A court in northern Nigeria has issued an order protecting an 18-year-old convert to Christianity from members of her own family who were threatening to kill her for abandoning Islam. The ruling sends a signal that the fundamental right to change religion must be guaranteed in Nigeria, even in those states that enforce Islamic shari’a law.
Twelve northern Nigerian states, including Borno, have introduced Shari’a law. Borno State Judiciary, Sharia Court of Appeal/Facebook
Eighteen-year-old Mary Olowe (not her real name) had faced death threats from her father and brothers after converting to Christianity, ADF International reported. Fearful for Mary’s life, her mother helped her escape and find safety in a Christian community.
After Mary and her mother sought a restraining order, a high court in northern Nigeria handed down an order of perpetual injunction against her father and brothers.
The order stated: “the defendants are hereby restrained from threat and attempt on the life of the applicant following her decision to change from the practice of Islam to Christianity and also not to breach her fundamental rights as to the choice of her religion or thoughts.”
It is not known in which part of northern Nigeria Mary lives. For her own protection few details of the case have been made available. But 12 states of largely Muslim northern Nigeria follow shari’a law, which generally forbids Muslims from converting to other faiths (although non-Muslims may convert to Islam).
In these states, shari’a operates in the criminal as well as the religious domain. Although the application of shari’a varies from state to state, blasphemy appears to be a capital crime in all of them, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
Also Muslims who abandon or question their faith can face prosecution under Islamic law. In Kano State, a shari’a court sentenced 13-year-old Omar Farouq to 10 years in jail in 2020 for alleged blasphemy, while Yahaya Sharif, a 22-year-old musician, was handed the death sentence in the same year for sharing a song with purportedly profane lyrics on social media. Farouq was cleared of the charges and released the following year, after international appeals to then-president Muhammadu Buhari. He is said to have fled abroad. Yahaya remains in prison as he appeals his case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
These widely publicized cases highlight the incompatibility of shari’a law with the Nigerian Constitution.
In Nigeria, the freedom of thought, conscience and religion is enshrined in the Constitution as a natural right. The explicit right of every person to change their religion or belief echoes Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Under the Constitution, federal law takes precedence over state law, including shari’a. In issuing a protection order in the case of Mary Olowe, the high court recognised that the Constitution prevails in matters of religion.
The federal authorities have, in the past, prevented inhumane shari’a sentences being carried out and have overruled shari’a decisions that go against federal law, according to the CFR.
While the authorities can prevent shari’a judgments being carried out, they are often unable or unwilling to prevent mob attacks on individuals accused of conversion or blasphemy.
Shari’a and its punishments appear to command widespread popular support in the states where it is in force. In the case of Yahaya Sharif, a mob burned down his house after his arrest, and faced no consequences.
This culture of mob violence reached a peak in May 2022 when Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, a Christian college student in Sokoto, was stoned and beaten to death by her classmates, and her body burnt, after being accused of blasphemy.
Local police authorities did little to stop the attack once it had begun. Only two attackers have been arrested, and the charges brought against them were condemned by the Nigerian Bar Association as no more than slaps-on-the-wrist. Those charges inspired mobs to torch churches in Sokoto and demand the release of the attackers.
Copycat blasphemy accusations and mobs spread in the days following Yakubu’s murder. Rhoda Ya’u Jatau, who shared a video apparently condemning the attack on Yakubu, was herself accused of blasphemy and has been imprisoned since May 2022. Hours prior to the opening of Jatau’s trial in Bauchi on December 16, an angry crowd gathered in front of the high court. There were reports that Muslim youths had planned to seize Jatau from prison guards and stone her to death as she was brought to court.
These violations of religious freedom come on top of extreme levels of violence and insecurity in Nigeria fueled by an Islamic insurgency in the northeast and attacks by Islamist Fulani militants across the Middle Belt. According to a report by Intersociety, 5,068 Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2022.