RELIGIOUS FANATICISM AND THE NIGERIAN PROJECT
By Chris O. O. Biose
The gruesome murder of Miss Deborah Samuel, a 200-level student of Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto, who was stoned to death and burnt by her fellow students on May 12, 2022, on alleged blasphemy shows that religious fanaticism in Northern Nigeria is not abating. This is just another horrifying episode in a pattern of religiously motivated wave of criminality which is deep rooted in a section of the Nigerian population.
When the Nigeria Police arrested two persons in connection with the killing, a larger and more agitated mob attacked innocent persons and engaged in targeted destruction of property and businesses of innocent non-indigenes, forcing the Governor of Sokoto State, Alhaji Aminu Tambuwal to impose curfew in Sokoto. Beyond this, Governor Tambuwal has done nothing to assuage the bereaved family. For reasons best known to him, the Governor could not even pay condolence visit to the bereaved family. The fanatics also attacked Catholic parishes under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, His Grace Matthew Hassan Kukah. In order to stem growing rage of the rampaging religious extremists against innocent non-Muslims, Christians suspended church services in Sokoto.
The reign of terror which fanatics regularly unleash on innocent members of the public often overwhelms law enforcement agencies. Newspapers are afraid to report or comment freely on such incidents to prevent attacks on their establishments. For example, unknown persons bombed the Abuja office of This Day newspaper on April 26, 2012. Other media houses attacked were THE SUN and The Moment offices. (Gbenga Olamikan, This Day, Sun, The Moment bombed, Vanguard, April 27, 2012, front page and p 5).
The extremists operate with such unrestrained impunity that has given rise to a culture of mob rule that reflects utter disdain for the rule of law. This is antithetic to democratic values and is a fairly accurate measure of the level of democratic governance in the Nigerian society.
The murder of Miss Samuel calls to mind several similar incidents in recent Nigerian history, two of which stand out in bold relief.
Female Teacher Murdered, Burnt by Her Pupils
On March 21, 2007, a school teacher, at Government Day Secondary School, an Islamic school in Gandu, Gombe State, Mrs. Oluwatoyin Oluwatosin, was seized by her pupils, taken away from the classroom by the same pupils, stripped naked, stabbed to death before her body was burnt in the school premises. The pupils accused their teacher of desecrating the Islamic holy book while invigilating an examination. Mrs. Oluwatesin had reportedly confiscated a Holy Quran and also a Bible from students who were cheating during an examination in Religious Studies which she was invigilating.
The authorities turned a blind eye to this criminal and abominable act. As if that was not enough, attempts made by Mr Oluwafemi Oluwasesin, the husband of the murdered female teacher, to seek justice were met with death threats. He told Assistant Editor of THE NATION, Dada Aladelokun: “I’ve been getting death threats for seeking justice.” (Dada Aladelokun, Gombe murder: Justice delayed! Widow alleges death threats for seeking redress, THE NATION, March 19, 2010, p 18)
The Gideon Akaluka Riddle
One of the most intriguing episodes in the religious terror in Northern Nigeria took place in Kano in December 1995. Some Muslim youths beheaded an Igbo trader, Mr. Gideon Akaluka, on allegation that his wife allegedly tore a piece of Islamic holy book to use as toilet paper for her baby. Police arrested him and locked him up in cell but a group of Muslim fundamentalists broke into the Police Station, seized their victim and beheaded him. The bodyless head of the dead man was spiked on a stake and paraded through the streets of Kano. It is difficult to understand the religious injunction on which such barbaric action is based.
It was later found that no such alleged offence was ever committed by Gideon Akaluka’s wife. But in the jungle justice carried out by out-laws, there is no opportunity for the accused to explain. The same person or set of persons is the accuser, the judge and the executioner.
