By Henry Chogozie Duru
That heart-rending spectacle of murder by a mob right inside the campus of Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto, has dominated public space in the last few days. Only a beast can watch the video of the young Deborah Yakubu being slowly ground to death by flying stones before being set on fire without being moved to tears. But then, aren’t those murderously restive young men and women who acted out the bestial scene humans? Where went their humaneness, their capacity to feel pity? We shall return to this question later.
*That my Zamfara State experience*
Years ago I was in Zamfara State for my national youth service. This was a state still then burdened by the stigma of religious fundamentalism following the controversial institution of the Islamic legal system – the Sharia – by the then Governor Ahmad Sani (Yarima Bakura) seven years earlier. I and tens of other corps members were sequestered in a village called Maru, about 45 minutes drive to the state capital Gusau and about 3 hours drive to Sokoto State.
I was among those staying within the campus of Zamfara State College of Education lying along the not-too-wide snaking road that connects Zaria to Sokoto through Funtua in Katsina State. While my place of primary assignment was Government Secondary School (GSS) located inside the campus, I was privileged – purely by fortune – to occupy with two of my friends a two-bedroom flat apartment at the lecturers’ quarters.
No other corps members enjoyed this privilege, not even those of them serving the College as lecturers, or whatever they were called. A lecturer of Igbo origin at the College had given us the flat to live in. The flat was allotted to him but he chose to base in the state capital and be coming to work from there. Other corps members within the campus – not less than 40 in number – made do with hostel-styled rooms, some of them lacking essential facilities like lavatories.
However, my privileged accomodation meant I was compelled to observe certain rules of speech. “Never mention the word prophet,” while talking, rather say it in Igbo – _onye amuma,”_ the lecturer that gave us our accommodation had warned us. His reasons were not difficult to grasp. We were, unlike our colleagues-in-the-national service, occupying a unique part of the campus where we were hemmed in by other houses occupied by lecturers and their families – all indigenes and Moslems.
Houses at the quarters were so closely clustered that voices from any compound were easily heard in the neighbouring compound. “You can easily be misunderstood mentioning ‘prophet’,” our benefactor continued. “This is especially while you’re talking and laughing; they may understand it to be a mockery of Mohammed even though you may be referring to Christianity or saying something unrelated to religion.” He went on, “Never mention Islam, Moslems, Allah … These words can put someone in trouble…”
The lecturer’s words struck a chord with me given an experience I had not long ago. I had strolled along the Zaria-Sokoto expressway towards the village market and accidentally met the INEC local government office. I excitedly went inside to meet a friend Mr Isaiah Ewelike who was doing his primary assignment there. Isaiah was then the Coordinator of the National Association of Catholic Corps Members (NAAC) in Maru LGA.
As I came into one of the offices, I saw him busy on his desk and hailed him as usual “Prophet Isaiah!” Immediately, a man dressed in white _babaringa,_ definitely one of Isaiah’s bosses, interjected, “Why do you call him prophet? No no no it is very wrong!” He exclaimed as his face boiled with resentment as he stared at me menacingly.
He repeated “it’s very wrong to call him prophet. Why should you call him prophet?” Everywhere was struck by an ominous silence! My error had become unmistakably obvious to me, and Isaiah’s failure to answer me as usual had made complete sense. Fortunately, the episode ended there with no further complications.
Isaiah’s Maru branch of NACC was operating under the auspices of St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church, an outstation of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, Gusau, run by the Dominican Order. A story was popular among the Christian community of the church’s attempt to put up a permanent church building in Maru a few years back but was halted by fanatics.
The authenticity of this story was confirmed to me by the church council chairman, one Mr Dimka from Kaduna State. It was said that while the building was at the foundation level, a letter came from some anonymous sources threatening that heads would roll if the building continued. (Ironically, this building was sited just adjacent to the Maru Police Station).
The Church Council had to suspend the project and submitted this letter to their superior, Rev. Fr. Michael Tukura, OP, the parish priest of Our Lady of Fatima, Gusau, under which the outstation church operated for him to handle the matter with the diocesan bishop and the state authorities. Thus, all we saw of this project when we came to Zamfara State was a foundation completed, but the project never proceeded beyond this stage until we left the state a year later.
Six months into my stay in Zamfara State, another instructive incident happened. Shortly after the Nigeria Christian Corpers Fellowship (NCCF) held a welcoming ceremony for their new batch of corps members, a letter was pasted at strategic places on the campus. I can still vividly recall the opening sentence “This is to warn all Christians…” The letter was a clearly spelt out threat to the Christian community to henceforth cease using for worship a particular hall that was part of the College but very close to Stone House, a building belonging to the Government Secondary School and having a hall used for worship by the Christian community.
