By Deji Lambo
In this concluding part of the write-up on mob justice in Nigeria, DEJI LAMBO explains how religious intolerance has fuelled jungle justice in the country
Despite the irksome events associated with mob justice, including the sad tales that characterised the killing of Buda, Samuel, Usman and Saliu, among other slain victims anchored on religion, very unpleasant harrowing cases recorded with more egregious approaches to religious extremism have manifested in Nigeria.
Extreme religious radicalism
In one of the many horrifying episodes, on June 5, 2022, the hometown of a sitting governor in Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu, came under deadly attack when members of the Islamic State West Africa Province allegedly stormed the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo town, reigned terror and killed no fewer than 40 unarmed worshippers including children.
Eight years before this terrible massacre, another Islamist militant organisation, Boko Haram, on the night of April 14, 2014, invaded the Government Girls’ Secondary School in the Chibok Local Government Area, a predominantly Christian community in Borno State and kidnapped 276 pupils most of whom were Christians. Till date, 96 victims are said to still be missing with 107 released, 57 escaped and 16 reportedly rescued by the military.
In a similar displeasing situation, members of the Boko Haram militant group, four years after the shocking invasion of the girls-only secondary school in Chibok, in another terrible incident on February 19, 2018, attacked the Government Girls’ Science and Technical College, Dapchi, Yobe State, and abducted 110 female pupils including Leah Sharibu who, unlike other victims, had since the event yet to regain her freedom for refusing to denounce Christianity when given a condition to convert to Islam for her to be released.
Beyond these highlighted traumatic scenarios, there are numerous other dastardly criminal episodes including attacks on churches and mosques in Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara states, bombing of markets in Taraba and Borno states where alcohol is sold, among other atrocious acts of terrorism linked to these Islamic militant groups as far as religious extremism is concerned in Nigeria’s multicultural society, where religion, ethnicity and politics are some of the factors creating disunity in the country.
When adherents of these radical ideologies strike without conscience, as expected, religious bodies, the government, nongovernmental organisations, and security agents, among other persons in society including politicians condemn the act and demand justice.
There are cases in which security agents followed thoroughly to logical conclusions; there are also cases that yielded no useful result due to shoddy investigations, among other intricacies associated with high-profile criminal investigations.
Also, there are cases of politicians taking advantage of public outcry against the wicked atrocities perpetrated by religious extremists including blasphemy-induced attackers and killers to score cheap political credibility without moving the needle; there have also been cases where politicians, despite their pedigree in society, become toothless bulldogs in the face of open criticisms against adherents of blasphemy attacks and killings and the action in its entirety, among other religious radicalised actions.
Systemic religious intolerance
When people imbued with these radical ideologies insensitively display open disregard against people’s freedom to act or express themselves in Nigeria’s democratic society, as expressed earlier, religious bodies and the government, among others, speak ill of such dehumanising actions perpetrated by them which most times claim or put the lives of the accused victims, regardless of their religious beliefs, cultural or ethnic affinity, under threat.
Recently, another worrying account of religious persecution manifested in Ilorin, Kwara State, following an announcement made by an Osun priestess, Ajesikemi Omolara, to organise a three-day festival tagged, Isese for Osun traditional worshippers.
”I was planning an Isese festival in Ilorin. Issues began after fliers for the event were posted online. In no time, I was bombarded with calls and social media tags.
“Some of my people soon began calling to inform me of plans by the imams to shut my event down. I have received multiple death threats from unknown people,” Omolara said in an interview with this newspaper in July 2023.
It was also learnt that the Muslim group sent by the Emir of Ilorin, Dr. Sulu Gambari, stormed Omolara’s residence and warned her against holding the festival.
In the same month, some Osun traditional worshippers were performing rites at the bank of Oko Olowo River in the same state when a yet-to-be-identified Islamic cleric, as seen in a video clip posted on Facebook by one Alfa Aribidesi At-Tawdeeh Islamic Da’wah, threatened the worshippers engaging in the act.
