Killing in the name of God: Brutal murder of a college student Deborah Yakub for "blasphemy" brings Nigeria's long-running ethno-religious divide into sharp focus
Last week’s gruesome murder of Deborah Yakubu, a home economics sophomore at the Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto, comes at a time of escalating social and economic tension in Nigeria, and will most certainly raise the political stakes as the country enters electioneering season in preparation for next year’s presidential election.
Ms. Yakubu was thought to have “blasphemed” Islam and Prophet Muhammad after a voice note that she left on a WhatsApp group responding to another student’s post on the theme of Islam rubbed her colleagues the wrong way. After forcibly extracting her from a safe room where the school authorities had hoped to hide her, a mob comprising Ms. Yakubu’s colleagues struck her repeatedly with stones and clubs before eventually setting her lifeless body on fire, all the while shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).
Footage of the killing would later appear on various social media platforms.
The sheer impunity of the act has triggered an outpouring of anger across the country. Various political and civil associations have condemned the killing and demanded the arrest and prosecution of the killers. These include the Christian Association of Nigeria, the Northern States Christian Elders Forum, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, Amnesty International, the Muslim Media Practitioners of Nigeria, and the Humanist Association of Nigeria. President Muhammadu Buhari, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, former Senate President Pius Anyim, and Bishop Matthew Kukah of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, also joined the chorus of condemnation, the latter insisting on appropriate punishment for the killers “according to the extant laws of our land.”
The reference to “the extant laws of our land,” is instructive, for it speaks to the underlying ideological chasm that the northern and southern parts of the country have struggled to close since the dawn of political independence in 1960. Fundamentally, this boils down to the core question of Nigeria’s political identity, how it should function as a secular federal state with a common set of laws, and the extent to which such a state might be expected to bend over backward to accommodate religious ideologies and cultural practices that appear to diverge from, or sometimes pointedly contradict, secular precepts.
Nigerian intellectuals and journalists refer to this and cognate foundational matters as the National Question, and Jamil Abubakar, son of former Inspector General of Police Mohammed Dikko Abubakar, seems to have been defending the other side of this ideological fault line when, very much against the grain, he defended the killing in a now-deleted tweet on the grounds that “the punishment for Blasphemy is DEATH! in (sic) most religions including Christianity. Respect peoples (sic) religion it’s simple!”
Jamil Abubakar’s defense may have no leg to stand on in law or in equity, but at least he can be said to have the courage of his admittedly jaundiced convictions. This makes him the antithesis of former vice president and presidential hopeful Atiku Abubakar, who initially tweeted his condemnation of the killing as follows: “There cannot be a justification for such gruesome murder. Deborah Yakubu was murdered and all those behind her death must be brought to justice. My condolences to her family and friends.” Following pushback from northern Muslims who threatened to exact their pound of flesh at the polls should he emerge the nominee of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the February 2023 presidential election, he deleted the tweet, claiming, this time on his Hausa Facebook page, that his Twitter account had been hacked.
Atiku Abubakar’s capitulation illustrates the risk of taking a bold stand on a politically fraught subject. Of the leading politicians seeking the country’s highest office across the country’s two main political parties, the All Progressive Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), only Dele Momodu (PDP) has come out to condemn the killing, describing it as “bizzare (sic), abominable and unpardonable.”
Yet, whether or for how long the Nigerian political elite can afford to continue to sidestep a direct challenge to the rule of law that is at the same time an attack on what experts agree is the most fundamental issue in the country’s politics remains to be seen. Understandably, many in the majority Christian southern part of the country believe that this fear of provoking northern Muslims—and with it the core of a conservative northern religious establishment—is precisely why incidents like this have recurred, and notably with increasing brazenness, over the years.
In December 1994, a mob stormed a jail in the northwestern state of Kano where Gideon Akaluka, a young Igbo trader was being held by the police and having murdered him, gleefully paraded his decapitated head around the city. Police had taken Akaluka into custody after his wife allegedly used pages of the Quran as toilet paper for her baby.
