Is Religious Fundamentalism Taking Hold in Nigeria? – Ajibola Adigun

In a state in northern Nigeria where Mallam  Ibrahim Shekarau, its former governor, publicly burned secular books eight years ago, nine people have been sentenced to death for blasphemy.  Abdul Inyas, Hajia Mairo Ibrahim and seven others were convicted of disrespecting the Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be unto Him) and sentenced to death in a closed sharia court in Kano during the fasting month of Ramadan.

This is not unusual in Nigeria’s most populous state and second largest city. A religious riot killed over 100 people in 2001. Amina Lawal was sentenced to death by stoning in 2002 for adultery, resulting in the boycott and relocation of the Miss World beauty contest that was scheduled to have been held in Nigeria. Her conviction was later overturned after an appeal buoyed by a global outcry. Earlier this year in April, churches were burnt and a pastor’s daughter was killed in the process. The present governor, Mallam Abdullahi Ganduje, presided over the destruction of truckloads of alcoholic drinks.

In a state where they have burned books, it is no surprise they are killing people for dissent and punishing people who have chosen a different lifestyle, a right the constitution of the country allows in all parts of the federation.

The nine convicts, all Muslims, but members of the Sufi Tijjaniyah sect, were accused of revering the Prophet Mohammed less than he deserved in their religious practices. The court process was closed, in part to prevent the suspects from being lynched, making the crime and the verdict all the more suspect.

If Muslims of a different sect are convicted of blasphemy by other Muslims, what becomes of those of different faiths or no faith at all? This is where the dangers of thought crimes like blasphemy become apparent. In the second largest commercial city in Nigeria – where many other tribes and religions reside – accusations of blasphemy and other thought crimes are easy to use to suppress the fundamental human rights of free speech and free association, often by the governing elite to consolidate power.

In neighboring Kaduna state, the new governor Mallam Nasir El-Rufai is separating religious matters from the affairs of the state by stopping the usual practice of distributing food materials to residents during Ramadan: this practice that is often rife with graft, and El-Rufai aims to manage resources more effectively. Meanwhile, his counterpart in Kano State has budgeted over 1 million dollars to feed Muslims. When religious matters colour the policies of a state to the neglect of religious minorities, the secular status of the country professed by the constitution becomes suspect.

The crime of blasphemy in the best of situations is the tyranny of the religious majority. In Nigeria, where it is not unusual for people to be lynched, it is a potent tool in the hands of those who would dispense with the assassin’s veto on people of different faiths. It is verdicts such as the sentencing of nine people to death in a closed process (of an already-biased court) that legitimizes mob actions and taking the law into one’s own hand. The courts have done the same as the citizens: you differ, you die. No further questions.

According to the Global Peace Index (a measurement of how unsafe countries are for living) Nigeria ranks as one of the most dangerous places to live on earth, largely because of the activities of the organization, Boko Haram. It is the dangerous cocktail of politics, religion, a poor citizenry and kangaroo courts that fuel the embers of such organizations.

Some have traced the source of the terrorist organization, Boko Haram, to matters such as this. The extrajudicial killing of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, in military custody after the adoption of Sharia law in some states in Northern Nigeria, led to a backlash of terrorist attacks by his followers. In Mohammed Yusuf’s case, it was the Nigerian government that carried out the assassin’s veto by not allowing the suspect to go through the due process of law. The execution of the death sentence by the Kano state government may well be the founding of another organization that shows its displeasure of the State through terror.

One of the accusations levelled against President Mohammed Buhari  during the presidential campaign was religious fundamentalism – a preference for Islamic law and a promise to ‘Islamize’ Nigeria. Although the allegations proved unfounded, allowing under his watch the execution of nine people for blasphemy for holding minority religious views may provide fodder for his detractors. His campaign against terrorism must also include a commitment to the rule of law allowing for the just treatment of all persons, Munafiqun and Muminun alike.

Ajibola Adigun is a Young Voices Advocate and President of The Amagi Center.

Photo: Abdullahi Umar Ganduje is the Governor of Kano State, Nigeria.