Late Genera; Sani Abacha junta did not take kindly to the dastardly act. He gave an order that all those involved be rounded up and brought to book in military fashion. However, it was reported that a well-known son of a first-class Emir was involved in the murder but because of his princely connections, he escaped the fate of his fellow criminals. Rather, he was taken to Sokoto, where he hid for two years before returning to Kano. The controversy over the dramatis personae involved in the horrendous killing of Akaluka refused to abate since the past 27 years.
A Grievous Social Problem
James Drever in his book A Dictionary of Psychology (1952, p 93) defines fanaticism as “excessive and irrational enthusiasm for, or devotion to, a theory, belief, or line of action, determining a highly emotional attitude, and missionary zeal, knowing practically no limits.”
Dr. Jeremy E. Sherman writes in Psychology Today (November 2014) that “fanaticism Is a disease like alcoholism”. He stressed that “fanatics, ideologues and absolutists are humanity’s greatest scourge. Whether they’re the leaders or the followers, fanatics are people who indulge in a heady, intoxicating and toxic concoction of self-affirming, know-it-all confidence that they have unique access to absolute truths, truths so perfect that they have to impose them on everyone”. He likens a fanatic to “an alcoholic and drug addict driving through life under the influence, thinking that he is perfectly fine.”
Like alcoholics and drug addicts, nobody is born a religious fanatic. God did not create alcoholics, drug addicts and religious extremists, neither is any of these perverse traits biologically inherited. Each of them is socially created, nurtured and sustained. In the case of religious fanaticism, numerous organisations bearing various tantalizing appellations in Nigeria nurture religious extremists and thereby provide fertile breeding ground of Islamist terrorists.
The authorities in Nigeria are doing nothing whatsoever to unearth the root cause of this social malady. They do not even appear to recognize the fact that such barbaric conduct of stoning a fellow-student to death, taking place in a higher institution of learning in a democratic state in the third decade of the 21st century is evidence of morbid decay in the foundations of the state..
In his book entitled The Sociological Imagination, (1959), the American sociologist, C. Wright-Mills makes the point that “neither the life of an individual nor the history of society can be understood without understanding both.” Treating the alleged culprits in the murder of Miss Samuel as individual offenders misses the point. Leaders need to grasp what Wright-Mills calls “the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world.”
At pages 14-15 of his book, Wright-Mills further distinguishes between “private troubles” and “public issues”. “Troubles occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others; they have to do with his self and with those limited areas of social life of which he is directly and personally aware. Accordingly, the statement and the resolution of troubles properly lie within the individual as a biographical entity and within the scope of his immediate milieu….A trouble is a private matter.”
In contrast, “public issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of his inner life. They have to do with the organization of many such milieux into the institutions of an historical society as a whole, with the ways in which various milieux overlap and interpenetrate to form the large structure of social and historical life. An issue is a public matter… An issue, in fact, often involves a crisis in institutional arrangements.”
Religious fanaticism is not about “troubles” occasioned by private religious belief of an individual. It is about ‘public issues’ such as crisis generated when religious fanatics mobilise other individuals or groups in the society to demonise and kill people who do not share their religious persuasion, thus disrupting and challenging the basis for a unified society.
Nigeria Ignores a Major Social Problem
Since religious fanaticism spiked in Northern parts of Nigeria in 1986, religious and political leaders of the region have remained largely indifferent or impervious to the sufferings of victims. This is because extremist religious behaviour that regularly results in mayhem, arson and murder of innocent citizens is latent in the social structure of large segment of the population and therefore regarded as normal. For this reason also, political and religious potentates that control the levers of governmental power in the area are not prepared to address issues pertaining to this perverse social structure due to vested political interests.
By social structure, I refer to relatively permanent patterns of behaviour among wide section of the public which are not amenable to verbal instructions, legislation or even judicial pronouncements, because they are rooted in the socialization process and passed from generation to generation.
I have also come to realize that most suggestions in the public space to address heightened insecurity in Nigeria would have no bearing with the scourge of fanaticism. Training and equipping the Nigeria Police is one of those suggestions. Another is state and community policing. The third is universal access to liberal education. These three measures are pivotal to building a virile democratic federation but it would require additional and special measures to address the problem of religious fanaticism in Nigeria.
The fact that Miss Samuel was murdered by her fellow students in a tertiary educational institution shows that the current educational system in the country is not designed to address fundamental problems of the Nigerian society but may rather sacralise and perpetuate them.
The Nigeria Police arrested and is prosecuting two persons among a mob of frenzied fanatics that stoned Miss Deborah Samuel to death in Sokoto. This action is important based on the constitutional functions of the Nigeria Police Force. However, from the point of view of the duty of Government to protect life and property of citizens, the action so far taken is merely symbolic because it does nothing whatsoever to get to the root of religious fanaticism which is entrenched in the social structure of a significant portion of the Nigerian society.
This behavior pattern does not only poison and destroy the social fabric, it reinforces the notion of an unbridgeable gulf and irreconcilable differences deriving from opposed world-views among significant sections of the Nigerian population. ..
Religious extremism is the factory that produces terrorists; it is at the root of Boko Haram terrorist sect. The sect divides society into believers and unbelievers. This dangerous view of society is held by most Nigerian religionists, Christians and Muslims alike. The main difference between Boko Haram and other religionists is that members of the sect are indoctrinated to believe that unbelievers must be exterminated and that it is the sacred duty of sect members to kill those they adjudge to be unbelievers. This basic ideology is not limited to operatives of the sect. It is indeed widespread in a large segment of the Nigerian society.
What the Nigerian authorities need to address is not the ‘private trouble’ pertaining to the arrest of two or more persons but a ‘public matter’ of religious fanaticism and manipulation of elements of social power in the country by elite groups who use the instrumentality of institutions of the state to protect religious fanatics. There is no doubt that a class of religious and political elite derives personal profit and power from the existence and activities of virulent fanatics. With this class in power, there is no end in sight for the suffering of innocent Nigerians.
Since the crisis generated by the murder of Miss Samuel erupted on May 12, political parties and presidential aspirants angling for control of the country have failed to take a bold stand on the issue. It is reported that former Vice President Atiku Abubakar issued a statement on Twitter, condemning the murder but quickly deleted the statement, ostensibly to avoid attracting the anger of the murderous fanatics. This act places a question mark on the capacity of the highly respected former Vice President to stand up to the demands of justice as it affects the dangerous activists of extremists.
Given the long history of religious fanatic in Nigeria and its devastating consequences on the security of the country, any honest Federal administration would have immediately inaugurated a panel of experts to undertake thorough study of the root causes of the social malady and make informed recommendations on how to bring it to an end. It is absolutely necessary to delve into the historical genesis of religious fanaticism in Nigeria. This would be followed by planned and systematic course of social engineering to eradicate or reduce it to tolerable levels that would no longer endanger the lives and property of citizens or threaten the survival or continued existence of the country as a corporate entity.
At present there is no known public effort to replace the pernicious ideology that underpins religious fanaticism with wholesome ideals of a common humanity. There is also no government programme to supplant or replace religious divisions with nationalistic ideals with a view to building a true, rather than a verbal or imaginary Nigerian nation-state.
Religious extremism must be in the minds of all serious aspirants to the Nigerian presidency in 2023. It must also be in the minds of delegates of various political parties as they nominate candidates of their parties for Houses of Assembly, Representatives, Senate, governors and president for the 2023 General Election in Nigeria. Unless the culture of violence implicit in extremist religious behaviour is firmly addressed, it will continue to haunt the citizens. As late Vanguard columnist, Yink Odumakin, warned in October 2020, “Nigeria has the blood of many Akalukas on its hands with their killers walking free. Its woes will continue until it dispenses justice.” (Yinka Odumakin, Who beheaded Akaluka? NIGERIAN TRIBUNE online, October 4, 2020).