“We warned you against these sacrifices. I have you on tape with your calabashes. You dare not drop the calabashes. This is Ilorin and such is not allowed. Is this Osun? Leave! Leave! Leave now or I’ll pelt you with stones,” the cleric said as he screamed at the Osun worshippers.
Nobel laureate and renowned playwright, Prof. Wole Soyinka, in his reaction to the outrage that trailed the persecution of Osun priestesses by Islamic worshippers, said such conduct turned, before our very eyes, a once ecumenical city like Kaduna into a blood-stained mockery of cohabitation.
Also in Lagos State, Oro traditional worshippers, after announcing the plan to perform sacrament at midnight in the Oko-Oba area of the state, members of The Truth and The Spirit Prophetic Church led by their Prophetess, Mercy Okocha, held a vigil outside the church premises.
An eyewitness, Jamiu Issa, who participated in the Oro procession held on August 22, 2022, told The PUNCH that before the procession started, members of the church were seen conducting a vigil outside around 10pm, and one of them, Akeem Adebisi, urged the prophetess to suspend their programme and instruct her members to go inside.
Issa said, “So, when we started at midnight, we saw them again and chased them inside the church. Around 1am on our way back, we saw them again and they started throwing stones, bottles and coconuts at us.
“The prophetess asked her female members to go inside, while she and the male members attacked us. They smashed a coconut on Akeem’s face; he collapsed and started bleeding on the spot.
“We rushed him to about three hospitals but he was rejected. We were told he had lost a lot of blood. He died around 4am on our way to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital.”
Okocha, 50, alongside nine members of the church were arrested in connection with Akeem’s death.
In another episode of religious intolerance, a law school graduate, Amasa Firdaus, was denied entry to the International Conference Centre to be called to bar by the Body of Benchers on December 12, 2017.
Her offence was refusing to remove the hijab she wore beneath the wig during the ceremony, an action the Nigerian Law School was said to have described as a violation of the institution’s dress code.
Describing her denial to participate in the ceremony as “a violation of her rights”, Firdaus insisted that the hijab did not in any way violate the dress code set by the law school.
The incident generated lots of criticism as Islamic bodies, including the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and the Muslim Rights Concern, called for a review of the dress code.
However, the former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, A.B. Mahmoud, promised that “the Hijab issue will be addressed,” and in what appeared to be a break from the norm which signalled the promotion of diversity and tolerance in the Nigerian legal profession, the female from the University of Ilorin was called to bar months after challenging the restriction on the use of hijab during the call-to-bar ceremonies.
This development, despite being applauded as a plausible initiative mostly by Muslims, became a double-edged sword, as some people argued that the endorsement of hijab during the call-to-bar ceremonies should pave the way for the approval of their traditional religious attire by regulators of the Nigerian law profession.
A human rights lawyer, Malcolm Omoirhobo, while experimenting with the possibility of regularising the acceptance of his religious attire in law practice, caused a commotion when he appeared barefooted with cowries tied on his two hands and legs as he tied a red wrapper while wearing his lawyer’s gown to the Supreme Court in Abuja.
“I am very grateful to the Supreme Court. They made a very resounding decision that promotes Section 38 of the Constitution. That is our right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. That we are free to express our way of worship in our schools and our courts.
“That decision was reached on Friday, June 17, 2022, and that has encouraged me because I am a traditionalist and this is the way I worship. This is how I will be dressing henceforth in court because I am a strong adherent to ‘Olokun’, the god of rivers,” Omoirhobo said a week after the hijab ruling was made.
However, adorned in the same attire before Justice Tijani Ringim of a Federal High Court in Lagos State in the same month, Omoirhobo’s two cases were not heard because of his attire.
The human rights lawyer later appeared before the court in his normal lawyer’s dress code and told journalists that “the spirit” asked him to “go normal,” adding that he would revert to his religious attire when led by the spirit again.
While some people appreciated the lawyer’s courage, some others basked in what they described as a comic display that exposed the ridiculousness that is sometimes associated with the law and urged Omoirhobo to explore legal options for the possibility of ratifying the dress code.
