The Law Against Blasphemy In Nigeria; Are Nigerian Laws Fenced Enough?

INTRODUCTION

Blasphemy is a crime that exists ever since the creation of human being, it was one of the earliest sins ever committed against God.

Religious teachings revealed that shortly after the creation of the first mankind, the prophet Adam (AS) the Lord Almighty asked all the Angels in the heaven together with Lucifer to prostrate towards the prophet Adam (AS).

It was narrated that all the Angels obeyed the Lord Almighty’s command but Lucifer, instead blasphemed against the Prophet Adam and for that Lucifer was sent out of the heaven, thus punished instantly.

Blasphemy is thus such a historical heinous act, that should be criminalized and should not be gone unpunished in every decent society, but as decent the society should remain, the punishment should be appropriately carried out by the lawful authorities. The present article seeks the answers to wit; is blasphemy a crime in Nigeria? Are the laws provided sufficient to serve as a deterrent to such an act? If not, what are the possible solutions?

CONCEPTUAL CLARIFICATION

Blasphemy is any act or utterance made to show disrespect to God or to something holy, is a contempt against one’s religion or something faithfully believed to be sacred and inviolable by particular belief, religion or faith, is an act of disrespecting the attributes of deity by whatever manner and in whatever circumstance. Many religions on Earth prescribed death sentence as punishment of blasphemer (mostly, with or without repentance.

An act of blasphemy is by its very nature an act that is so provocative, enough to trigger any believer of that belief, religion or faith been blasphemed, whether educated or none educated, as Karl Marx was purportedly asserted; ‘Religion is the impotence of the human mind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand.’

Believers seem not to accept or understand any threat against their faith, and couple with the facts the Nigerians are proven to be so religious minded set of human kind. Blasphemy is thus not only a heinous act but an act that if care is not, taking could be a great challenge to our national security.

NB: this article adopts the term ‘blasphemy’ instead of the variety names given to the offence in the laws for central clarity.

WHAT IS THE PUNISHMENT FOR BLASPHEMY IN NIGERIA?

Blasphemy has never been legal in Nigeria. The major leading penal laws in Nigeria are the Criminal Code Act (hereinafter referred to as CC) as applicable in the Southern Part of Nigeria and the Penal Code Act (hereinafter referred to as PC) as applicable in the Northern Part of Nigeria, respectively.

Section 204 of the CC, while attempting to criminalize blasphemy, provides that

“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 misdemeanor, and is liable to imprisonment for TWO YEARS.” (EMPHASIS SUPPLIES)

While section 417 of the PC yet on another attempt in its own jurisdiction provides that,

“Whoever seeks to excite hatred or contempt against any class of persons in such a way as to endanger the public peace, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to THREE YEARS or with fine or with both.” (EMPHASIS SUPPLIES)

Hence, the punishment under the CC in the Southern part is two years without the option of fine while in the Northern part is three years but with option of unspecified fine or both the sentence and fine.

However, it should be noted that the crime of blasphemy is usually tried under the local (state) laws, through our tripartite legislations thus, customary laws and the various state penal laws and Shari’a penal laws where applicable. Hence, there is a need to check on some of those provisions for further analysis.

Section 210 of the Penal Code Act (applicable in FCT) is ad verbum with the provision of section 417 PC, also section 210 of Jigawa State Penal Law Code 2012 is a replica of the section 417 PC but it reduces the sentence to two years imprisonment with an option of unspecified fine or both.

Notwithstanding, section 178 of the Kaduna State Penal Law Code 2017 increases the sentence to a term of not less than FIVE YEARS or with a fine of not less than ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND NAIRA or both. While section 124 of Lagos State Criminal Law is in pari materia with section 204 of the CC but the Criminal Act of Lagos State provides for the option of fine of Fifty Thousand Naira (N50,000.00).

It is clear based on the foregoing submissions that the law of blasphemy varies from one jurisdiction to another, although with no or little practical significant. It can also be submitted that the uniform light and meager punishments provided for the convicted blasphemer alerts that our legislators are probably yet to appreciate the heinous nature of the offence and the probable danger that can be invited to the society which its people believe that the Justice has never been done to them and their religions.

Surprising enough, even the Shari’a Penal Laws of The Zamfara, Kebbi, Jigawa, Sokoto, Yobe, Bauchi, Katsina, Gombe, Kaduna and Borno didn’t escape this fall off. Under section 402 of the Harmonized Sharia Penal Code 2002 as produced by the Centre for Islamic Legal Studies of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, the provisions are like all other Penal Law in Northern Nigeria, in pari materia with the provision of the section 417 PC only that they reduced the sentence to a term which may extend to two years with the option of unspecified fine and made the convict liable to caning which may extend to thirty lashes.

The only exceptional Shari’a Penal Law is that of Kano State. It provides under its section 402 (b) special punishment for insulting the Holy Qur’an or any Prophet. To ease reference, the said section 402 (2) provides;

Whoever by any means publicly insult by using word or expression in written or verbal by means of gesture which shows or demonstrates any form of contempt or abuse against the Holy Qur’an or any Prophet shall on conviction be liable to death.”

It may be safe to say, therefore, that by virtue of the provisions of the Shari’a Penal Laws only in Kano State Jurisdiction, abuse of Qur’an and any Prophet attracts death sentence. That also alarms the need to improve and harmonize our Shari’a Penal Laws, since Shari’a is a universal law. It ought not to be varied from one jurisdiction to another without a valid legal reason.

 RECOMMENDATIONS AND OBSERVATIONS

Upon careful observations and reasonable scrutiny, one may submit that the laws against the act of blasphemy and the punishments put in place by the laws do not provide a sufficient remedy for the religious creed whose sanctity and sacred deity has been disrespected. Considering the kind of a generous number of imprisonment terms that have politically imposed on many other offences in our criminal system and the weight of danger that the act of religious crisis could cause to the entire nation, which no reasonable man in Nigeria will pray for.

It is pertinent to observe that the punishment of blasphemy under the two major religions in Nigeria is death or stoning to death. See Leviticus Chapter; 24 Verses; 14,15  and 16 particularly verse 16, where it reads;

“And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the LORD, shall be put to death.”

Similar position is well known in all Islamic authorities, including the Maliki school, which is more recognized by our legal system, books like Mukhtasar Khalil and Risala, to mention a few.

Therefore, the country that is stormed with the believers of these two religions who have been proven to be so religious set of mankind, must at the first instance, even if the common law that has been trying to equalize our Penal laws didn’t adopt the sentences as prescribed by the religious teachings. Our law ought to have provided sufficient punishments, well enough to avoid the situation where the masses will deem it fine to take the law into their hands.

The persistent occurrences of blasphemy cases in many part of this country, is a clear call out that our laws that criminalized the act need to be revisited, by way of amendments, modifications or new enactments in order to tackle the unrest consequences that usually follow the incidents in the affected environs.

It is axiom that we are living in a very unsecured nation today, where extra-judicial killings secure the headings of our newspapers every day, at this very panic epoch it should be among the major priorities of our government, employing whatever means available to mitigate such extra-judicial killings.

Upon the foregoing observations, the following measures are hereby recommended.

We need to impose sufficient punishment that can serve as a deterrent to any prospective blasphemer. The punishment should not be left at the hand of ordinary individuals on the street.

The quality of the laws we have against blasphemy and our ability to set them into action and firmly enforce them will certainly mitigate the incidents of mop killing of alleged blasphemers. Hence the laws we have against blasphemy should not be like many other laws we have hanged on shelf with no practical impact.

There is a need to have the Special Blasphemy Act (laws) to clearly address its atrocities.

The special Law should provide for quick Justice dispensation in blasphemy cases to avoid possible riot from the religious beliefs.

The special Law should not be only reactive but also proactive, hence other acts that could simply lead to the blasphemy should equally be criminalized, acts like castigation of religion publicly and irregular religious arguments, selling and using blasphemous books and materials or teaching same should equally be banned by the Act.

There is a need to amend, improve and harmonize our Shari’a Penal Laws since Shari’a is a universal law. It ought not to be varied from one jurisdiction to another without a valid legal reason, especially on an issue that all schools unanimously agreed upon in Islam like blasphemy.

We also need to address blasphemy issue in rather more political and moral ways beyond the legal hard way, hence our religious and traditional rulers have a good role to play in reorienting our people on the spirit of one Nigeria and how to legally handle religious misunderstandings.

CONCLUSION

From the foregoing submissions, it has been put in place that the laws we have in place are not fenced enough to address the atrocities of blasphemy in Nigeria, hence there is an urgent need to readdress the lacunae from all ends possible.

Kangaroo Court and its jungle Justice should never be encouraged whatsoever happen, that’s why it’s very important that we should put very deterrent laws in place which the aggressive religion followers could have faith in our legal system and submit whoever is alleged to have blasphemed their religion and not to take the law into their hands. This could be achieved when the porous fence built up for blasphemy by the law is fortified by the law.

It may be safe to conclude with the popular dictum of the Common Law court in R v. Dudley and Stephen that “though law and morality are not same, and many things may be immoral which are not necessary illegal, yet the absolute divorce of law from morality would be of fatal consequence” it’s therefore submitted that, ‘though our laws and religions are not same in Nigeria, as there are many things that are religiously wrong but legally right, but absolute divorce of religious consideration while enacting our laws would be of fatal consequence’.

May we have the judicial system which every sect and creed could have faith in and never deem it right to take the law into their hands.

About the author:

Alkasim Abubakar (AAMG)

Is a penultimate law student, Faculty of Law, ABU Zaria.

For corrections, observations and or feedbacks he can be reached via: WhatsApp 08033131653 or [email protected]

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