Two students arrested in connection with the lynching of Deborah Emmanuel, the Christian student at Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto state, Nigeria, following an unsubstantiated blasphemy accusation, were arraigned before a Magistrates Court in Sokoto city on 16 May. Ms Emmanuel’s name was initially widely reported as Deborah Yakubu.
Bilyaminu Aliyu and Aminu Hukunci, who were represented by a team of 34 lawyers led by a Professor of Law, were charged with criminal conspiracy and disturbing the peace, which are bailable offences. Both pleaded not guilty, and were remanded in custody after the trial judge reserved ruling on their bail application until 18 May.
Ms Emmanuel, a Level 200 Home Economics student, was lynched on 12 May, after being accused of blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed in a departmental WhatsApp group chat. She had expressed exasperation at members posting religious articles and asked them to focus on issues relevant to course work. According to an unconfirmed report, she had also rejected the advances of a Muslim student, who later made the blasphemy allegation.
According to eyewitnesses, as a mob that would eventually number over 100 began to gather, the police were called, but initially only sent two officers, who attempted but failed to rescue Ms Emmanuel. Eventually a significant number of security personnel arrived, but offered no assistance to her as she pleaded for her life, and allegedly asked her killers what they hoped to achieve by murdering her.
The Sokoto state capital remains tense in the wake of the arrests and Ms Emmanuel’s murder. Sunday masses on 15 May were cancelled after rioters attacked the Holy Family Catholic Cathedral on Bello Way, St Kevin’s Catholic Church Gidan Dere, the Bishop Lawton Secretariat, and the St. Josephine Bakhita Secretariat on 14 May.
The churches were targeted following the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto’s forthright condemnation of Ms Emmanuel’s murder. A subsequent viral video in which the Chief Imam of Bayero University, Kano, Sheikh Abubakar Jibril, allegedly incited Muslims to find and attack the bishop’s home has prompted the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) to call on the Department of State Services to arrest him for incitement.
The rioters also invaded the grounds of the Sultan of Sokoto’s palace but were driven away by security officers. They attacked and looted the stores of Igbo traders in the local market and targeted Christian homes. The Sokoto state governor eventually initiated a 24-hour curfew, which was relaxed on 16 May to a dawn to dusk curfew.
Ms Emmanuel was buried on 14 May in her home state, Niger, after her father travelled to Sokoto state to retrieve her remains from Sokoto. The manner of her death has caused deep dismay across Nigeria’s Christian community, with condemnations and calls for justice, including from the ECWA President, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the Northern States Chapter of CAN, and the Tarayar Ekklisiyoyin Kristi A Nigeria (Hausa, Fulani and Kanuri Christians) and ECWA (TEKAN/ECWA) youth block.
Additionally, notable human rights defenders Oby Ezekwesili, the convenor of Bring Back Our Girls and a former minister, and human rights activist and former National Human Rights Commission chair Professor Chidi Odinkalu withdrew in protest from a legal conference scheduled to take place in Sokoto city from 22 to 26 May.
Conversely, her lynching was supported by several Muslims on social media, including by Professor Ibrahim Maqary, the 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."
However, others, including the Kaduna-based Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, have condemned the killing. In a video clip shared on his Facebook page Sheikh Gumi stated, among other things, that Nigeria is a secular state, that Muslims and those of other faiths had agreed to live together peacefully under the constitution, and that anyone who killed under the guise of religion had committed a grievous sin: “The best way to go, if we want to defend the Prophet, is to follow his teachings. We, the clerics, need to wake up and teach Muslims their religion. We must leave this state of ignorance; we have turned like animals. …There is no one who has the will to kill anyone except through the Islamic justice system. And in doing this, the conditions of such justice must be completed before anyone can be killed.”
Meanwhile, the response from political leaders has ranged from muted to non-existent. President Muhammadu Buhari took 36 hours to issue a statement condemning “the resort to self-help by the mob in Sokoto, resulting in violence, destruction and killing” of Ms Emmanuel, but did not call for their prosecution. Vice President Osinbajo, who is seeking the presidency in the 2023 elections, subsequently condemned the lynching as “deeply distressing thing, very disturbing …[and] … very unfortunate.” However other presidential aspirants were silent, with the exception of former vice president Atiku Abubakar, who initially tweeted a condemnation of the killing, then amid mounting pressure, deleted it and denied authorising its release.
Scot Bower, CSW’s CEO and board member of CSW-Nigeria, said: “We welcome statements condemning Ms Emmanuel’s murder, such as that of Sheikh Gumi, and urge other prominent Nigerians of all religions, beliefs and political persuasions to do likewise. It is inexcusable that despite copious video clips depicting every stage of the pursuit, torture and murder of Ms Emmanuel which clearly identify her assailants, only two perpetrators have been arraigned so far. The fact that neither is facing a murder charge, and that both could soon be out on bail, is unacceptable and reprehensible, raising the probability that once again those who have taken a life in a cruel and brutal manner will evade justice on ostensibly religious grounds, when no one should be above the law. We call on the Sokoto state authorities to uphold the rule of law and challenge impunity by reviewing these charges as a matter of urgency, and sparing no effort in identifying and arraigning perpetrator identified on video in a manner commensurate with their role in this heinous murder. We also urge them to ensure that Sokoto’s Christian community is compensated for losses incurred during the riot on 14 May, and is afforded sufficient protection amid the continuing religious tensions.”