In the same pattern of systemic and selective intolerance associated with religion, when Samuel was lynched by suspects who accused her of blasphemy, despite the atrocious crime committed, it was learnt that the charges preferred against the arrested suspects were limited to bailable offences.
However, when a Christian health worker with the Warji Local Government Area in Bauchi State, Rhoda Jatau, after receiving a WhatsApp message from Ghana condemning the gruesome killing of Samuel, shared the message with colleagues on the social media platform, Muslims who saw the post accused her of blasphemy, reportedly stormed her house to attack her only to discover that she had been arrested by officials of the Department of State Services on May 20, 2022.
After being held in seclusion for more than four months, Jatau, in a statement by her counsel, Joshua Nasara, said she was charged with “inciting public disturbance, exciting contempt of religious creed and cyber-stalking.”
Nasara also alleged that efforts to secure the health worker’s bail were “frustrated and denied by government authorities and leaders of Islamic groups in the state.” Till date, Jatau, who was not the originator of the message that unexpectedly changed the trajectory of her life, has yet to regain her freedom.
Also accused of blasphemy for what was described as revisionist preaching, a popular Sufi Muslim cleric, Sheikh Abduljabbar Nasiru Kabara, was sentenced to death by an Upper Shariah Court in Kano State on December 15, 2022.
Similarly, after the lyrics of his song were deemed derogatory against an Islamic prophet, musician Yahaya Sharif Aminu, sometime in March 2020, was sentenced to death by hanging by the Upper Sharia Court in the same state after he was tried without legal representation and convicted for blasphemy.
However, following an appeal, the appellate High Court in the state, on January 21, 2021, overturned the conviction due to concerns over lack of due process and ordered a retrial by the same Sharia Court.
Desperate to clear himself, Aminu challenged the Sharia Penal Code of Kano State at the Supreme Court of Nigeria, stressing that it contravenes the Nigerian Constitution.
On Wednesday, August 17, 2022, the musician was discharged and acquitted by the Court of Appeal in Kano State.
According to Article 10 of the 1999 Constitution, the government of the federation or a state shall not adopt any religion as the state religion.
This implies that Nigeria is a secular country with no official state religion. Despite this constitutional position, blatant intolerance of people’s religion, and freedom of expression has continued to manifest in society.
Reactions and solutions
In his reaction to mob justice, Isiaka Olagunju, SAN, said it was an offence to engage in a mob action or jungle justice, adding that any suspect must undergo the due process of the law by proper arraignment in a court of competent jurisdiction, fair trial and conviction if found guilty by the presiding judge pronouncing an appropriate penalty or sentencing in accordance with the stipulations of the law.
“Meanwhile, such a suspect must be adequately represented by a counsel of his choice. Where a suspect cannot afford counsel, it behoves the state to provide the suspect with counsel who will represent him adequately and meritoriously,” he added.
On the issue of Sharia law vis-a-vis the Nigerian constitution, Olagunju said, “In the states where Sharia laws have been duly passed, operation of Sharia law in such states in the N orth is not illegal. The constitution indeed recognises Sharia law but its operations must not be in breach of the Nigerian Constitution.
“There are instances where the Supreme Court of Nigeria had set aside conviction and sentence of Sharia courts. Sharia law does not recognise mob action or jungle justice in any form.
“The way forward is to continue to sensitise citizens on the illegitimacy of mob actions and security agencies must continue to ensure that those who engage in mob actions are arrested and made to face the consequences of their illegal action.”
The global spokesperson for Ifa, one of the traditional religions in Nigeria, Prof Wande Abimbola, said if Nigeria is a secular state, religious intolerance should have been checked by the authorities but nobody seems to care.
He said, “Everybody knows that those of us who have continued to adhere to the faith of our ancestors are being persecuted by the two world religions of Christianity and Islam. They have demonised our faith and said our ancestors are evil and therefore we should submit ourselves for some kind of cleansing.
