A female student, Deborah Samuel, was gruesomely murdered in Nigeria’s northwestern Sokoto state last week after she was accused of blasphemy. Efforts by the authorities to identify and arrest those involved in her murder have been met with protests, which have further stoked religious tensions across the predominantly Muslim state.
According to media reports, unidentified assailants hunted down and killed Samuel after she sent a WhatsApp voice note to her classmates that some of them deemed to be insulting to the Prophet Muhammed.
In one of several videos that have gone viral and caused uproar, men with sticks can be seen beating the lifeless, bloodied body of a woman, reported to be Samuel. The video also showed young men celebrating, with one man holding up a match box and saying that he used it to set her on fire and kill her.
Nigeria’s population is roughly split between the Christian majority south and Muslim majority north. While the constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, thought, and conscience, the country’s criminal law makes it an offense to insult religion. Sharia, or Islamic law, applicable in the country’s 12 northern states, including Sokoto, criminalizes blasphemy. The authorities have held people incommunicado and Sharia courts have sentenced those convicted of blasphemy to death.
Blasphemy accusations often trigger mob violence before authorities even get involved. Nigeria’s history is rife with mob killings and deadly riots over alleged blasphemy against Islam.
In 2002, the offices of Thisday newspaper in the city of Kaduna were burned down after it published an article deemed to have been blasphemous. This was the catalyst for a spate of violent clashes between Muslim and Christians. Human Rights Watch documented around 250 deaths during the clashes and criticized the authorities for lack of effective action and resolve to bring those responsible to justice. Years of failing to ensure accountability for intercommunal violence between Muslims and Christians communities has only served to fuel more violence.
Nigerian legislators should urgently introduce laws to repeal the country’s blasphemy legislation, which is inconsistent with international human rights law to which Nigeria is party. The authorities should fully investigate and appropriately prosecute all those responsible for Samuel’s murder, and send a clear message that mob killings have no place in Nigeria whatever their justification.