Humanists UK staged a protest outside the Nigeria High Commission in central London calling on the Nigerian government to overturn the conviction of Mubarak Bala, the President of Nigerian Humanist Association, and to repeal blasphemy laws in Nigeria. Mubarak has been sentenced to 24 years in prison for so-called "blasphemous" Facebook posts.20 April, 2022: Humanists UK protest outside the Nigeria High Commission in London calling on the Nigerian government to overturn the conviction of Mubarak Bala, the President of Nigerian Humanist Association, and to repeal blasphemy laws in Nigeria. [photo: Vuk Valcic/Alamy Live News]

It may have started as a row with another stallholder in the market or perhaps with a remark to a beggar. But while the beginning is unclear, how the day’s events unfolded and its tragic denouement have become all too familiar in northern Nigeria – not least because the mob that murdered Usman Buda filmed him being stoned to death.

Buda, a butcher and father of six, was the latest person to be lynched for ‘blaspheming’ in Sokoto, one of 12 among Nigeria’s 36 states to adopt sharia law in 2000. The Associated Press reported that it began as an argument with another trader. The accusation of blasphemy – whether true or not – quickly led to ‘a large crowd that included children pelting stones at Buda on the floor as they cursed him’.

One woman said Buda was ‘targeted’ because he was the ‘most successful butcher’. A witness told the Guardian that it began when Buda, a devout Muslim, quoted a hadith (a saying of the prophet) to a beggar. Other traders interpreted his comments as blasphemous. ‘I watched helplessly as he was beaten and stoned,’ the witness said. ‘Even those who wanted to intervene were unable to do so.’

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‘Arrests are rare’

A friend said: ‘If someone is accused of blasphemy, those making the accusations should present evidence … Usman wasn’t even given a chance to defend himself before the mob descended.’ AP noted: ‘Many of those accused of blasphemy never make it to court for trial … Arrests are rare.’

The concern for Sokoto’s governor, Ahmed Aliyu, was a rumoured slight to a long-dead religious figure rather than Nigerians’ lives, warning that he would ‘deal decisively’ not against lynch mobs but with anyone ‘degrading the personality’ of Muhammad. He did not offer any condolences to Buda’s family. Amnesty International Nigeria’s condemnation of the murder was ignored.

In May an open letter by hundreds of human rights organisations and individuals to Nigeria’s then president, Muhammadu Buhari, called for the release of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, a Sufi musician in Kano state sentenced to death for private WhatsApp messages. The ‘prisoner of conscience’ has now spent three years on death row for expressing his beliefs; his home was burned down by a mob.

‘Nonsense religious posts’

In May last year, Deborah Samuel, a Christian at a Sokoto college, got into a testy exchange with fellow students in which she protested that their social media group had been set up to help with assignments and exams, not for ‘nonsense religious posts’. For this, she was beaten and set alight.

The Sultan of Sokoto, Nigerian Muslims’ traditional spiritual leader, condemned the killing; but Prof Ibrahim Maqari, imam of the national mosque in Abuja, said Samuel deserved to be lynched. This prompted Wole Soyinka to call for Maqari to be tried for ‘hate rhetoric, incitement to murder and abuse of office’ (only someone as respected as Nigeria’s Nobel laureate writer could get away with this).

A month before Samuel was murdered, Mubarak Bala, head of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for ‘blasphemous’ posts on Facebook. Before that it was Talle Mai Ruwa – a water seller beaten and burnt to death in front of his mother after a mob overran the police station where he was being held. Another ‘blasphemer’, Isma’ila Sani Isah, is still being detained for his own safety in Sokoto – Sheikh Bello Yabo, a local imam, urged people to kill him on his release. Bridget Agbahiwe, a 74-year-old in Kano, was killed by a mob for ‘blasphemy’ after asking a fellow trader ‘to move a little’ when he was washing himself outside her shop. Umar Farouk, 16, was sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour in Kano for ‘blaspheming’ while arguing with a friend (an appeal court overturned the sharia court’s ruling).

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The Commonwealth and blasphemy

Nigeria is not the only country to have a blasphemy problem. A Humanists UK report last year found Commonwealth member states are more likely to have blasphemy laws than other countries. While 45% of all countries criminalise blasphemy (potentially incurring the death penalty in 7%), it is a crime in 59% of Commonwealth countries, with 9% having the death penalty. Two-thirds of countries with the death penalty for blasphemy were British colonies. Even the UK has not left these mediaeval laws behind: blasphemy and blasphemous libel remain criminal offences in Northern Ireland.

While some Commonwealth states have constitutional protections for freedom of conscience, minority religions can still face harassment. In India, for example, police have arrested people for comments on social media considered offensive to Hindus. But only five Commonwealth countries have the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy: Nigeria, Brunei, Malaysia, the Maldives, and Pakistan. As Amnesty notes, this violates their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which restricts capital punishment to the ‘most serious crimes’, not for being offended.

Personal vendettas

Only Pakistan rivals Nigeria in lynching people for ‘blasphemy’. In February, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s report, A Breach of Faith, warned that accusations of blasphemy were rising, with 585 cases registered in 2021, ‘disproportionately’ directed at minorities such as Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus. ‘The threshold of evidence regarding blasphemy accusations must be raised … [so] the laws in question are not weaponised by people to settle personal vendettas,’ the HRCP said.

Days later a mob dragged a man accused of blasphemy out of a police station and lynched him. The prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, asked: ‘Why didn’t the police stop the violent mob? The rule of law should be ensured.’ In 2021, a mob tortured, beat to death and burned a Sri Lankan factory manager – he was rumoured to have taken down a poster featuring lines from the Qur’an (the factory was being renovated so maybe he would have been lynched if he had left the poster up). Months earlier a Hindu boy of eight was jailed – the youngest person to face the death penalty.

Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s province of Punjab and the only prominent politician daring to criticise the deadly charade of blasphemy, was himself murdered. Muhammad Asim Hussain, an influential imam in the British city of Bradford with 100,000 Facebook followers, called the murderer a ‘lion’ of Islam.

‘Eagerness to kill’

Haruna Lafiagi, an Islamic scholar at Nigeria’s Al-Hikmah University, blames blasphemy killings on politicians’ reliance on clerics’ electoral support: ‘Misguided Islamic preachers [who] order their followers to go and kill … are instrumental to their political ambitions.’ He added: ‘A section of Muslims disregard the sanctity of human life so much that their eagerness to kill unjustly and unjustifiably is triggered at the slightest accusation of blasphemy. This is sheer ignorance, wickedness and barbarism.’

The UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief says ‘more Christians are killed for their faith in Nigeria than in the rest of the world combined’ – 14 a day on average. Their report this month, Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?, found human rights had ‘significantly worsened’ in Nigeria since a 2020 study, noting ‘the deepening divisions of Nigeria along religious or ethnic lines’ and how some respondents ‘had even expressed fears for the survival of the Nigerian state’.

The Commonwealth once came together to oppose apartheid South Africa’s oppression in the name of racial superiority; now it ignores routine abuse of human rights in the name of vindictive religiosity. The rule of the religious lynch mob must be stopped. Zineb El Rhazoui, a Moroccan-born French journalist and former Charlie Hebdo columnist, put it concisely: ‘The right to blasphemy is exactly the boundary between barbarism and civilisation.’

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.