“But we need a peaceful society that will tolerate the beliefs and practices of one another as long as the beliefs and practices don’t offend the law of the land. Anybody who is preaching otherwise is trying to draw us back because, in the absence of peace, we cannot make any meaningful progress.”
On the issue of blasphemy, Abimbola described it as a case of two sides of the same coin, adding that actors of blasphemy-induced mob attacks and killings should be tolerant and respect free speech.
He said, “Whether Christians, Muslims or traditional worshippers, we all need to exercise restraint. Abusing one another will not lead to any good end; after all, we are all brothers and sisters.
“I think this is the time that most of us who believe in the faith of our ancestors should come together like never before and look for peaceful means to defend ourselves. The courts are there, but the most important thing is to ensure that nobody is alone.
“If somebody is being persecuted and other people are observing and rallied around to support the person being persecuted, our voice will be audible. Taking up arms will not yield any good end. If you take up arms while you are a minority, you will be crushed.
“We should make constant appeals to the government and international bodies. The mass media has a role to play by being sympathetic to our course and disseminating our viewpoints so the authorities in government can see that what is going on is not right.”
In his reaction, the Secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria, North-West Zone, Sunday Oibe, said Christians respect people of different faiths and beliefs.
He said, “We have respect for people of other religions because some of them, it is not their making, it is as a result of where they found themselves; so, we respect their beliefs just as we believe that they will have respect for our belief.
“In the Nigerian society where people of diverse groups come together, the constitution is supposed to be what governs our activities and relationships with one another. If I am aggrieved about certain things, I should be able to allow the law of the land to take precedence so that we don’t turn the country into a banana republic.
“On the issue of blasphemy, I have 80 per cent of friends who are Muslims; we do things together and when it comes to my beliefs, they respect my views and I respect their views.”
Oibe said if he and his friends disagreed on issues, they would desist from allowing religion to blindfold them, adding that if Nigerians must be together, the rule of law must be respected.
He added, “I am pleading with everyone that where there is an issue of extreme misunderstanding about people saying something that you don’t like, in a civilised society, we don’t just take the law into our own hands. The law of the land must have its way in the lives of people who abuse the rights of another person.
“Why should they breach the law when the court is there to settle disagreements? If you are angry because of the tone of my voice and you carry stones and begin to stone me, if we continue like that, we will become a banana republic. So, we must respect humanity for Nigeria to advance to the level of the enviable dreams of our founding fathers.
“The wisdom of the people who crafted the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is that there should be no state religion. So, if we don’t uphold the rule of law and respect the sanctity of the constitution of the country and we begin to bring dual law that runs pari pasu with the constitution, then we are heading towards anarchy and that will be dangerous for the country.”
Explaining further, Oibe said one of the cardinal teachings imbibed in the church was that vengeance belongs to God and not man.
He said, “If somebody offends you, approach the person and if the person apologises, the matter has been put to an end but if the person refuses to apologise, leave God to deal with it.
“We are taught to have good neighbourliness; one of the things we have been doing at CAN is to make sure that we educate our people; in the case of obvious provocation, report to God as we cannot fight for our God who is Omniscient and all-powerful.
“As long as we continue to promote respect for people of different faiths and respect their beliefs and give them the dignity they deserve, I will also expect them to respect where I practice.”
The founder of Muslim Rights Concern, Prof. Ishaq Akintola, while reacting to the issue of blasphemy-induced attacks and killings, said nobody should hide under the principle of allowing the law to take its due course to provoke Muslims.
He also said condemning a certain section of the country when they react to blasphemy won’t bring about the desired changes until they are understood and their feelings respected.
Akintola said, “Different people look at different things from different angles. If you abuse a prophet in some parts of the world, it is a heinous crime. In some parts of this country, it is a serious crime which the old and the young will rise against you. In some other parts of this country, it is just one of those things; they don’t think you have done anything strange or punishable.
“So, it depends on perspectives. What we need to do is to respect one another’s cultures, beliefs and feelings. Condemning a certain section of the country when they react to blasphemy will not take us anywhere; try to understand people of that part of the country, and you will enjoy living with them, or you stay away from them if you know you cannot respect their prophet and their God, and you want to speak freely.”
