The Law of Blasphemy in Nigeria, and the Self-Appointed God Avengers


The issue of religion is very sensitive and it invokes a great deal of emotions and feelings among the adherents, some of whom had laid down their lives or had killed others to protect and defend their faith.

Others have had their properties destroyed or seen to the destruction of other person’s properties on account of religious devotion.

And as a faith-based system, religion with its sacred texts, writings, teachings and practices, has conditioned the mindset of its followers to the level of fanaticism and dogma.

To some followers, their religion is their lives and any overt or covert act of desecration, in any form, is considered sacrilegious and will ultimately invoke feelings of rage and violence in defense of the sacredness of one’s religion.

Muslims hold the revered Prophet Muhammed [PBUH] as the Last Messenger of Allah and any disparaging remark overtly or covertly, whether in words, prints or gestures against Allah, His Messenger and the sacred Qur’an, is blasphemous with dire consequences.

It is the volatile reaction, at times murderous, that usually followed as a chain reaction to unnecessary but happenstance insidious remarks or comments howsoever made, considered denigrating or blasphemous to Allah, His Prophet [PBUH] and the sacred Qur’an, that birth this article.

In Nigeria, there exists religious rage and violence which lead to destruction of properties and death by some Islamic followers on account of issues factored as blasphemy to Islam and the Prophet Muhammed [PBUH].

The latest is the gory mob murder of Miss Deborah Samuel Yakubu, a student of Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto, by her schoolmates, on alleged blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad;

The murder of Miss Deborah Samuel Yakubu provoked the writing of this article, in order to address the underlying legal issues therein.

The Laws Governing Blasphemy in Nigeria.

The Nigerian jurisdiction has a duality of blasphemy laws: one under the secular system enacted by the Federal authorities for the protection of insult to all religions and made applicable in all the States of the Federation;

The other one enacted by some Northern States’ domestic jurisdictions under the Shari’ah legal framework that limited its scope to Islamic religion.

Both systems of laws criminalized blasphemy with different penal sanctions. The Nigerian criminal justice system criminalized blasphemy with penal sanctions.

Under the Criminal Code Act [CCA 2004] blasphemy was criminalized under Section 204 of the Act as thus:

“Any person who does an act which any class of persons consider as a public insult on their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years”.

The Penal Code has similar provision to the effect that Section 210 of the Penal Code provides:

“Whoever by any means publicly insults or seeks to incite contempt of any religion in such a manner as to be likely to lead a breach of the peace, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with a fine or with both”.

The only striking difference between the Criminal Code Act and the Penal Code Act is in the prescriptive sanctions and both have the same intention to criminalize blasphemy in Nigeria.

Also, Section 18(1) and (2) of the Cybercrime Act, 2015 extended the definition of racist and xenophobic offences to religion and criminalized it and it defined as:

“any written or printed material, any image or any other representation of ideas or theories, which advocates, promotes or incites hatred, discrimination or violence against any individual or group of individuals based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, as well as religion if used as a pretext for any of these factors”.

Under Shari’ah, the criminalization of blasphemy was engineered by the entrance of strict Shar’iah penal system in the criminal jurisprudence of some Northern States’ domestic jurisdictions in Nigeria.

This was pioneered in 1999 by the Zamfara State Shari’ah Penal Code Law [Cap 133 Law No 10 of 2000]. That precedent was followed by other Northern States Such as the Shariah Penal Code Law 2000 Kano State; Niger State Penal Code (Amendment) Law 2000; Kebbi Penal Code (Amendment) Law 2000; Jigawa State Penal Code Law No 12 of 2000; Shariah Penal Code Law 2000 Sokoto State; Shariah Penal Code Law No 8 2000 Yobe State; Shariah Penal Code Law 2001 Gombe State; Shariah Penal Code Law 2001 Bauchi State; Shariah Penal Code Law 2001 Borno State; Shariah Penal Code Law No 4 of 2002 Kaduna State, etcetera.

All these Shari’ah Criminal Code Laws have distinct but similar contextual provisions and varying degrees of sanctions in certain offences.

However, one common trend in the criminal jurisprudential landscape of all the Shari’ah laws in the Northern States with regard to the offence of blasphemy was the unanimity in the provision of the death penalty without an option of fine as a consequential sanction.

However, the requirements of Shari’ah Criminal Code and its application were not extended to non-Muslims in Nigeria.

From the foregoing, it is apparent that blasphemy is a criminal offence recognized under the Nigerian jurisdiction—both the secular system and Shari’ah. However, Shari’ah Criminal Code is applicable to only Muslims.

That is to say, if a Muslim commits the offence of blasphemy in the jurisdiction that the Shari’ah Criminal Code applies, such an alleged offender will be tried under the Shari’ah which subscribes death penalty for the offence;

Whereas, where a non-Muslim is found wanting, he shall be tried under the secular laws—the Penal Code Act or Criminal Code Act, depending on the jurisdiction of the alleged offender, in which case, the penalty ranges from imprisonment to fine.

The philosophy behind criminalization of proselytization or insult to religion was to maintain public peace and security which obligation and responsibility resided in the State in a democratic society.

Despite the clear and unambiguous provisions criminalizing blasphemy, the law does not in any circumstance leave the punishment of offenders in the hands of the general citizens.

The provision of Section 36(5) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is to the effect that, everyone shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty before the Court in accordance with the applicable law.

Furthermore, this shows that the State is the umpire responsible for prosecuting, convicting and punishing those who violate the laws of the land.

However, in the case of Deborah Samuel Yakubu, the student of Shehu Shagari College of Education, it was some zealous Muslims—self-appointed God avengers, who resorted to carrying out jungle justice against her.

Even though under Sharia’ah, the punishment for blasphemy is death, the law has not left the killing open in the hands of private individuals. The offence alleged has to be established through evidence before a court of law.

The Court itself will have to implore its professional dexterity in treating the case by allowing fair hearing.

In the case of SHALLA v. STATE (2007) LPELR-3034(SC), as decided by the Supreme Court, Justice I. T. Mahmud JSC in an interesting pronouncement said:

“Islamic religion is not a primitive religion that allows its adherents to take the law into their own hands and to commit jungle justice.

Instead, there is a judicial system which hears and determines cases and anybody accused of committing an offence against the religion or against a fellow Muslim brother should be taken to Court—either Sharia or secular law Court for adjudication.

It is only when the person is convicted and sentenced by a court of law that he will be liable to a punishment which will be carried out by an appropriate authority…”

The importance of leaving the administration of Justice to the constituted and constitutional authorities and not resorting to self-help and jungle justice cannot be overemphasized.

It is high time we act civil in whatever activity we do. Nigeria is not a lawless country; the police and court are there to punish offenders. It is worthy to note that, your rights ends where another person’s right begin.

About the Author

Chrispodiah Emmanuel is a 500L stuent of the faculty of law, Taraba State University, Jalingo. He is a prolific legal researcher and writer.

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