The hall belonging to the College was bigger than the one in the Stone House and so was a preferred venue for both the NACC and the NCCF whenever they were holding special functions that involved inviting external guests. The NCCF also used this hall for their Sunday morning service while the Catholics also used it for their Sunday evening mass – the two religious functions were attended by non-corps members, hence the need for this bigger hall.
The letter in question, riddled with grammatical and typographical infelicities, was purportedly signed by the SUG President of the College and one other person I cannot remember. The matter was reported to the school authorities who summoned the SUG President and he flatly denied having any hand in the hostile communication. At the end, the resolution was simple: the Christian community would continue to use this hall for their functions.
However, at night, around nine, I was visited by a police officer from Plateau state (name withheld) serving in Maru and schooling at the College. He was also the secretary of the Church Council of St. Martin de Pores Catholic Outstation. His message was simple: the Christian community should stay clear of the hall in question despite assurances from the school authorities.
He assured me that given his experience in the north, nothing short of such cautionary approach was the best in the circumstance. Quickly messages were passed around, and soon leaders of the Christian communities were on the same page: No more use of the hall by them. Consequently, the following day, the NACC departed from a long tradition by holding the welcoming ceremony for their new batch of members at the much smaller Stone House hall.
My police officer night visitor also seized the occasion to tell me the story of a curious event that happened in the College, an account I later heard from other sources. The episode incidentally involved the very lecturer who gave me the apartment I was staying in. “You can confirm from him (the lecturer),” my cop visitor said as he affirmed the truth of his account.
This lecturer is a graduate of Psychology Department of Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka and was retained to teach psychology courses at the College after he completed his NYSC programme there. Just a year before we came to Zamfara State, my visitor said, the situation on campus on a particular day nearly degenerated to a complete breakdown of law and order as a result of a handout given to the students by this lecturer.
There was tension everywhere as the students started tearing out a portion of the title page of the handout and burning the piece of paper with the words “No Jesus here” sounding everywhere. What was the problem? The lecturer had included in the title page the Greek letter “psi” used as the symbol of psychology, and the students had misconstrued this to be a cross and so couldn’t tolerate it. The lecturer was summoned by the College authorities who asked him to remove the symbol from further copies of the handout. His response was that he would rather not make further copies than remove the symbol.
I have told all these stories to show my personal experience of the kind of environment that births the sort of jungle justice suffered by Deborah Yakubu. In such environment, fanaticism seems so legitimated such that people can kill and burn a fellow human and others will have the moral temerity to hail them and embark on demonstrations to demand their release from detention while wrecking further damage to express their anger at the attempt to punish the culprits.
*… Are they still humans?*
Now back to the question posed at the beginning of this write-up. Are those young men and women who threw stones and hit other objects on Ms Deborah Yakubu still humans? Has anything happened to their humanity and ability to feel empathetic?
The answer is simple: Their humanity and ability to empathise have become blunted by a kind of religious socialisation that legitmises as noble destruction of a fellow human who in their estimation is not in agreement with the religious ideology they have subscribed to.
A religious socialisation that beats the mind into a bigoted shape such that a person becomes fundamentalist in expressing their creed. That was what we saw in the daylight lynching of Deborah. No person is born a Christian or a Moslem, whether of liberal or fundamentalist mould; it’s all a function of socialisation.
In northern Nigeria, no other can be held responsible for the dangerous indoctrination if not those who dispense religious teachings. No other person has more direct access to the religious minds of these Moslems, none has a stronger influence on their conscience than their religious teachers.
Definitely, the sort of fanaticism we have over the years witnessed from that part of our country is a direct product of the sort of formation these minds and consciences have been subjected to over these years.
Also, this sort of dysfunctional socialisation seems to have the imprimatur of the northern political elite as well. That is what experience strongly suggests. They and their religious counterparts hence are both the creators and beneficiaries of this destructive cultural capital. They have nurtured this monster either by active creation or condonement.
It is their asset, their investment which yields for them obedience and obsequious followership, and for the political elite in particular, it is an asset for winning elections. Alhaji Atiku Abubakar forgot to play by the rule and was soon to see this asset slipping out of his grip ahead of the much vital 2023 presidential election, forcing him into an ill-advised damage control of tweet deletion. On the contrary, some of his fellow northern politicians were wiser not to put this asset into jeopardy.
Who has forgotten how Ahmad Sani Yarima cleverly exploited this asset to assume the governorship of Zamfara State in 1999. He had promised his highly socio-economically deprived electorate Sharia if they voted him. He did this knowing how much such religious goodies would gladen the hearts of his largely unsophisticated constituents. As soon as he came to power, he made do his promise. Several other northern governors began to copy his model by introducing Islamic jurisprudence in their respective jurisdictions.
