EVERY lover of democracy in Nigeria and abroad is appalled and horrified by the recent death sentence handed down to a musician, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, by an Upper Sharia Court in Kano State. The judge, Aliyu Kani, found the 22-year-old musician guilty of committing “blasphemy” in a song wherein he allegedly elevated an imam above Prophet Mohammed. Earlier, irate protesters had burnt down Sharif-Aminu’s family home, demanding his death. On the same day, the judge sentenced a 13-year-old boy, Umar Farouq, to 10 years in prison for blaspheming Prophet Mohammed during an argument. This is despite the fact that Farouq is a minor by Nigerian law.
The entire episode, which is reminiscent of the religious fanaticism that characterised the Dark Ages and partly the justification for Boko Haram terrorism, has again exposed the constitutional violations, structural deficiencies and legal contradictions inherent in the Nigeria project.
The 1999 Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, prohibits state religion or giving preferential treatment to any religion. Section 10 of the constitution states, “The government of the federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion,” but 12 Muslim-majority northern states, for political reasons, promulgated the Sharia Penal Code. Sharia law imposes punishment in the name of religion while the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and association. The then Olusegun Obasanjo administration failed the country by allowing the flagrant constitutional aberration to stand. It is a basic principle of the law that where the provision of any law contravenes that of the constitution, it is to be declared null and void to the extent of the violation. And for this reason, every law must conform to the constitution of the land. Therefore, the Sharia penal code contains and prescribes punishments that are repugnant and have no place in a country that claims to practice constitutional democracy. Some of these punishments include floggings, amputations and stoning to death.
Being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the recognition of blasphemy as a crime in Nigeria contradicts the articles of that declaration, as well as sections 38 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution, which guarantee freedom of expression, thought and religion.
The incessant summary mob killings of Nigerians of different faiths in the North under the pretext of defending a religious belief and the inability of law enforcement agencies to protect victims and bring the perpetrators to book remains one of the biggest failures of the Nigerian State. It is more disgraceful that even the Nigeria Police Force, which is a creation of the constitution, tasked with maintaining law and order, detains alleged “blasphemers” and helps in enforcing Sharia laws. An atheist, Mubarak Bala, has remained in the custody of the Kano State Police Command without trial for nearly four months supposedly to protect him from being lynched by youths because of blasphemy.
The adoption of Sharia in some Northern states has been used to justify cruel punishments such as amputation and stoning, as well as unequal treatment of women in inheritance, dress, and independence. Kano’s religious police, Hisbah, says the ban on the consumption of alcohol applies to all residents of the state regardless of religion. Vehicles transporting alcoholic beverages are also not allowed to pass through the state. According to Hisbah Commander-General, Aminu Daurawa, 12 million bottles of beer were destroyed in 800 operations executed in seven years. Annoyingly, the state takes an undue share of VAT revenues from alcohol consumed elsewhere. And what will become of Nigeria if other states make such discriminatory laws and enforce them?
In the past, alleged blasphemy had sparked riots, killings and arson in several northern states by restive sanctimonious youths. Christina Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, a secondary school teacher and mother of two in Gandu, Gombe State, was lynched on March 21, 2007 by her students for allegedly desecrating and mutilating the Koran while supervising an Islamic Religious Knowledge exam. She was stabbed to death while the school principal, a Muslim, was beaten up for offering her refuge but luckily escaped. The rioters burned down three classroom blocks, the school clinic, the administrative block and the library.
In February 2006, thousands of rioters went on a rampage in the North, burned churches, torched shops and homes, and killed 16 people because of an alleged blasphemous cartoon in a magazine, Jyllands-Posten, in faraway Denmark.
For 74-year-old trader, Bridget Agbahime, in Kofar Wambai Market in Kano State, her demand that a customer must not perform ablution in front of her shop cost her her life as she was lynched by a mob while her husband watched helplessly. Her murder was condemned by the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) and the Sultan of Sokoto; both of whom urged an urgent and diligent investigation by concerned authorities. After arraigning five suspects for homicide, the Abdullahi Ganduje-led government of Kano State mysteriously withdrew the charges without explanation. While the families of victims are never given justice, the government merely advises residents to “try to live in peace and respect one another’s religions.” In normal societies, it is the law that rules, not religion.
It is not surprising that Nigeria continues to rank low on the Religious Freedom Index and has been designated as a country of particular concern by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Laws emanating from religion, creed, tradition and customs are based on conviction. They ought to be personal since Nigeria does not practice a theocracy. Unfortunately, there have been instances where elected officials, for political reasons openly and carelessly place their personal beliefs over and above the constitution they swear to uphold even though the very offices they occupy are creations of the constitution.
The Boko Haram menace, which has plunged Nigeria into an existential crisis with thousands dead and millions displaced also thrives on the same logic that religious laws are superior to the constitution of the country, the Grundnorm, which all other laws are subject to.
Yet, the hypocritical implementation of Sharia law, which was borne out of politics, has not improved the standard of living of its adherents, which has remained the poorest regions in the country. A former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and erstwhile Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, explained it succinctly at a Mo Ibrahim Forum saying, “Zamfara State started Sharia in Nigeria; it has the highest rate of poverty in the country today. It is a matter of time for people to realise that this is all deception, this is all politics, this is not religion; it is about politicians appropriating religion as a discourse for getting into power.”
Nigeria should return to a workable federal system and stop muddling through this pathetically unjust political structure. It is then that states like Kano will be free to choose between theocracy and democracy. In the meantime, the Buhari regime should ensure that the arbitrariness, abuse and misuse of religion in Kano State is arrested. The rights of Nigerians as guaranteed by the constitution must be respected to the full.