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International Christian Concern: Blasphemy Laws and the National Question for Nigeria

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    By Greg Cochran, Ph.D., ICC Fellow

    5/19/2023 (International Christian Concern) — While much of the press on Nigeria stays focused on the contested elections and the transition of power to a new president, an increasing chorus of political pundits and human rights advocates are spotlighting a different controversy: Blasphemy laws.

    Will Nigeria continue a path of enforcing penalties for those deemed guilty of blasphemy, or will more secular laws remain the central theme of the Nigerian legal code? According to many journalists and thought leaders in Nigeria, the National Question for Nigeria is how (or whether) non-religious laws can govern religious sectarians. If blasphemy laws prove popular—and in a dozen or more states necessary—then the national question is answered in the negative.

    Recent events in Nigeria are forcing the national question back on center stage. Since the arrest and conviction of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, press corps and parliaments have been producing a showcase of character witnesses against Nigeria’s growing enforcement of blasphemy laws.

    In March 2020, several messages from Sharif-Aminu—a Muslim musician from Kano state—became public through the social media platform WhatsApp. Being a Sufi Muslim of the Tijaniyya order, Sharif-Aminu represents a minority in Nigeria. The content of his messages—messages which were actually sung as lyrics in his songs—offended majority Muslims on account of the praise they offered an imam of the Tijaniyya order.

    Upon learning that his lyrics caused such offense, Sharif-Aminu immediately went into hiding. By August of the same year, he was convicted of blasphemy by a Sharia court in Hausawa Filin Hockey district. He was subsequently condemned to die by hanging.

    Christian leaders and human rights organizations spoke out against this injustice. However, no one stepped forward to defend him in court. Sharif-Aminu was convicted and condemned to die without having legal counsel. Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State voiced his willingness to carry out the execution order after a 30-day hold. Fortunately, Kola Alapinni stepped forward to assist Sharif-Aminu’s legal efforts.

    Kola Alapinni, a human rights lawyer from Lagos, ascended to a starring role in the musician’s drama, filing an appeal within the 30-day hold (on Sept. 1, 2020). Strategically, Alapinni sued both the Attorney General and Governor Ganduje for failure to uphold the laws of Nigeria and failure to secure justice and safety for Sharif-Aminu. The case of this Muslim musician progressed to international prominence and has set the stage for a Supreme Court scene in which Sharif-Aminu’s role has been obscured by the bright spotlight shining on the blasphemy law itself.

    As the blasphemy law has become the central theme in this tragedy, more supporting cast have joined Alapinni and Sharif-Aminu on stage—singing a single note in harmony: Blasphemy laws are unconstitutional and unconscionable. That’s a note Nigerian Christians are singing as well.

    The European Parliament produced a brilliant show of support recently, passing a resolution condemning the practice of capital punishment for blasphemy. This resolution accords with most nations, ruling out executions for people due to religious belief (or unbelief). Currently, six nations allow the death penalty for apostasy, while seven additional nations (of which Nigeria is one) allow the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy. The European Union (EU) resolution “recalls that blasphemy laws are in clear breach of international human rights” and “contrary to the Nigerian Constitution which guarantees religious freedom and freedom of expression.”

    Alapinni posted on LinkedIn that the support received for Sharif-Aminu (against blasphemy laws) was unprecedented: The EU resolution passed with 550 in favor and only seven votes opposed. Clearly, the international community is monitoring this Muslim musician’s performance in the court system.

    No doubt, Muslim and Christian leaders in Nigeria’s government are taking note of the concerns voiced by the European Parliament. As part of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Nigeria has a vested interest in harmonious relations with this parliament. The EU is West Africa’s biggest trading partner and the primary importer of Nigerian products like fossil fuels, food products, pharmaceutical goods, and machinery. In short, the EU is Nigeria’s most important economic partner. EU members of parliament showed no hesitation mentioning the economic issue as each offered a soliloquy condemning the use of blasphemy laws in the African nation. In short, the members of parliament are using economic leverage, forcing the national question to be answered in Nigeria: Will historic freedoms be protected under a more secular rule of law, or will parts of Nigeria (or all?) be governed with strict, sectarian laws?

    While the economic concern is not insignificant, many Christians in Nigeria view Sharif-Aminu’s case more as a more urgent existential crisis. For Christians, these blasphemy laws are merely punctuation—the question mark at the end of the interrogative sentence asking, “the national question.”

    Christians have been spectators of a steady increase in violence and brazen attacks over the past two decades. Blasphemy laws appear to play a part in this rise of discrimination and persecution against those—especially Christians—who do not follow the majority Muslim rule. Ebenezer Obadare, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, explains how blasphemy laws increase violence in extrajudicial settings: “For one thing, perpetrators, seemingly secure in the conviction of ‘doing God’s work,’ are further emboldened by the not unreasonable perception that, because of tacit official endorsement of their action, no penalty will accrue for their crime.” In fact, in most cases no one faces penalties for violence in connection with blasphemy charges.

    For example, in May 2022, Deborah Yakubu—a second year student at a Christian college in Sokoto—was killed by a mob after being accused of blasphemy. Like with Sharif-Aminu, Yakubu’s comments appeared on WhatsApp. However, she understood her comments to be part of an academic discussion with a group of students for study purposes, but her motive didn’t matter to her accusers. She was discovered while hiding for safety. She was beaten to death with clubs and stones, and her body was burned on the school campus.

    Nigerians in general and Christians in particular sense a growing distrust and disunity in the country. For Christians, Sharia law is supposed to be a Muslim concern, enacted mostly in the 12 northern states with Sharia courts. Deborah’s case makes plain that Christians remain rightly alarmed by a growing appetite to accuse and kill those perceived of disrespecting Islam. According to SBM Intel, Nigeria has recently been averaging about seven incidents of mob violence per month, killing about ten Nigerians each month in those incidents. Not all these incidents relate to accusations of blasphemy, but some do.

    As President-elect Bola Tinubu is set to take office May 29, he will undoubtedly be confronted with the “national question” and expect to offer some answers. Christians, meanwhile, watch as nervous spectators, feeling a little bit left out by having no Christian representative on the presidential stage.

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