The arrest of Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, by the Nigerian Police Force in the northern city of Kaduna on the allegations of inciting public disturbance and cyber-crimes has caused a furore. Nigerians took to social media to express their views on the propriety or otherwise of the arrest. To some, who justified Mubarak’s action, held the view that he was merely exercising his constitutional rights to freedom to expression. On the other hand, many are of the view that contemptuous remarks against their religion or Prophet is nothing but an excess to Mubarak’s right of expression as their religion is held with great esteem and reverence in their heart and soul, therefore no one can temper with it and go scot free. While, on another end, others thought that the arrest was something he has long awaited. In their view, his arrest will serve as a base to give him the attention he has been craving and fuel his ambition for a bigger platform.
This article seeks to respond to the argument justifying the denigrating comments against the Prophet of other religion based on freedom of expression, the provisions on blasphemy under the Nigerian laws and the Activities of self-appointed God avengers.
The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, guarantees every Nigerian the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which is liable to be exercised by every individual or as a group with others. It also entitles every citizen to freely express their opinion and impart their ideas without hindrance. Notwithstanding, under same constitution right to freedom of expression is by no means non-derogable. As such, the Nigerian Constitution in its wisdom limits the exercise of this right by allowing laws to be legislated in the interest of public safety and public order and for protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons. The provision of Section 45 of the 1999 Constitution supports the position, which reads:
- Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society- a- in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or b- for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.
In other words, every Nigerian has the right to choose any religion of their choice or even decide not to practice any religion or to express themselves, but the freedom of speech or religion is not absolute especially where it tends to insult, ridicule or intend to abuse someone’s right or faith. The importance of religion, particularly as it relates to Nigeria, makes it inevitable that citizens in the exercise of their constitutional right to freedom of expression will overstep their bounds and violate other people’s rights. In order to avert this problem, the states provide penalties in their respective penal laws outlawing insult on religion adhered to by others. Of course, it is in the exercise of the right to freedom of expression that insult can occasionally occur, hence, the tension between the two rights.
There is no state in the Federation of Nigeria in which blasphemous acts are left unpunished, though punishment varies by degree. In some states, the penalty ranges from imprisonment to fine; in others, it carries death penalty. Let us begin by referring to the provision of Section 204 of the Criminal Code Act, which is similar to other laws enacted at the time in other southern states, provides as follows:
- “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 as such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider such as an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.”
Under the Jigawa State Penal Code, in which Section 210 reads:
- “Whoever, by any means, publicly insults or seeks to incite contempt of any religion in such a manner as to likely lead to a breach of the peace, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or a fine or both.”
Similarly, the Sharia Penal Code, 2005 of Zamfara State provides thus:
- 406. (1) Whoever by any means whatsoever intentionally abuses, insults, derogates, humiliates or seeks to incite contempt of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW) or his Prophet-hood or any other Prophet of Allah recognised by the religion of Islam shall be punished with death. (2) Whoever destroys, damages or defiles the Holy Qur’an in whatever form or manner with the intention, thereby, of insulting, humiliating, derogating or disrespecting the Holy Qur’an or the religion of Islam or with the knowledge that Muslims are likely to consider such utterances or acts as insulting, abusive, derogatory to the Holy Qur’an or the religion of Islam, shall be punished with death.
The purpose and import of the above-cited provisions is that acts targeted at denigrating any person recognised as a Prophet in Islam disrespecting the Holy Quran or the religion of Islam, are blasphemous and carry the highest penalty under the law.
Despite the clearly and unambiguous provision criminalizing blasphemy, the law does not in any circumstance leave the punishment of offenders in the hands of general citizens, the state is the umpire and responsible for punishing those that violated the law of the land. However, some overzealous Muslims tend to feel that the state is not doing much in protecting their religion against blasphemous remarks, at least by prosecuting culprits responsible for blasphemous acts. Hence, they resort to carrying out jungle justice against people suspected of committing blasphemous remarks against Islam or its Prophet.
In October 2013, an incident happened in Zamfara State, Nigeria, where someone was alleged to have made a derogatory statement against the person of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Without an attempt at knowing what was actually said, the youth in Nasarawa area of Bukkuyum local government of that state pursued the suspect who sought refuge in a police station. The station was burnt to ashes, destroying all valuables in a bid to kill the suspect. The suspect was eventually found and killed by those who, Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu, a Nigerian commentator calls “self‑appointed God avengers”
These self-appointed God avengers, in their usual characteristic disposition have started launching their campaign for the execution of Mubarak Bala without even completion of a proper investigation by the police and a fair trial before the court of law.
In Islam taking the responsibilities of justice administration in your hands, without recourse to the constituted authorities and allowing the course of justice to prevail is a barbaric act and does not represent the Islamic virtues. Islam has enjoined Muslims to obey and submit constituted authorities in Qur’an 4 verse 59 Allah the most high said:
- you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Apostle and those in authority from among you; then if you quarrel about anything, refer it to Allah and the Apostle, if you believe in Allah and the last day; this is better and very good in the end.
Similarly, Islam has enjoined us to afford fair hearing and adequate opportunity for a culprit to make or prove their case. The appointment of Ali R.A. as judge in Yemen, demonstrates the importance of affording fair hearing when he informed the Prophet SAW thus:
- “O Messenger of Allah you are sending me as a judge when I am young in age and there is no knowledge for me in judgeship, the Prophet SAW replied ‘Allah would give guidance to your heart and make your tongue firm. When two persons come to you for decision, do not pass judgment in favour of the first until you hear the argument of the other party because that is more necessary for the decision to become clearer to you’. Ali was later reported saying “I have afterword never entertained any doubt in passing a decision”.
The Supreme Court, in a plethora of judicial authorities cautioned the self-appointed God avengers, who disregard the constituted authorities and carryout jungle justice to suspects of blasphemous remarks without fair hearing. In the case of Kaza v. State (2008) 7 NWLR (Pt. 1085) pg 125, Per I.T. Muhammad, J.S.C. stated thus:
- “The trite position of the law under Sharia is that any sane and adult Muslim, who insults, defames or utters words or acts which are capable of bringing into disrepute, odium, contempt, the person of Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW), such a person has committed a serious crime which is punishable by death. See: Alkhurshi commentary on Mukhtasar Al-Khalil Vol. 8: page 70 Hashiyatul Adawi Vol. 2 page 290. However, as observed by the court below, Islamic 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 and excluding all the inadmissible evidence or those persons who may fall within the general exemption clause such as an infant, imbecile or those who suffer mental delusion. Thus, the killing is controlled and sanctioned by the authorities.”
The importance of leaving the administration justice to the constituted and constitutional authorities and not resorting to self-help or jungle justice cannot be overemphasized. Nigeria, is not a lawless society and cannot be, the police and courts are there to punish the violation of the laws legislated by the national and state assemblies. It is high time we learn to act civil in whatever activity we engage in. To those exercising their constitutional rights, you should be equally aware that your rights ends where other people’s rights begins. In an open society based on human dignity, equality and freedom, every right including the right to expression are reasonably and justifiably limited.