Shortly after his investiture as the new Inspector-General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun, proclaimed that he felt like a tiger ready to chase away criminals in the country. Despite the jeers he received from those who wondered if he has a multiple personality disorder, the man’s point is well-understood. It is that feeling of exhilaration that accompanies being imbued with administrative political powers. Besides, through both physical and metaphysical means, humans have always sought to extend the limits of their abilities by appropriating the attributes of animals. So, I will take him up on his metaphor to ask him what kind of tiger he plans to be in office: a paper tiger or Tiger Woods? Only one of those options has made a historical impact and Egbetokun must quickly clarify his choices to himself now that the duty to secure justice for another Nigerian over supposed blasphemy calls on him. On Sunday, a mob accused and killed a butcher, Usman Buda.
The unfortunate incident was eerily reminiscent of the lynching of Deborah Samuel in that same town just a year ago. Her vile murderers were so confident they put their own faces on video. The police responded to the attendant public outrage by arresting and charging two suspects, Bilyaminu Aliyu and Aminu Hukunci, to court. For a moment, it seemed justice would prevail and those who carry out such crimes would have their privilege undercut. Unfortunately, that never happened. Last month, Aliyu and Hukunci were freed because, according to court documents, the police prosecutors absconded from the trial. Their cowardly retraction from confronting the fanatics that killed Samuel was worse.
By starting what they could not finish, the police emboldened those who would kill again over such spuriousness. If Egbetokun’s immanent raging beast raring to go all out against those who diminish our citizenry wants to proclaim his tigritude, he should consider revisiting Samuel’s case. If Egbetokun does not want to end up as another tiger in a gilded cage that cannot bare its claws, he should stand up for Buda too. These two cases afford him a chance to stand up to the cowards who take lives cheaply because they have been nurtured to believe they can determine who should live or die. If there is anything Buda’s case should teach the faux liberals who, in the wake of Samuel’s killing, urged us to “respect other people’s religious beliefs,” it is that one can never try enough to please those who have arrogated the power over one’s life to themselves. All it takes to kill you is their wanting to kill you.
They will do it because they know that no law in Nigeria restrains them. Sorry, some laws proscribe lynching, but those who should enforce it will rather avoid it. To confront lynching incidents is to challenge the nation’s ideological fault lines cracked by the compounding of regional and religious identities. You know how badly the police have been cowed when an alleged lawyer blackmailed them into arresting Mubarak Bala for his atheistic views and they capitulated. Imagine a world where a random guy with a law degree has the effrontery to petition the police and demand they clamp down on someone’s rights to freedom of thought and expression. The police not only ran this petitioner’s errand, but they also disobeyed the court order that mandated them to release Bala. Ideally, the police should have set the petitioner and his cohort straight by pointing out to them an atheist has the democratic right to proclaim his non-belief the same way they proclaim their beliefs, but no, they were too fearful of mob action. Nigeria has had one too many instances of people taking religious offence and ascribing the power to mete out violence to themselves.
These people have neither understanding nor respect for other people’s democratic freedoms. Nigeria, unfortunately, condones their barbarism. Those who try to downplay religious killings by pointing out that they are no different from the regular violence one can experience on the streets in Nigeria willfully forget that this crime is unique because of politics. Lynching in the name of God is a crime indulged by people in high places who cannot risk their political capital. We were all here when a presidential candidate who initially condemned the killing of Deborah eventually withdrew his sympathies. Some loose-nuts-and-bolts-in-the-head threatened they would not vote for him in the elections for daring to speak out against their barbarism, and he backtracked. That pattern of refraining from the path of justice so as not to offend the voting mob has been consistent. Some religious and political agents who condemned the lynching of Buda could not just bring themselves to hit the nail on the right part of the head. For instance, Sokoto governor Ahmed Aliyu issued a press release where he asked the people to be calm and law-abiding.
He said, “I want to call on the people of Sokoto State to avoid taking laws into their hands, instead, report any alleged crime or blasphemy to the appropriate quarters for necessary action. Our religion does not encourage taking laws into one’s hand, so let us try to be good followers of our religion.” An Islamic rights advocacy group, the Muslim Rights Concern of Sokoto went as far as condemning the lynching of Buda but still upheld the erroneous idea that something called “blasphemy” is punishable. They said, “Islam does not allow people to do what they like or take laws into their hands as they deem fit. It is only the courts (Shariah and common law courts) that have powers to execute offenders after proving them guilty through fair trial.”
The question for both the governor and MURIC is the law under reference here. Which law are these maniacs taking into their dirty hands? They are sheer murderers, simple. By construing their crime as “taking the law into their hands,” you make it seem they have a legitimate grouse that only needed appropriate channelling. Look, the whole idea of blasphemy might have made sense in medieval times, but it has no basis to stand in our modern times. Some religious laws were designed for an era when people’s eyes were still on their knees, and they are no longer tenable in the 21st century. You cannot kill people because their (ir) religious views offend you.
The best you can do is to obey religious laws for yourself as a private individual. For instance, if a butcher says things you consider a negation of what you believe, your freedom to respond accordingly could go as far as dissociation. While you are free to never buy meat from them forever, you cannot coerce their beliefs without violating their inalienable right to thought and expression. Nigeria should have long taken charge against blasphemy accusations and the concomitant vigilantism. They should have disallowed even Sharia courts from pronouncing death sentences for it (or for any reason). These acts are unconstitutional, negate democratic tenets, and outrightly barbaric.
They cannot stand. Those that killed Buda and others did not “take any law into their hands” because there is no law proscribing blasphemy anyone is constitutionally bound to obey. If the IG is serious about displaying some savagery against Nigeria’s enemies, this is his opportunity. This case is his chance to inscribe the integrity of the law because it is about belief—not just in God or any supernatural being—but in Nigeria as a political entity. This is ultimately about belief in democracy, the rule of law, and the rights of citizenship which it grants. If those who killed Buda are—once again—allowed to get away with their crime, you would have legitimised their conflicting vision of the ruling order of the nation.
• Abimbola A. Adelakun is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African/African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.