Her name was Deborah Emmanuel – blasphemy accusations claim another life in Nigeria

Her name was Deborah Emmanuel – a second-year Christian student of Home Economics at the Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto state, Nigeria. She should have been safe from harassment and violence at an academic institution. But she wasn’t.

On 12 May Ms Emmanuel was brutally beaten and stoned to death by a predominantly male mob who proceeded to immolate her in a pile of tyres whilst chanting “Allahu Akbar”. She was buried just two days later.

Deborah Emmanuel is buried on 14 May

Ms Emmanuel was killed after she was falsely accused of blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed in a WhatsApp group chat in which she reportedly expressed exasperation at members posting religious articles and asked them to focus on issues relevant to course work, as it was a departmental group.

Unconfirmed reports, however, indicate that Ms Emmanuel had rejected the advances of a Muslim student, who later made the allegation against her. Some of these reports allege he is the same person who appeared in widely circulated video footage of Ms Emmanuel’s murder, brandishing a box of matches whilst boasting about the killing being “good and justified.”

Of course, no such act of vigilante barbarism could ever be justified. Ms Emmanuel was innocent of the accusations against her, but even if she had committed ‘blasphemy’, she did not deserve to die.

Nigeria is one of 71 countries that criminalises blasphemy, in a law introduced during the colonial era that contravenes the country’s constitution, which allows for the freedoms of thought, conscience and expression, and is also incompatible with the nation’s international obligations with regard to the freedoms of religion or belief (FoRB) and expression.

While the sentence stipulated for blasphemy under Section 204 of Nigeria’s criminal code is two years, the institution of a Shari’a penal code by 12 northern states since 2001, which effectively rendered Islam into a state religion in violation of Nigeria’s secular constitution, entailed the stipulation of punishments that contravene the nation’s international human rights obligations even further, including amputation for theft, and stoning to death for adultery or blasphemy,  

The unconstitutional primacy afforded to Shari’a law penal codes in these states, coupled with the retention of blasphemy punishments in the criminal code, have served to embolden religious extremists, such as those who killed Ms Emmanuel, to take matters into their own hands.

The situation is further exacerbated by the culture of impunity that generally surrounds such crimes, with perpetrators of violence and extrajudicial killings barely facing any consequences for their actions.

For example, in March 2007, 16 individuals arrested in connection with the murder of 30-year-old teacher Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin in Bauchi state were eventually released without charge. Mrs Oluwasesin, a mother of two, was stoned, stripped, beaten, stabbed to death and burned beyond recognition at Gandu Government Day Secondary School by a mob consisting of students, townsfolk and local thugs after being falsely accused of blasphemy by a student whom she caught cheating during an exam.

Similarly, in June 2016 Mrs Bridget Agbahime, 74, a market trader and the wife of a retired Deeper Life Church leader, was beaten to death by a mob in Kofar Wambai market in the Kano state capital following a false accusation of blasphemy. The five men arrested in connection with her murder, including the one whose falsehood incited her murder, were released unconditionally five months after being arrested.

Also, in July 2016, Mrs Eunice Elisha Olawale, 42, a deaconess and assistant pastor with the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in a satellite town of the national capital, Abuja, who left her home in the morning for street evangelism, was murdered as she passed by a mosque.  Her throat was slit, she was stabbed in the stomach, and her bible, a megaphone and a mobile phone were found near her body. Six men were arrested in connection with her murder, including a Muslim cleric who admitted he had ordered some young men to chase Mrs Olawale away, but denied asking them to kill her. All six were released in 2017 despite this admission, and amidst claims by the Abuja Police Commissioner that there was no prima facie evidence linking them to the murder.

Cases such as these offer little hope that the two students who have thus far been arrested for their involvement in Ms Emmanuel’s death will be held accountable.

Both individuals have been charged with criminal conspiracy and disturbing the peace, which are bailable offences, and they have also received legal representation from a team of 34 lawyers led by a professor of law.  Moreover, they were arraigned before a magistrates court, when they should be facing criminal charges of culpable homicide in a high court. 

In addition, widespread rioting broke out in the Sokoto state capital the day after the students were arrested, with Catholic Sunday masses cancelled after several churches were attacked by mobs calling for the perpetrators’ release, who may have also been angered by the immediate and forthright condemnation of Ms Emmanuel’s murder by the Bishop of Sokoto Diocese.

Rioting in Sokoto, 14 May

The rioters also invaded the grounds of the palace of Sultan of Sokoto, who had condemned the murder, but were driven away by security officers. Other prominent Muslims who condemned the killing included the Kaduna-based Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, who stressed the secular nature of the Nigerian state, said that Muslims and those of other faiths had agreed to live together peacefully under the constitution, and asserted that anyone who killed under the guise of religion had committed a grievous sin.

However, Ms Emmanuel’s murder is also being widely justified, and in some cases even celebrated, by a variety of both lesser known and prominent Nigerians on social media, including by Professor Ibrahim Maqary, Deputy Chief Imam of Abuja’s National Mosque, who tweeted: “The dignity of the Prophet (PBUH) is at the forefront of the redlines. If our grievances are not properly addressed, then we should not be criticized for addressing them ourselves.”

The degree of support enjoyed by Ms Emmanuel’s murderers, as evidenced by their weak charges and the phalanx of lawyers volunteering to defend them, is a worrying indication of how impunity in relation to religion-related violations has enabled the mainstreaming of extremist doctrine, even in the most unexpected places.  As CSW Nigeria observed, “The tragedy … is the fact that the stoning and burning happened within an academic environment that symbolises enlightenment, tolerance, and civilization. It should have been an environment that guaranteed her right to the secularity that the Nigerian constitution created for all.”

Moreover, there are very real reasons to fear a spate of similar accusations on the flimsiest of pretexts. Already in the Borno state capital of Maiduguri, police hurriedly arrested another Christian girl named Naomi Goni, reportedly from Chibok, after extremists threatened to kill her for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad on Facebook, reportedly when commenting on Ms Emmanuel’s death. Ms Goni has denied this, claiming her Facebook page has been hacked since she gave birth last year. Nevertheless, calls for her death have continued.

For all of these reasons, the Nigerian government must respond to this appalling murder urgently and act in the national interest, as opposed to facilitating the interests of a sector of one of the country’s religious communities.

It must not be cowed into placating religious vigilantes, and should instead ensure that everyone involved in the horrific murder of Ms Emmanuel is held fully to account on appropriate charges before a high court.

It must even move beyond that, by repealing the blasphemy provision in the penal code, challenging excessive sentencing by Shari’a courts, and demonstrating by its actions that religious vigilantism and extremist violence no longer has a place in Nigeria.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley