Last week Thursday, a mob of self-appointed God avengers lynched a woman to death for ‘blasphemy’ in Kano. A lot of outrage has followed that act of terror. But to mourn Bridget Agbaheme properly would be to address the context that empowered her murderers to make her the latest of the many casualties of precipitate indignation against ‘blasphemy’: To grieve over her meaningfully requires the transformation of the tragedy of her violent execution into a platform for a secular, nationwide campaign for the decriminalization of ‘blasphemy’ in Nigeria.
Governor of Kano state, Abdullahi Ganduje, reportedly condemned the killing and ‘’promised to unmask the perpetrators of the dastardly act.’’ That’s a deceptive gesture of lip service. He didn’t mean a word of that vow. Ganduje celebrated a blanket death sentence handed down in another case of ‘blasphemy’ one year ago. He ‘’expressed satisfaction’’ when an Upper Sharia Court sentenced nine people to death for ”blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad (SAW).”
The so-called blasphemers were Muslims. They were followers of the Tijaniya sect. They were alleged to have insinuated that the Senegalese founder of their denomination, Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse, ‘’was bigger than Prophet Muhammad.’’
The notoriously excitable Kano mob didn’t even judge the ‘infidels’ worthy of the protocol of a Sharia court trial. They lusted and angled to kill the sinners extrajudicially. The fanatics were so desperate they burnt down a section of the court building in a failed attempt to retrieve their pet peeves for street execution. The judges were faced with a fait accompli. They hurriedly condemned ‘the blasphemers’ to death.
It was this crowd of jungle justice agitators that Ganduje sought to ingratiate himself with when he said that he ‘’appreciates the patience and calmness with which the general public allowed the law to take its course despite the unwarranted provocation.’’
He would even proceed to warn that ‘’this will serve as a deterrent to those who feel they can come and cause a breach of the peace…’’ and to promise that he would request the state house of assembly to pass a law authorizing the policing of religious preaching in Kano state.
The folks who hacked Bridget to death were the same bloodthirsty set of people that Ganduje hailed as peacemakers for trying to kill ‘blasphemy’ suspects last year.
To be fair, though, Kano has a history of ‘blasphemy’ holocaust that dates back twenty years.
In December 1995, a Kano mob beheaded Gideon Akaluka, an Igbo trader, and paraded his head on a spike throughout the streets. The police had arrested and imprisoned Akaluka following allegations that his wife had used the pages of the Koran as toilet paper for her baby. Muslims broke into his cell, killed him there, and escaped with the trophy of his blood-dripping head!
In August 2008, a Kano mob besieged the house of a 50 year old Muslim man in Sheka Aci Lafiaya quarters and beat him to death for allegedly ‘blaspheming’ the Prophet.
In November 2012, in Bichi, 30 kilometers from Kano, a mob capitalized on a literal slip of tongue to steal and kill. A Christian tailor, who was obviously yet to attain conversational level of proficiency in Hausa language, mispronounced the name of a dress while chatting with his Muslim neighbor, and uttered words that transliterated to, ‘’the Prophet has come to the market.’’ The mob punished that error with the looting of shops and the killing of four people!
Kano is Nigeria’s capital of ‘blasphemy’ killing. But it has some competitors.
A week before Bridget’s murder, some muslim fanatics killed Methodus Emmanuel, a 24 year old trader based in Padongari, Niger state, for ‘blasphemy’. They also killed three officials of the National Security and Civil Defence Corps. The civil defence men earned damnation for attempting to stop the soi-disant defenders of the faith from executing judgment on ‘God’s behalf.’
Of course, Kaduna gave us the mad Miss World riots of 2012. A 21 year old Thisday fashion journalist, Isioma Daniel, had written what she thought was a punch-line that could amuse Muslims who were against Nigeria’s hosting of the global beauty pageant. Her innocuous wisecrack was construed as ‘blasphemy.’ A sitting deputy governor went on air and urged any Muslim who sees her to kill her. 58 churches were destroyed. 215 people were slaughtered.
President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the killing of Bridget and prayed God to grant her husband Pastor Mike and her family ”the fortitude to bear the loss.” That’s a condolence message too balmy to pass for a presidential response. It was too evasive for a cowardly crime that could have sparked a combustible mix of religious and ethnic wars.