In 2002, more than 200 people were killed in widespread rioting after Isioma Daniel, a journalist for This Day newspaper, joked that Prophet Muhammad would have chosen a wife from one of the contestants in that year’s Miss World competition scheduled to hold in the city of Abuja. Arsonists torched the paper’s office in Kaduna while the government of the northwestern state of Zamfara issued a fatwa which urged “all Muslims wherever they are to consider the killing of the writer as a religious duty.”
In March 2007, Christiana Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, a schoolteacher in Gandu in the northeastern state of Gombe, was beaten and stabbed to death after a student accused her—falsely, as it happens—of tearing a copy of the Quran. All sixteen suspects arrested in connection with the killing were later released without charge.
In March 2021, a water vendor popularly known as Talle Mai Ruwa was dragged from a police post in the village of Sade in the northeastern state of Bauchi where he was being held and beaten to death by a mob for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad.
While extrajudicial killings by state and nonstate actors are not uncommon in Nigeria—a report by the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) estimates that 13,241 Nigerians were killed extrajudicially in the decade between 2011 and 2021—and while, according to the same report, “these unlawful killings go largely unpunished,” the essential religious nature of “blasphemy”-inspired vigilantism intrudes a different layer of complication.
For one thing, perpetrators, seemingly secure in the conviction of “doing God’s work,” are further emboldened by the not unreasonable perception that, because of tacit official endorsement of their action, no penalty will accrue for their crime. This partly explains the temerity of Ms. Yakubu’s killers, who gleefully posted videos of their atrocity on social media. In truth, arrests following religiously motivated killings are rare in the country, prosecutions even more so. Over the weekend, violence broke out in parts of Sokoto state as protesters demanded the release of the two suspects arrested by the police in connection with Ms. Yakubu’s murder.
For another, due to its opacity, and relying as it is on the word of the accusers against the accused, a blasphemy charge is an open invitation to mob justice.
Recently, and as various political and economic pressures have stimulated a new defensiveness around religious issues across northern Nigeria, such accusations have become more common.
In June 2015, an Islamic court in Kano sentenced nine people (eight men and a woman) to death after finding them guilty of blasphemy. At a religious gathering in honor of Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse, founder of the Tijaniyyah order, the nine had apparently uttered the words “Niasse was bigger than Prophet Muhammad.” In August 2020, a Kano Islamic court sentenced gospel musician Yahya Sharif-Aminu to death by hanging for blasphemy, in “violation of Section 382 (B) of the Kano State Sharia Penal Code.” Last month, Mubarak Bala, thirty-seven-year-old president of the Nigeria Humanist Association, was sentenced to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to eighteen charges of “blaspheming Islam.”
Blasphemy is an offense under Islamic Sharia law, effective across Nigeria’s twelve majority Muslim northern states. Section 204 of the Nigerian criminal code stipulates a two-year imprisonment for “public insult on... religion.” Nonetheless, charges of blasphemy are typically brought by Muslims against Christians or other Muslims. Blasphemy laws seem at odds with Sections 38 and 39 of the Nigerian Constitution which guarantee freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has declared them, i.e., blasphemy laws, inconsistent with universal human rights.
While western governments and international nongovernmental organizations can apply pressure on the Nigerian government to abolish ‘blasphemy’ laws, such can achieve little across northern Nigerian states where, for good or ill, a deeply conservative and coercive interpretation of Islam continues to hold sway.
The grip of conservative Islam on northern Nigeria is tightened by poverty and illiteracy. According to the World Bank, 87 percent of all the poor people in Nigeria live in the northern part of the country. Data from Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) also show that illiteracy is concentrated in the north. The northeastern state of Yobe has a “7.23 percent literacy level, the lowest in the country.” In 2017, President Buhari established the North-East Development Commission (NEDC) “to lead the reconstruction and development of Nigeria’s northeast.”
The killing of Ms. Yakubu evokes conflicting—and competing—visions of Nigerian citizenship, and tensions over political identity and moral order that are as old as the country’s history. Nigerian leaders are mistaken if they think that their silence will somehow magically make it disappear.