Map of Nigeria

The rise of Boko Haram, newest franchise of the Islamist militants Isis, has created a Manichean perspective of Nigeria: Muslim north versus the Christian south. This was underlined by the announcement that eight men and a woman had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in Kano: for these nine Nigerians, who all pleaded guilty, are Muslim and ironically face death for their very piety.

The BBC said the ‘blasphemy’ occurred at a mass meeting of the Tijaniyya sect, a Sufi order founded in the 18th century and now the most widespread in west Africa. As always, factions emerged and the sect splintered into smaller branches. The dominant faction follows Sheikh Ibrahim Niass, who emphasised a mystical, intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths. Sufi masters are often regarded as saints by believers and the unfortunate nine on death row were condemned for reportedly saying that Niass was greater than the prophet Muhammad.

To add to the concerns of human rights groups, the trial was conducted in secret after a mob burned down the sharia court in the Rijia Lemo district of the northern city when a Sufi preacher, Abdul Niass (it is not clear if he is related to his namesake) was supposed to appear on blasphemy charges. The mob, Nigerian Watch reported, then stormed the Kano state house and the emir’s palace.

‘There has been consensus among Muslims scholars that insulting the prophet carries a death sentence,’ Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa, head of Kano’s religious police, told the BBC Hausa service. ‘We quickly put them on trial to avoid bloodshed because people were very angry and trying to take law into their hands.’

Given the heightened emotions, it was predictable that the Kano state government was reported by the Nigerian Daily Post to have welcomed the death sentences—the first time capital punishment has been ordered by a sharia court for blasphemy since Islamic law began to replace civil and criminal law in the north in the late 1990s. Even other Sufi clerics, including Sheikh Ahmad Tijjani Niass, son of Ibrahim Niass, condemned the speech rather than the mob-led reaction.

This is perhaps more surprising because the Tijaniyya sect, like other Sufi orders, has a generally tolerant take on Islam. Unlike the puritanical Salafi interpretation of Islam (taken to its extreme by the 18th-century Saudi preacher Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab), the Sufi tradition largely rejects fanaticism, encourages debate and allows its followers to embrace poetry, dance, music and other arts. ‘Sufi gatherings inspire young people to engage in interfaith dialogue,’ the Eurasia Review says of Morocco.

The split between the Sufi and Salafi strands became pronounced through the 1960s as the Islamic fundamentalist Sheikh Abubakar Gumi rose in influence. He was critical of Sufism and Nigeria’s delicate balancing act between Christians and Muslims. ‘Nigeria’s Muslims, he once said, should never accept a non- Muslim ruler,’ the Independent noted.

In 1978, a Wahhabi reformist movement known as Izala was founded by Ismaila Idris and any semblance of Muslim unity in Nigeria ended. Though Izala leaders have distanced it from its offshoot, Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of the notorious militant group wreaking havoc across the region was a member of Izala until he broke away to form Jama’at Ahl us-Sunnah li’d-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad, now known as Boko Haram.

To underline how fractured Muslim identity is in Nigeria today, Izala’s followers have in turn been denounced as infidels—and possibly targeted—by Boko Haram. Last year after the militants assassinated Sheikh Adam Albani, a prominent Salafist cleric, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, warned the Izala chairman, Yahaya Jingir: ‘Shekau killed Albani of Zaria, tomorrow he will kill Jingir.’

The death sentence passed on the nine Sufis, therefore, should perhaps be seen as an episode in a continuing power struggle between very different conceptions of Islam in Nigeria.

Religion and politics are nothing if not fluid in Nigeria. Moshood Abiola, the first southerner to win a presidential election in 1993 (though it was annulled by General Babangida’s coup), was a Muslim. In south-west Nigeria, ‘Intermarriage is common—three of the region’s six state governors are Muslim men married to Christian women; the speaker of the Lagos state parliament is a Muslim married for the last 30 years to a Christian pastor.’

The sharia verdict was met with outrage in Nigeria and abroad. The Nigerian Guardian reported that the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Nigerian Humanist Movement had urged the president, Muhammadu Buhari, the Kano governor and the emir, ‘to do whatever you can to seek true justice, respecting and restoring the human rights of those accused, and to work to end the malicious and unjust use of “blasphemy” as a criminal prohibition anywhere in Nigeria’.

The sentence also reveals the yawning gap between some countries’ legal systems and the ideals supposedly adhered to as Commonwealth member states, as enshrined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, the 1991 Harare Declaration and 2012 Commonwealth Charter.

According to Amnesty International, the number of people sentenced to death in Nigeria has risen fourfold: from 141 in 2013 to 659 in 2014, with 32 prisoners exonerated or pardoned. Some of them were juveniles when they committed their alleged crimes.

However, Nigerians might well point to other Commonwealth members that put their citizens on death row and similarly flout international law. More than half of Commonwealth member states still retain the death penalty, according to the The Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka also impose the death penalty for crimes committed by children.

Other Commonwealth members that imposed the death sentence in 2014 were Bangladesh, Barbados, Botswana, the Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Maldives, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Zambia (and Zimbabwe). Malaysia, Pakistan and Singapore actually carried out executions.

Although the global trend is towards abolition (with a 22% fall in the number of executions compared 2013), Pakistan ended a six-year moratorium on executing civilians after the Peshawar school massacre. Seven people were executed in a fortnight late last year and 231 people are on death row.

One of the most unfortunate is Mohammad Asghar, a 71-year-old man from Edinburgh suffering paranoid schizophrenia and also facing execution for blasphemy, Channel 4 News reported. But Asghar still has his life. As the campaign group Reprieve notes, more than 50 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered in Pakistan before their trial ended.

As the activist Peter Tatchell pointed out in the Huffington Post when he criticised the Commonwealth secretary general, Kamalesh Sharma, for his ‘hands-off attitude’ and ‘cautious approach’ to defending lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights: ‘Too many Commonwealth countries not only violate LGBT human rights. They also sanction state executions, censorship, torture, detention without trial and restrictions on free speech and the right to protest—as well as officially-endorsed discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion or belief.

‘This has to change. Commonwealth countries have a duty to adhere to Commonwealth values and abide by the international human rights laws they have signed and pledged to uphold.’