By Ikechukwu Amaechi
IN his 2002 book, Why the Nations Rage: Killing in the Name of God, Christopher Catherwood illustrated how religion and national pride, which are supposed to be positive forces, can become perverted ideologies that arouse hatred, slaughter, and war.
In the wake of the gruesome murder of Deborah Samuel, a 200-level student of the Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto, by fellow students who accused her of blasphemy, I have gone back to read the book once again because the two issues Catherwood highlighted in the book – religion and national pride – were at play in that dastardly act.
The 22-year-old Deborah was killed in a most horrendous manner and her body set ablaze by Muslim fundamentalists parading as students, who recorded and uploaded their unbelievable barbarism in the social media for the whole world to see. Whatever crime Deborah was deemed to have committed, her very last words: “What do you hope to achieve with this”, and passionate plea to her murderers to spare her life ought to have melted even a heart of stone.
But her plea didn’t make any difference. She was killed all the same. Only her precious blood could quench the craving of the bloodhounds for more blood. Deborah’s ugly fate which boils down to the fanatical conviction that God commands acts of violence against the unfaithful, a blatant lie by the way, raises a lot of issues. God, the omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent has supreme power and no limitations. He has the infinite capacity to defend His name without help from a mere mortal. In fact, the blasphemy here is the claim that someone or a group of people are defending God because that in itself is a gratuitous insult to the Supreme Being.
Besides, Nigeria is a secular state, officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor irreligion, with a supreme Constitution to boot. So, why would the Sharia police, Hisbah, for instance destroy people’s businesses for committing no crime known to the laws of Nigeria? The simple answer is impunity! And because they are getting away with the scandal, Muslim fundamentalists have been emboldened over the years to whimsically kill fellow citizens because they know there will be no consequences. Assuming without conceding that blasphemy is, indeed, a crime, who makes that that determination? In other words, what constitutes blasphemy? This question is germane because most leaders from the North who have been forced to speak against the heinous murder of Deborah, though tongue-in-cheek, preface their statements with admonitions on the need to respect others people’s religious beliefs.
Some even condemn the poor girl for allegedly stretching the limits of freedom of speech. But none of these people, including President Muhammadu Buhari, has been able to say what Deborah said that constituted blasphemy. Deborah’s course mates as narrated by one of her classmates, Rakia, set up a WhatsApp platform, presumably for ease of communication among peers and academic fraternity. There was a debate on their upcoming examination and one of the students reportedly asked her how she passed last semester’s examination and she responded “it was Jesus o”. As Rakia further narrated: “Immediately, about three other chats came in from two Muslims and one Christian, telling her to retract the statement. Two students from other departments who overheard some Muslim boys discussing the matter told Deborah’s close friends to prevail on her to retract the statement. But she replied via a voice note on the platform ‘Holy Ghost fire. Nothing will happen to me. Is it by force that you guys will always be sending this religious stuff in this group? The group wasn’t created for that but rather as a notice on tests, assignments, examinations, etc., …”
There was no mention of any particular religion in that voice note. Nowhere was Prophet Mohammed mentioned. So, how was he blasphemed? That voice note, though in Hausa, is still in the public space. Those who understand Hausa have listened to it and nobody has contradicted what Deborah’s classmate said. So, all it takes in Northern Nigeria of the 21st century to sentence someone to death and publicly lynch him or her is for someone to claim that the person blasphemed Prophet Mohammed without any proof. If a young Christian lady rejects the advances of a Muslim male, as it has been said to be the case in this matter, the spurned fellow could hoist the banner of blasphemy on the totem pole of religious purity, and the consequence will be death. Unfortunately, Deborah’s case is not isolated. In June, 2016, a mob lynched 74-year-old Mrs. Bridget Agbahime in front of her shop in Kofar Wambai Market in Kano. What was her crime? She had reportedly asked a male Muslim adherent not to conduct his ablution in front of her shop, an otherwise sensible request even if only for health and sanitation reasons. She did not call Prophet Mohammed’s name. But feeling affronted, the man, who in any other place other than the entitled Muslim North, would have simply apologised and moved away from there, accused the poor woman of blasphemy, summoned a mob and they clobbered her to death.
In 2006, Florence Chukwu, a school teacher in Bauchi, was killed because she told a student to stop reading the Quran in class while she was teaching English language. Again, there was no mention of Prophet Mohammed, yet she was accused of blasphemy and murdered in cold blood with 20 other people as collateral damages. In March 2007, Muslim students and neighbourhood extremists lynched Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, a mother of two and teacher at Government Secondary School, Gandu in the city of Gombe. A student complained that Oluwasesin, a Christian, had touched a bag which allegedly contained a Quran, and thereby defiled it. She was clobbered to death accused of blasphemy. It didn’t matter if she knew nothing about the Koran in the bag. She was invigilating an examination and students were not supposed to come into the hall with bags. Yet, this wayward student came in with the bag. He was asked to take it out to no avail and the teacher threw the bag outside. In all these instances, the accusers were the judges and executors of the jungle justice. None of the victims was given the opportunity to defend herself. No one provided evidence of the allegations against them. No witnesses were produced to testify. They were simply murdered in cold-blood, failed by the Nigerian state which has the responsibility to guarantee human safety and security.
The implication of Deborah’s murder and the complicity of the Northern Muslim elite is that there are two countries in this geo-political space called Nigeria. There is on the one hand a country of privileged outlaws with a sense of entitlement who are not bound by the laws of the land and on the other hand, the country of the serfs who are only to be seen and not heard. This farce cannot subsist forever. Sooner than later, something will give.