By Ezinwanne Onwuka
Sections 38 and 39 of the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s Constitution respectively guarantee the rights of citizens to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – including the freedom to change their religion or belief – and the right to freedom of expression.
Yet, despite this fundamental right, many Nigerians face systematic threats to their right to freedom of belief.
The Constitution also prohibits the adoption of any religion as a state religion, however, Islam is often regarded as the de facto state religion in the northern states, where the majority of the population is Muslim.
Additionally, Nigeria has general nationwide laws against blasphemy adjudicated by Customary Courts as well as specifically Islamic laws against blasphemy adjudicated by Shari’a Courts in twelve northern states.
The Customary law against blasphemy is found in Section 204 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits any act that publicly insults any religion and stipulates a prison sentence of up to two years. Shari’a Courts, on the other hand, are exclusively concerned with acts considered insulting to Muslims, the punishment for which can be as severe as execution.
Consequently, states subject to Shari’a law can and do implement severe punishments for crimes such as blasphemy, including execution.
In recent times, there have been cases of such execution coupled with unlawful detention as a result of blasphemy in the Northern part of the country.
Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, 22, a singer was sentenced to death by an upper Shariah court in Kano state on 10 August 2020. He was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death by hanging for circulating a song he had composed, which critics said elevated a Senegalese Imam, Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse, the founder of the Islamic Tijjaniya sect, above the Prophet Muhammad. Sharif had reportedly circulated the song around on WhatsApp earlier in March 2020, which led to his arrest after an angry mob burnt down his family house.
The same Shari’a court in Kano state also sentenced 13-year-old Umar Farouq in August 2020 to 10 years in prison with menial labor for ‘blasphemy’. The law court found him guilty of offending God, as he had used “disparaging language against Allah” or what you may like to refer to as “foul language” during an argument with a friend.
Again, there is the case of Mubarak Bala. Nigerian human rights activist and President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, Mubarak Bala was arrested by Kano State Police Command on April 28, 2020 following a petition filed by a law firm alleging that he had insulted the Prophet Muhammad in a Facebook post. He remains in detention without charge despite a December 21 court order for his release and he has not been seen since he was arrested in late April, 2020.
Furthermore, a middle-aged man, identified as Talle Mai Ruwa, was recently set ablaze in Sade village of Darazo Local Government Area of Bauchi State for alleged blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed.
Mai Ruwa, who was said to be mentally deranged, was alleged to have blasphemed against Prophet Mohammed when a girl came to fetch water from his borehole without his consent, an act which was said to have infuriated him. The girl begged the deceased in the name of God and the Prophet to allow her to fetch the water, but Ruwa was so angry to the extent that he allegedly insulted her parents and the Prophet.
His alleged blasphemous remarks triggered outburst and tension in the village such that the village head took him to the police outpost station in the village where he spent the night. However, he was forcefully taken away from the station by a mob of angry youths the following morning and lynched in broad daylight.
Leo Igwe, the founder of the Humanist Association of Nigeria described this religious extremism prevalent in Northern Nigeria as insult-the-prophet-and-be-killed form of Islam. According to him, Muslims are using threats and intimidation to foist censorship on everyone. They are using violence to silence critics and stop people from expressing their views about the prophet of Islam.
No doubt, the manner in which Shari’a has been applied to criminal law in Nigeria so far has raised a number of serious human rights concerns. It has also created much controversy in a country where religious divisions run deep, and where the federal constitution specifies that there is no state religion.
Some of the principles stated in the Islamic law contravene the principles which are recognized as Human Rights, and first of all, freedom of religion. According to the Shari’a, a Muslim does not have the right to change his religion to another religion or to atheism. If he does so, he is an apostate, and deserves a death penalty.
And the death penalty, in any legal system and in any country, constitutes the ultimate violation of the right to life and an extreme form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
Generally, the application of Shari’a in Nigeria has revealed patterns of fundamental human rights violations which are not peculiar to Shari’a but typify the human rights situation in Nigeria as a whole. For example, systematic torture by the police, prolonged detention without trial, corruption in the judiciary, political interference in the course of justice, and impunity for those responsible for abuses occur not only in the context of Shari’a cases, but are at least as widespread in cases handled by the parallel common law system.
I believe the time is right for the Nigerian federal and state governments to re-evaluate the application of Shari’a, now that it has been in operation for several years. The federal government should take steps towards the abolition of the death penalty in all legal systems operating in Nigeria.
In practice, this would mean amending aspects of the Shari’a legislation and removing those provisions which constitute inherent violations of fundamental human rights.
Ultimately, every Nigerian citizen has the right to believe and worship as they choose, and that right should be protected equally for all Nigerians, regardless of their faith or creed.