Muslims can defend God by taking the laws into their hands . Extremist views must be countered. But the assertion by some moderates that those who executed Patience Agbaheme are not Muslims is unhelpful denial. The suspects are everyday Muslims. The crowd that cheered would be predominantly Muslims too. They committed that murder in a supposed defence of the Islamic faith.
To say they are not Muslims is to relieve the clerics of the responsibility of clearing up the doctrinal misconceptions. Is Shinkafi no longer a Muslim? The streets in the north are littered with bits and pieces of religious fundamentalism. The constitution should be supreme. Shedding a river of tears won’t help. The north must take back steps that have undermined and continue to undermine the sanctity of the supremacy of the constitution. If a Guinness truck cannot pass through Kano streets unmolested, why do we pretend to be shocked by Patience Agbaheme’s murder?