On 12 May 2022 Deborah Yakubu, a student at Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto state, was killed for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad. Yakubu, a Christian, commented on her class’s WhatsApp page, criticising the religious posts made by her Muslim classmates on the same platform. She noted that the platform should be reserved for academic purposes and not for religious discussions.
The young woman was later stoned to death and subsequently set ablaze by the angry mob who were mostly students of the college.
Several groups including the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) have described the mob action as an extrajudicial killing, which is reprehensible, barbaric and unacceptable.
Although extrajudicial killing is an alarmingly frequent phenomenon in Nigeria, those committed on religious grounds, like Yakubu’s murder, continue to elicit widespread debate. It is believed that these killings are a ripple effect of Sharia law, a set of religious laws derived from some of the religious precepts of Islam.
In Nigeria, Sharia started as a customary law but over time has been instituted as a main body of civil and criminal law, with special courts in twelve Muslim-majority states including Sokoto where Yakubu’s killing took place.
Under Sharia law, blasphemy against Allah or the holy prophet is considered a crime punishable by imprisonment or death. On 10 August 2020, a Kano State Sharia court sentenced Yahaya Sharif (22), to death by hanging after he was accused of having blasphemed in a song he wrote and shared on Whatsapp.
In other similar cases, Omar Farouq (13), was sentenced to ten years in prison for blasphemy, while an atheist in Kano received a 24-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to blasphemy charges. Farouq and Sharif's verdicts were subsequently overturned after being challenged in an upper court.
A Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Kola Alapinni, who appealed Farouq and Sharif’s cases, stated that there is nothing like blasphemy under Nigerian laws.
"The state government hides under a section of its Sharia laws that punish inciting statements or insulting statements to Prophet Muhammad. It needs to be tested at the Appeal Court or even at the Supreme Court," Alapinni said in a statement after Yakubu’s death.
Like Alapinni, Inibehe Effiong, a constitutional lawyer who spoke with Africa Legal, believes that blasphemy is a primitive law "that cannot stand the test of constitutional validity if diligently challenged". Effiong argues that successive governments have avoided the Sharia question because they dread the political fallout in northern Nigeria where the law reigns supreme.
Festus Ogun, a Nigerian lawyer and human rights activist, pointed out that according to Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution, Nigeria is a secular state, meaning that it adopts no religion.
“Blasphemy should be treated as a ‘personal’ sin, not a crime,” he concluded.
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