Speaking further, Akintola described mob justice as a condemnable action but emphasised that the root cause should be traced as people were fond of assessing emotions alone when they condemn those who defend their faith.
He added, “It is more than money or property when it comes to faith. Why we don’t subscribe to violent attacks against people because they have committed blasphemy, I think the first advocatus provocate is the blasphemer because people know what blasphemy is and know that Muslims do not accept if you insult their prophet as they will become your enemy.
“If you want to play safe, go to Enugu State and abuse Muhammed (S.A.W), hardly will anybody attack you because that is not a Muslim region. But if you want to commit suicide, go to Jigawa and insult Muhammad (S.A.W). These things need to be understood; respect begets respect. Until such a time that everybody would have learnt that anyone who commits this offence will be taken to the police. Until then, we will be wasting time blaming those who rely on mob justice.
“If we talk about justice for the Muslims and those who are easily angered by acts of blasphemy, then you ask what the Muslims want? The Muslims said they want Sharia, which is the law of their religion, and Nigerians are saying no, you cannot have Sharia, it is brutish and animalistic, therefore, you cannot have it. But this is the law of their religion.”
The spokesperson for the Nigerian Orientation Agency, Paul Odenyi, said a part of the agency’s mandate was to promote order and peace in society, adding that within that framework, officials of the agency had been talking to people not to do certain things that were outside of the law.
He said, “There is a programme that we are doing that is called building a people of peace. It is a programme that has been running for about seven to eight years and we talk about Nigerians cultivating a culture of being peaceful; about Nigerians learning how to be tolerant of other people’s views, and trying to be cultured and disciplined.
“Within the context of tolerance, if for instance, somebody has said things that you think are blasphemous to your faith, there are legal instruments and institutions that are going to deal with that, and that is for you to go to the security agencies.
“So, we encourage Nigerians to be tolerant of one another. Whether we like it or not, we are one country and I dare say that Christianity and Islam are brought from other countries. We teach people discipline, tolerance, and how to be respectful and patient which are virtues they need to cultivate as a member of society.”
Odenyi said the agency had been holding a series of interventions targeting the youths, among others, adding that during the interventions, they advised against resorting to violence to respond to grievances against them.
He said, “We have a full unit that promotes social justice where we try to intervene when people feel aggrieved about the society, about the system, and when families fight. The social justice unit is under the Department of Orientation and Behaviour Modification; we also have another department called Ethics and Values, among others where we promote one value or the other in society.
“As for mob justice, one of the things we do is to promote the rule of law; people cannot take laws into their hands because they are aggrieved. We condemn any acts of mob action or jungle justice. Most of our programmes on orientation and behavioural modification are for the youth because we believe in capturing them young and letting them understand these values and basics are important to living in society.”
Odenyi also explained that the agency once did a counter-narrative intervention against Boko Haram, noting that during the programme, officials of the agency visited schools and religious bodies and spoke to them.
He said, “At that time, Boko Haram insurgents were compelling people to live in a particular way based on what they considered to be the ideology of their faith. We came out with a counter-narrative to show them that what they are telling them to do is not in the Quran.
“And told them that they cannot be teaching them what is not in the Quran in the name of Islam. We promoted the programme for five years in Borno, Adamawa, Bauchi and Yobe states during the Boko Haram insurgency and even at the IDP camps.
“While promoting the programme, even some of the repentant Boko Haram insurgents who surrendered began to see that some of the things they were being compelled to do were not in the Quran or Hadith and said they regretted their actions.”
On the persecution of traditional worshippers, Odenyi said the agency did not have a programme to promote traditional religion, but explained that within the context of their mandate, the agency had been promoting tolerance as a virtue.
“It is one of our core values captured in Section 23 of the constitution. If a traditional worshipper is being persecuted, there are legal issues involved. So, if somebody is preventing him/her, the traditional worshipper can seek the enforcement of fundamental human rights because he/she has a right to religion, assembly, expression and movement,” he said.