It is not easy to understand why a desert storm can arise suddenly in an oasis. Sokoto State is a parched land hugging the Sahara Desert in a precarious embrace. It does not have much rainfall most part of the year, and when it rains, it may even have a flash flood with occasional devastating consequences.
In this almost arid land, the Shehu Shagari College of Education is regarded as an oasis of knowledge in a vast land of aridity. Its products are to become teachers, bearing the torch of knowledge like Shehu Shagari, the teacher who became the President of Nigeria. The students were the symbol of enlightenment and civility. Last Thursday, the students became the bearer of the storm.
On that day, one of the students, Deborah Samuel, a 200-level student, came to school in an upbeat spirit. She did well in her last examination. On the WhatsApp group she shared with her colleagues and classmates, she attributed her success to hard work and the blessing of God. “I thank Jesus for my success,” she enthused on the group page. Some of her colleagues, mostly males, objected to her praising Jesus on the WhatsApp page and asked her to apologise. She refused. She argued that praising Jesus cannot be an offence.
Parents of the late Deborah, Emmanuel Garba (right) and Alheri at their hometown, Tungan Magajiya in Rijau Local Government Area of Niger State
Her traducers insisted that what she just did was tantamount to blasphemy. She would not agree with them. Death stalked her, but she was oblivious. She did not smell the gathering storm.
Therefore, when she stepped into her class last Thursday, she was full of exuberance. Her traducers, who had upbraided her on the WhatsApp platform, descended on her. They wanted her to apologise. She refused, claiming that praising Jesus cannot be an offence. All her accusers were familiar to her. They were all her classmates and she believed that it was only their arguments against her and her few friends. She was wrong.
Soon, as their temper rose, her traducers seized her, dragged her outside and started beating her. She cried for help. The teachers fled. The security men were summoned by Deborah’s friends, but they preferred to stay away. The lynching party was now cycling like a desert storm, howling like a pack of hyenas. Killing Deborah was short work. They broke some heads around the school compound and emboldened by the lack of resistance from the authorities, they marched around the campus, looking for suspected Christians to attack.
Soon, Governor Aminu Tambuwal, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, ordered that the school be closed immediately. Deborah’s remains were recovered from the rubbles and were eventually dispatched to her parents in Niger State. Then the government made a plaintive statement, condemning the riot and asking the people of the state to maintain peace. The Sultan of Sokoto, Mohammadu Sa’ad Abubakar, who is the head of Nigerian Muslims, condemned the killing of Deborah and called for justice. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Sokoto State, condemned the killing.
Note that Sokoto is the See of Matthew Hassan Kukah, the fiery critic of the government, humanist and Catholic bishop. Earlier report that his residence was attacked by rioters was later debunked as false.
Some misguided youths then mobilised when they leant that indeed the Sokoto State police command has arrested some suspects for the murder. The mob marched to the palace of the Sultan, asking him to recant his condemnation of the murder. They argued that the penalty for blasphemy is death. The Sultan refused. The police came and dispersed the crowd. The crowd moved into different parts of the old city, targeting some shops. They also attacked some churches. They want no punishment for those who killed Deborah for blasphemy. They believe that it was right and proper to defend God against the loose tongues of mankind.
Almost all known religions frown at blasphemy. This is the offence of badmouthing God and denigrating His omnipotence. During the Dark Ages in Europe, those accused of blaspheming were routinely executed or at least excommunicated from the Church. Among the practitioners of traditional religion in Yoruba land, no one would raise his hand to defend God. They believe Olodumare is strong and capable enough of defending himself.
Among Muslims of Nigeria, blasphemy is worse than even being an infidel. An infidel can be converted to the True Faith. A blaspheming apostate has already sinned against God. Some Muslims even believe that killing the apostate is an act of faith. Such was the torrent that Deborah’s murder elicited.
Two issues are of public interest in this tragedy. First is whether anyone in the Republic has the right to take the law into his hands and carry out a sentence he deems fit. Even if Deborah has committed an offence of blasphemy, according to Sharia, her accusers ought to drag her before the authorities that will eventually arraign her before a competent Islamic Court. It is the court that has the duty and the right to pronounce judgment. It is good that both the Sultan and the governor stood up for the Rule of Law by condemning this mob attack.
On Monday, the Sokoto Police Command charged two of the suspects before a Magistrate Court in Sokoto for the offence of participating in lynching Deborah. The suspects are to be defended by a team of 34 lawyers led by Professor Mansur Ibrahim who wanted the suspects given bail on liberal terms. The judge declined and remanded them in a correctional centre.
This case is going to expose the cultural dilemma in some parts of the North that has led to the growth of radical Islam and the rise of Boko Haram and other extremist groups. Ebun Olu Adegboruwa, a Lagos lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said the suspects should have been charged with murder.
“The criminal charge of Criminal Conspiracy and Inciting Public Disturbance as framed by the Sokoto State government against hardened murderers is an insult to the sensibilities of the parents of the deceased,” said Adegboruwa. “The crime took place in an enlightened environment in a higher institution, under the watch of security men, who were said to have been overpowered.”
There is a regular and corrosive tendency of the Northern political elite to indulge in criminality as long as it is done in the name of the Islamic religion. That the suspects have been able to attract so many defence lawyers is a point of interest. Meanwhile, no public officer, including the governors of Sokoto and Niger states where Deborah was buried last week, has sent any condolences to Deborah’s family. Even the poor don’t deserve words of comfort from the big men and women ruling Nigeria. We now know why there are so many sad and angry ghosts roaming Nigeria, demanding justice.