Deborah Samuel, a 200 Level student of Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto
The gruesome murder of a defenceless student of Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto by her irate school mates is yet another of the barbaric, unlawful and unconstitutional acts committed by some citizens using religion as a cover. In particular, Deborah is another victim in a long line of religiously motivated mob actions that have led to many deaths in the Northern part of Nigeria. But it is one murder too many. The police and other law enforcement agencies have a duty to defend the country’s constitution and other legal norms by ensuring that the perpetrators of the crime are brought to book. The killing is a litmus test not only on whether the police and political heads of this country will succumb to acts of blackmail and intimidation by people who desecrate the legal system while claiming non-existent rights; but also whether Nigeria can continue to lay assertion to being one country united in diversity.
As the country reels under multiple problems and tragedies, a most heinous crime of murder was added to the till when students of the Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto decided that a fellow student had committed blasphemy and summarily pronounced death sentence on her, executed her gruesomely and burnt her remains. Deborah Samuel had reportedly insisted that the platform that was created for academic matters should remain so. In the ensuing back and forth argument, she was alleged to have insulted the Holy Prophet of Islam.
Too many things are patently wrong and worrisome with the killing of Deborah. One is that her accusers are also at the same time her prosecutors and judge; a phenomenon clearly against the grain of justice, fairness and the Nigerian constitution. Two, it is not right for anyone, no matter how aggrieved, to take laws into his hands and visit punitive measures on another considered to have erred one way or the other. This is exactly what the killers of Deborah did. Three, blasphemy for which she was accused is not an offence under the Nigerian constitution; and even if a state law or Sharia enactment exists to criminalise blasphemy, that law can be deemed to be inconsistent with provisions of the constitution and therefore void to that extent. The same constitution guarantees freedom of expression and right to life as fundamental rights that cannot be abridged by fiat, as the killer mob did. In any event, neither the Sharia nor the conventional laws allows a mob to pass judgment and execute same without recourse to proper trial by a competent court.
While it is encouraging that the Sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual head of Muslims in the country, and under whose domain the terrible act happened, has condemned the killing along with northern governors, there is dire need to follow up with a view to ensuring that justice is done to the culprits. Failure to bring such culprits to book in the past no doubt has served as tonic for the present killers to embark on their mission, knowing fully that there would be no consequence. In this regard, it is curious that the only charges preferred against those arrested for Deborah’s murder are “criminal conspiracy and inciting public disturbances” which are clearly inadequate for such heinous acts. Sokoto State, however, still has time to file more appropriate charges and arrest other culprits.
Of particular note is the lame response of President Muhammadu Buhari that failed to advocate stern measures against the perpetrators. If his administration is serious about non-negotiation of the oneness of Nigeria as presently constituted, the leadership of the country must use this opportunity to put a permanent stop to such unacceptable incidents. And the way to do that is for the political leadership of the country to ensure that the perpetrators are held accountable for their action and done expeditiously too as a first step. But beyond the actions of the mob, the need to fish out the sponsors of the tendencies that fuel such actions has become inevitable. The root causes are deep and entrenched.
Such sponsors and tendencies are far removed from the scene of the crime as they are buried in words and actions of certain leaders in religious and political leadership of the country. There are religious leaders who by their preaching emphasise the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy instead of preaching mutual respect for all religions in a multi-religious setting like Nigeria. By that dichotomy, they demonise and delegitimise other faiths and engender contempt and hatred among their followers against the others. Some of these religious leaders may be doing this out of ignorance but a great number are doing it as an instrument of power and dominance. Genuine religious leaders and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) involved in interreligious harmony need to intensify efforts to re-orientate those who perpetrate these divisive tendencies, name and shame the recalcitrant ones and continue to propagate the message of harmony and tolerance. The efforts of the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar and John Cardinal Onaiyekan in this direction are commendable; other influential religious leaders should emulate that example and join in spreading the message of harmony across religious divides.
Beyond mischief by some religious leaders is the ever-burgeoning population of out of school children in northern Nigeria. According to Peter Hawkins, the Resident Representative of the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) in Nigeria, about 10.5 million children are out of school in Nigeria, the highest rate in the world. He disclosed this in a statement marking the International Day of Education in January this year. Majority of these out of school children are in northern Nigeria, a testimony to the serial neglect by successive administrations at the state and federal levels. These out of school children are ready tools in the hands of sundry mischief makers, terrorists and bandits that have taken over and terrorising a large swathe of northern Nigeria. Political leaders need to prioritise education to free these souls from their vulnerable status.
Various statistics have consistently revealed that northern Nigeria is home to the highest poverty level in Nigeria in spite of the fact that Nigeria has been led by more northern leaders in its history of self-rule. Individual wealth of some individuals in the north stands in sharp contradistinction to the pervasive poverty in the region. Other statistics on nutrition, infant mortality and other measures of the quality of life are similarly skewed against the region. This ought to be a major concern of the leaders beyond mere condemnations of actions.
On the specific matter of Deborah, justice must be done and must be seen to have been done. One more disturbing action was the sight of some misguided youth clamouring for the release of the suspects arrested in connection to the heinous murder. The law must take its course by reigning in more culprits and giving them appropriate charges and punishments. Nigeria must progress beyond the past impunities that have strengthened the current perpetrators.
From the interventions of some Islamic scholars and clerics, it is clear that Islam does not support the summary execution of offenders except a trial and conviction has been obtained in properly constituted courts. So, what the killers of Deborah have done is pure murder and they must be held accountable for their actions. Nothing else will assuage the family and Nigerians who have watched this horrendous act with disbelief.
The leadership at all levels must be pricked by the words of Usman Dan Fodio to the effect that “Conscience is an open wound; only truth can heal it.”