President Buhari skirted the heart of the matter. The problem -it’s the elephant in the room! – is the presence of ‘blasphemy’ laws in Nigerian jurisprudence and the popular perception that those laws license Muslims to function as volunteer jury and executioners when there is news of violation in their neighborhood. Nigerian laws enables this continuing pattern of ‘blasphemy’ killings.
The two parallel legal codes that the Nigerian justice system stand on criminalize ‘blasphemy’ even though the Nigerian constitution guarantees all Nigerians the freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to freedom of speech. This contradiction means that a supposedly secular Nigerian state approves religious xenophobia and provides for your prosecution and punishment if some other person invents a charge of ‘’insult to religion’’ against you.
In some parts of the North where the Saudi import of Wahabbism has taken root and reconfigured the people’s concept of the Prophet’s teaching and tradition, the accusation of ‘blasphemy’ leads to instant murder …as surely as night follows the day. This makes everyone a fair game. All you need to be killed in cold blood is to have the misfortune of having a drunk fellow mutter ‘blasphemy’, like a holophrastic child, while pointing at you. A mob of demons will coalesce around you in no time and savage you until you become an ugly log of meat!
One of the prevailing orthodoxies in that region is that a ‘blasphemy’ alarm obligates all pious Muslims within earshot to rally and kill ‘the accused’. Nobody is required the substantiate the particulars of the so-called ‘blasphemy.’ The claim of ‘blasphemy’ is its own evidence. And when the mob appears, they have to kill the suspect like a black snake: With so much fervor and fury!
To prove the point: What Bridget said that made Kano apoplectic remains unknown days after her murder. Nigerian newspapers reported conjectures as the precursor to her killing. This suggests that she was probably lied against and wasted.
It’s possible that that wife of a Deeper Life pastor was as peaceable and quiet as serious members of Nigeria’s foremost ultra-purist, otherworldly church. She may have been an unlucky victim of envy or hate. A rival trader may have invoked that charge to eliminate her.
‘Blasphemy’ killing is a dumb atrocity. It is a man taking a putative transgression against God personally. It is a mortal appropriating God’s prerogative to judge in eternity. It is human being answering a misdemeanor with an infinitely greater iniquity.
‘Blasphemy’ laws make killings like Bridget’s legal. In a multi-religious society like ours, they make persecution permissible and acceptable. They energize bullies who consider themselves practitioners of the stronger religion to plead that one ‘blasphemy’ provoked them.
‘Blasphemy’ laws vest in some adherents the luxury of affecting offense when they experience a persuasion that differs from or contradicts their own scripture. They incentivize people to instrumentalize violence in asserting their monopoly of faith. They sanction the use of coercion in forcing religious uniformity.
Moreover, ‘blasphemy’ is a vague, ambiguous word. It is a fluid, elusive notion. Like beauty in the eyes of the beholder, it is fraught with potential for countless interpretations. Any hearer is at liberty to decide or define the reality or otherwise of his encounter with it.
For example, if this son of a pastor verbalizes one of the elementals of his faith, he can be held as guilty of ‘blasphemy.’ If I declaim, in Sokoto, that Jesus Christ is the son of God, a Muslim might take offense if he is intolerant of or ignorant about Christianity. If he is instinctively violent, he might rush for a machete because he heard an allusion to ‘the trinity’, a trite theological construct in Christendom, but one that is at variance with the Koran’s characterization of Allah.
And if I was raised to be touchy and defensive of my faith, I would take umbrage when a Muslim jokes that Jesus was entirely human, that He had a high libido, and impregnated the prettiest of his female disciples. I may hasten to reply that trivialization of God with an action that matches the gravity of that ‘blasphemy.’
We must collectively discredit terrorism in all its guises. That Kano mob killed Bridget as cruelly and gleefully as Boko Haram or Daesh would have killed her. And it’s a shame that we count as citizens individuals who are capable of such inhumanity!
God is not an endangered species. He doesn’t need ‘blasphemy’ laws or killings to survive . ‘Blasphemy’ does not impact or diminish Him. The word actually means nothing. Those who kill in defense of God, those who project Him as a petty, peevish, puny Being, are terrorists with an excuse!
Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu
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