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Blasphemy battles

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Two recent convictions and sentences for blasphemy in Nigeria attracted public attention and public outrage.  They illustrate the clash between Islamic law, also known as Sharia, and secular law; and show why the supremacy of the country’s secular constitution should be sacrosanct.

An Upper Sharia Court in Kano State, on August 10, found Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, 22, guilty of “insulting religious creed” based on a song he circulated via WhatsApp in March. The Islamic musician’s song was said to have elevated Senegalese Sheikh Ibrahim Niass of the Tijaniyyah Muslim sect above Prophet Muhammad.

The singer had gone into hiding, and protesters had burnt down his family house. The corps commander-general of the state Hisbah board, which is charged with the responsibility of enforcing Sharia, Dr  Sani Ibn-Sina, said the organisation had stopped protesters that gathered at its headquarters from taking the law into their own hands.

Judge Khadi Aliyu Muhammad Kani, who sentenced the singer to death by hanging, said he could appeal against the verdict, which was based on Section 382 (6) of Kano State Sharia Penal Code Law 2000.

On the same day, in the same court, the same judge also sentenced 13-year-old Omar Farouq to 10 years in prison with hard labour for blasphemy. The boy was accused of making derogatory statements about Allah in a public argument. He was tried as an adult because he had attained puberty and had full responsibility under Islamic law. His mother was said to have fled from their home following a mob attack after his arrest.

After his conviction, Sharif-Aminu had 30 days to appeal against the death sentence but Sharia court officials were reported to have unjustifiably denied him access to his lawyers, and also unreasonably delayed in providing copies of the judgement needed to file an appeal.

Indeed, it was only on September 3, six days before September 9 when the period allowed for appeal would lapse, that media reports said he had been able to file a notice of appeal through his lawyer.

Importantly, Sharif-Aminu stated that his trial, conviction, and sentencing “were unconstitutional, null, void having grossly violated and conflicted with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) as amended and having violated the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respectively.”

Similarly, Farouq’s appeal was filed very close to the end of the period allowed for appeal, on September 7.  The Foundation for Religious Freedom, which filed the appeal on his behalf, observed that the state government “failed, neglected and refused to provide him legal representation despite the existing framework for legal aid in Kano State.”

His appeal also raised the issue of constitutional conflict and rights violation highlighted in the singer’s appeal. UNICEF representative in Nigeria Peter Hawkins said the boy’s case “negates all core underlying principles of child rights and child justice that Nigeria – and by implication, Kano State – has signed on to.”

In both cases, though the convicts were allowed to appeal, they were not encouraged to do so. This means that they were expected to accept their convictions as flawless based on Islamic law. However, the convictions are flawed because they were based on Islamic law in a secular context.  In other words, the Sharia-based convictions are questionable because they are inconsistent with Nigeria’s secularism.

It is disturbing that Kano State Governor Abdullahi Ganduje is enthusiastic about signing Sharif-Aminu’s death warrant, unconcerned about whether the convicted singer got a fair trial. Unmoved by the opposition to the controversial verdict in some quarters, and dismissive of the criticism that execution is an extreme penalty in the circumstances, Ganduje was quoted as saying, “What the court did is absolutely right.”

During a meeting with clerics at the government house in Kano, the governor declared self-righteously: “I will not waste time in signing the warrant for the execution of the man who blasphemed our holy prophet of Islam.”

The governor’s faith-based standpoint is out of place. His position demands more than robotic conformity. He is the governor of a secular state in a secular country. His enthusiasm about signing the Sharia-based death warrant calls into question his understanding of his position as a secular governor.

Ganduje, though a Muslim, is nevertheless expected to rise above religion in this matter, considering the country’s overriding secularism and constitutional provisions protecting rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression.

This death sentence yet again raises fundamental issues about the operation of Sharia in a multi-religious but secular country such as Nigeria where the Islamic system of justice operates in 12 Muslim-majority states in the northern part of the country alongside a secular justice system.

Sharia has been controversial since its introduction in 1999. In 2002, for instance, Amina Lawal was sentenced to death by stoning under Sharia in Katsina State for conceiving a child out of wedlock. The conviction, condemned worldwide, was overturned by the Sharia Court of Appeal in 2004.

Also, one Abdulazeez Inyass, sentenced to death in Kano, in 2016, for blaspheming against Islam, is still on death row because executing a death penalty in Nigeria requires the approval of the state governor. It is curious that Governor Ganduje is eager to approve Sharif-Aminu’s execution but has not approved the death sentence in another case of blasphemy.  In both cases, the death penalty is unacceptable.

It is noteworthy that the first execution under Sharia happened in Katsina State in 2002 when a man was hanged after pleading guilty to murdering a woman and her two children. It is significant that this was a murder case in which the accused accepted guilt.

Blasphemy is another matter entirely.  Death sentence is an extreme penalty in such a case. Amnesty International observed that the death penalty for blasphemy under Sharia “violates Nigeria’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which restricts the use of the death penalty to the ‘most serious crimes’; which according to international law are crimes that involve intentional killing.”

The Kano authorities should not give the impression that Sharif-Aminu’s death sentence cannot be reviewed, or that it is irreversible. The same reasoning applies to Farouq. Imprisoning a 13-year-old boy for a decade with hard labour for blasphemy is an extreme punishment.  Their convictions should not only be reviewed; their sentences should be reversed.

The Sharia question is unavoidable, and must be addressed. There should be no question about the country’s adherence to the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions, and the elevation of sectarianism above secularism should be discouraged.

Although federalism accommodates the distribution of power between a central authority and the constituent units, such an arrangement in Nigeria must not be at the expense of the country’s pivotal secularism.

Applying Sharia in a secular country demands that those responsible for applying it should be conscious of, and be guided by, the country’s overriding secularism.

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