The tragic part of the climax became the bloody Kaduna riots of the year 2000. Some more scrupulous Moslems had earlier warned us that these Sharia worrior governors were merely exploiting Sharia for political gains. I remember watching one of them on Channels TV describing what was happening in Zamfara and other states as “political Sharia.” Not even the Christian President Olusegun Obasanjo appeared to have the courage to act.
Perhaps with eyes on his second term election, he chose to play the ostrich in the face of loud and clear calls by individuals and groups that he instructs the Attorney General to challenge the Sharia legislations in court on grounds of contravening the sections 10 and 38 of the Constitution.
In the face of grinding poverty and dehumanising deprivations in northern Nigeria, religion emerges as a very powerful resource for fashioning out meaning and fulfilment in life. This meaning and fulfilment are so profound and compelling that they generate a population among whom there are many who are not only ready to kill for religion but also to die for it.
The preeminence which religion has assumed as a _raison d’etre_ of life in this part of Nigeria is clear from the irony that while the region, mangled by poverty and hardship, hardly ever witnesses street protests against bad leadership, its streets are readily filled with passionate protesters who are ready to kill and pillage to demonstrate their anger once it is about defending their much cherished faith.
Is it coincidental that protests against misrule in Nigeria have mainly come from the South? Is it also coincidental that during the #EndSARS protests, the north distanced themselves from them as though their region was okay with abuse of power?
The biggest tragedy in all this is that when leaders who should be casting out that demon of religious fundamentalism are indeed its beneficiaries and instigators, then we are left trapped in a VICIOUS CIRCLE OF BARBARISM.
*Northern leaders must take responsibility*
The kind of socialisation breeding religious fundamentalism in northern Nigeria is being planted from within and so must also be uprooted from within. The leaders of the region, religious and secular, must take the responsibility of correcting the evil. They must muster enough courage, swallow their pride (having for years either rationalised or discountenanced the evil) and hold the bull by the horn.
They should be sincere and proactive about it, not by waiting for a Deborah to be killed to issue a statement in condemnation. No, that will amount to tending to the symptoms while the disease itself can be removed. Rather, they should begin to use the same channels of religious socialisation, those channels used to pass on the dangerous indoctrination, to begin to suck it up. Thus, sermons in mosques, lessons at Koranic schools, and preaching on the streets must form the minds of children towards tolerance while leading adults to unlearn fanaticism.
Now it is pertinent to emphasise that the problem we have on our hands is not pure and simple religion. Otherwise why are we not experiencing this crude level of fundamentalism among southern Moslems? Or is their own version of Islam different? Rather the problem lies in the different ways in which the same Islamic doctrine has been couched by the religious leaders of the respective regions of Nigeria.
So these same teachers that have taught the damaging doctrine should also undo the damage. Besides moral responsibility, pragmatic considerations demand that these indigenous leaders take the lead in this corrective task. Any attempt by an outsider to do this will not only be undermined by a huge credibility burden, but will be misconstrued as hostility if not blasphemy.
*The culture of impunity must stop*
One most important factor that sustains and reinvents fundamentalism in northern Nigeria is the perennial culture of impunity that has surrounded crimes born of ethnic and religious fanaticism in that region. Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, has cried out endlessly over this scandalous anomaly.
He has always observed that none of the killers of the 1953 Kano riots, the May 30, 1966 Araba riots, and the pogroms of August 1966 as well as of other subsequent disturbances in the north till this day was ever punished. While no one appears to be listening to this censure, such officially instituted impunity will only have one outcome: recurrence of the evil.
The law is a powerful socialising force. Where the law forbids and strictly punishes murderers, people will tend to see murder as a taboo. Thus, the law contributes in no small measure in forming the conscience of individuals. It is not coincidental that some of the children born in the midst of the brazen carnage that reigned supreme during the Sierra Leonean civil war (1991 – 2002) were transformed into human beasts.
These were those of them who got highly exposed to that devil’s theatre, having been recruited as child soldiers under the Fonday Sanko-led Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel army. Stories emerged about how these boys and girls, some under 15 years, readily and remorselessly wasted countless souls through rifle barrels. They had traveled that far on the path of inhumaneness due to severe weakening of the law which would have contributed in moulding them into humans with healthy conscience.
Hence, in addressing the problem in northern Nigeria, we cannot overemphasise the paramount need to replace impunity with rule of law. Surely, through strict law enforcement, we shall break out from that VICIOUS CIRCLE OF BARBARISM that has drenched our land in blood. If not, we will continue to live in that state of nature where life is nasty, brutish and short, where some atavastic creatures, posing as _homo sapiens,_ will always _nastily_ and _brutishly_ cut _short_ the life of a Deborah Yakubu.
_Henry Chigozie Duru teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka._