Thousands of churches across Nigeria demanded an end to sectarian killings on Sunday, horrified by the mob assault on a female university student accused of blasphemy. But fearful of more violence, their approach differed significantly—by geography.
“The overwhelming majority of our churches in the south participated, many going to the streets in peaceful protest,” said Testimony Onifade, senior special assistant to the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). “Gathering together, we condemned this gruesome act and demanded the government identify, arrest, and prosecute the culprits.”
But in the north, where Muslims represent the majority of Nigerians, John Hayab described 20 minutes set aside to pray for divine intervention. The president of CAN’s Kaduna state chapter lauded the “solemn” ceremony observed by all northern denominations, amid a ban on protests by local authorities as some Muslims had threatened counterdemonstrations.
Instead, a select group of 120 Christian leaders gathered in a Kaduna city church, guarded by police and security agencies.
There was good reason for caution.
Two weeks ago, in Nigeria’s northwestern-most state of Sokoto, Deborah Samuel was beaten to death and set on fire by fellow students at Shehu Shagari College of Education. Officials and police intervened in vain.
Two students were arrested. Protesting for their release, Muslim supporters proceeded to destroy an additional 11 buildings, descended on Christian shops in the city, and besieged the palace of the sultan of Sokoto who had condemned the May 12 murder.
According to her friend Rakia, Samuel’s last words were, “What do you hope to achieve with this?”
After a colleague shared Islamic material on an exam-prep social media group, Samuel posted an audio recording asking him to remove it. Friends who overheard some Muslim students deeming her response to be blasphemous urged her to retract the statement.
Instead, she responded, “Holy Ghost fire. Nothing will happen to me.”
Gideon Para-Mallam, the former Jos-based Africa ambassador for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, joined demonstrations in the middle-belt Plateau state.
He called for peace and restraint. But also, for an explanation.
“How is it that our young people behaved in this way?” he asked. “All those dreams and hopes for the future, destroyed in a few moments of profound evil.”
Nigerian Christians circulated the video response of a radical imam with a picture of the slain former leader of Boko Haram in the background.
“Anyone who insults the prophet of God, kill him,” the imam said. “Don’t waste time telling the authorities, just kill him.”
It has been a bloody year.
Open Doors, which ranks Nigeria No. 7 on its World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian, tallied 896 civilians killed by Islamic extremists in the first three months of 2022.
Abubakar Shekau was confirmed dead last June, killed in a firefight with the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Over 40,000 militants surrendered to the Nigerian government, while a large but unknown number of commanders joined their jihadist rivals.
The same week as Samuel’s murder, ISWAP released a video depicting the execution of 20 Christians.
“Christians around the world should be in awe of the testimony of these men,” stated Jo Newhouse, spokesperson for Open Doors in Sub-Saharan Africa, “who, to the best of our knowledge, held on to their faith even in the face of execution.”
Formed in 2014 to confront ISIS in Syria and Iraq, an 84-nation coalition announced alarm in Africa, where the tempo of affiliate attacks far outpaces the parent organization in the Middle East. The 3,461 sub-Saharan killings in 2021 represent 48 percent of the terrorists’ worldwide total.
And in mid-April, Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed more than 150 Christian farmers in 10 Plateau state communities. While some attribute the attacks to a shortage of resources, Nigeria’s information minister Lai Mohamed stated there is now a “sort of holy handshake” between bandits and Boko Haram.
Last year, Open Doors ranked Nigeria an ignoble No. 1 in the categories of Christians killed (4,650) or abducted (2,510), as well as Christians’ homes and shops (a symbolic tally of 1,000 each) attacked, for faith-based reasons.
Deborah Samuel put a face on the crisis.
“We see this wicked act as having been facilitated by successive governments failing to respond effectively to religious extremism and violence,” said Para-Mallam. “This impunity has gone on for too long.”
He called for the end of “jungle justice.”
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari promptly criticized those who took the law into their own hands, promising an independent investigation. But former vice president and likely 2023 presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar deleted a tweet in which he condemned the killing.
One comment claimed he would lose one million votes in Sokoto.
The original post was shared without his authorization, he said. But while his explanatory statement asserted his ability to take strong stands on issues—including sharia law—he did not comment on the victim.
CAN’s youth wing vowed to withhold votes from any candidate who does not clearly condemn Samuel’s murder. The nonreligious Southern and Middle Belt Alliance stated Abubakar’s insensitivity was “not fitting” for a president.
Under the auspices of Muslims United for Peace and Justice, 13 groups condemned the killing. Para-Mallam expressed appreciation for such sentiment. Hayab said that in the north, such leaders are few and unpopular.
But one of the 13, Muslim Rights Concern, used the opportunity to call for greater implementation of the blasphemy law, and asked for “deep introspection” by Nigeria’s Christian community to ward off intolerance.
It also asked for an investigation into a pastor in the southwest state of Osun, whose remarks in response to Samuel’s killing allegedly insulted Islam and could plunge the entire region into chaos and religious war, according to the Muslim group.
One government official, while condemning the murder, blamed Samuel herself.
“Muslims don’t take insults against [our] beloved prophet,” said Anas Sani, assistant to the finance minister in Sokoto. “May the recklessness of our tongues never drive us to [an] early grave.”
While a manhunt for suspects is ongoing, the two students charged so far face only a two-year jail term for conspiracy and inciting public disturbance.
Regarding blasphemy allegations in Nigeria, Mubarak Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison in April after pleading guilty. In 2020, Omar Farouq received a 10-year sentence, while Yahaya Aminu was sentenced to death.
All three are Muslims, and the Nigeria Supreme Court overturned the latter two convictions. But it has recognized blasphemy as an offense, punishable by death if established by a court of law.
Onifade chided his nation’s constitution for including sharia law.
“The blasphemy agenda is the latest plot to destroy vulnerable Christian minorities,” he said, placing it in line with Boko Haram terrorists and Fulani herdsmen extremists. “Crafted by Islamists and violent Quran teachers, this conspiracy cannot be ignored by the international community.”
Both Muslims and Christians have fled their homes due to extremist violence, stated the United Nations, with 8.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance in Nigeria’s northwest alone. Half of these face a food crisis.
In response, Hayab called on citizens to arm themselves.
“Nigerian Christians, especially those of northern extraction, have no other option than to defend themselves—from bandits, terrorists, and now religious fundamentalists,” he said, citing previous spurious examples. “They will use every opportunity to kill, on the slightest allegation of blasphemy.”
Para-Mallam, who has founded an eponymous peace foundation, agreed the law licenses certain weapons in certain situations. He has advocated for communities to protect themselves against aggression.
But all must conform to the teaching of Jesus.
“There is a thin line between self-defense and retaliation,” he said. “Just peacemaking must be emphasized first, to promote co-existence.”
The opposite produced a tragedy.
Samuel’s classmates called out desperately for help. Police fired tear gas into the melee, and then shots into the air. They retreated, witnesses stated, when students threw stones and beat them with sticks.
Which were then turned on the accused.
“She pleaded for mercy, but it was far from her,” said Rakia, her friend. “What a cruel way to die.”
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