By MacHarry Confidence
The very graphic and public murder of Deborah Samuel Yakubu on May 12 has elicited reactions that have largely enforced the already established fault lines and polarization that colour Nigerians according to ethnic and religious lines. If there is any takeaway of note, it is the point that the country practices markedly different systems of government across geographic lines. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) is the grundnorm of the country whose tenets are supposed to be final. However, the existence of the penal code for the Sharia-obsessed northern states in the same constitution that has the criminal code for the South has always been a primer for disaster. Deborah’s lynching at the hands of Muslims over blasphemy makes a clear mockery of not only claims that Sharia law is not applicable to non-Muslims, but also the fact that the constitution states that all suspects must have their day in courts and are supposed to be treated as innocent until proven guilty by a competent court of law (by virtue of habeas corpus).
A key sticking point in the reactions so far is how people have sought to disavow from such savage and archaic inclination. Muslims in the South-West seized the moment to emphasise the virtues of religious tolerance that Yorubas have been extensively known for. This is not false. The South-West is unarguably Nigeria’s most religiously harmonious region in a country rife with sectarian violence. The constitution officially recognizes Animism (often referred to as African Traditional Religion comprising of Ifa, Sango and other local gods worshipped by Yorubas), Christianity and Islam, even though it strives to present a secular outlook. The South-West region practices all three and has been known to do so historically without rancour. The same accommodation cannot be found elsewhere, and definitely not in Sokoto and the greater North-West where Deborah was killed. However, what we do know as a religiously tolerant South-West may just be fading from our very sight.
Clashes between Muslim and Christian parents over the use of hijab by Muslim pupils in state funded schools in Osun State during the tenure of Governor Rauf Aregbesola was one of the earliest indicators that such tolerance in the region is thinning. In his book, Water Must Flow Uphill: Adventures in University Administration, a former Vice Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Roger Makanjuola, eerily noted that in 2002, the university management nearly came to blows with student members of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN) branch in OAU over the use of the burka in dressing. He noted that female Muslim students were getting married to their male counterparts, having carnal knowledge of themselves, and delivering their children right in the Awolowo Hall Mosque of the school. For him, this could have been waved aside as mere juvenile delinquency and sexual immorality but the fact that many of the female students involved adopted fundamentalism and were getting radicalized raised enough temperature for concern.
The hijab crisis in Osun has not been an isolated event: in mid-February this year, a student, Habeeb Idris, of Baptist High School, Ijagbo, in Oyun Local Government Area of Kwara State, was killed as students and parents clashed over the usage of hijab in a supposed Christian missionary school. Kwara as a state may not be in the South-West according to Nigeria’s geopolitics, but its overwhelming Yoruba speaking population makes it a Yoruba state in the North-Central. It is a state dominated by Muslim Yorubas whose counterparts on Twitter would very much like the rest of Nigeria, especially the North, believe that it is above petty sectarian squabbles ranging from issues such as a piece of clothing to the “grievous sin” of a verbal assault against a Prophet who have been dead perhaps before Ife and Nok civilizations began.
Granted that the average Yoruba family has practitioners of all three religions makes intolerance a laughable enterprise but that does not mean that such close-knit societies are impenetrable to radicalization and fundamentalism. It is happening before our eyes. A group which calls itself the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) has been at the forefront of this discord since it hit public consciousness a few years ago. Since 2019, its director, a certain Professor Ishaq Akintola has cornered media attention and made outlandish claims with inciting statements in purported defence of Muslim rights. More recently, the group called for a Muslim to succeed Mr. Jide Sanwo-Olu as governor of Lagos in 2023 because the state has had two consecutive Christian governors (Akinwunmi Ambode and Jide Sanwo-Olu). What MURIC failed to state is that the other two Muslims who governed Lagos – Nigeria’s most economically important state – completed two terms of eight years each, totaling 16 years (1999-2015) and that both Ambode and Sanwo-Olu did and have had only seven years (2015-2019, 2019-present). This analysis of Lagos governors’ tenure is strikingly useless because the average Lagos voter and the political establishment does not even think across religious divides. MURIC’s claim was so outlandish that the pro-establishment The Nation Newspaper had to feature a writer to debunk its suggestion.
The group (MURIC) in February also warned Vice President Yemi Osinbajo against nursing any presidential ambition in 2023, saying Muslims in the South-West would not accept a Christian president in the country. This warning is not even the most inciting and dangerous to social cohesion of statements it has issued to the press. As the country’s security services continue to overlook this budding threat to national security, it behoves the regional elite in the South-West to nip these forces of intolerance in the bud before it balloons into a regional nightmare. MURIC is taking a cue from the playbook that led to Islamist insurgencies in the North. It is the same religious intolerance that led to Deborah’s murder over what should naturally be one’s guaranteed freedom of expression which only a competent court of law can take away. Yoruba Muslims who believe that they are miles away from such wispy and frenetic conundrum are in for serious shocks without absorbers if this ant-infested wood continues to grow in the house. The South-West’s neighbours to the east (the South-South and South-East) have enough lessons of demagoguery and populism to teach if it cares to listen. A person was almost lynched in Mile 12 area of Lagos State over accusations of blasphemy in April 2021. This is a menace that the region has to immediately come to terms with.
As the dust settle, law experts as well as the Muslim community must come to a roundtable to determine what constitutes blasphemy and whether due process such as an investigation of an alleged blasphemy is consistent with constitutional provisions. Nigeria cannot continue to tell whoever cares to listen about the fleeting concept of One Nigeria if it insists on having separate laws, some of which exist as a counter and foil to its constitution. The mere fact that someone can be beheaded, burnt, or skinned alive within seconds of being accused of blasphemy should be enough to warrant an urgent congress which must have the buy-in of leading clerics and theologians in Islam across the country.
Gideon Akaluka, Samuel Achi, Bridget Agbahime and Deborah Yakubu are all victims of Nigeria’s culture of mob violence fuelled by an acute distrust of state institutions who in their own way, have not done well enough to improve their standing as efficient keepers of law and order. For these names to be the last, everyone, especially well-meaning people in the South-West has to watch, be sober and vigilant.
MacHarry Confidence is a security analyst with SB Morgen Intelligence