Blasphemy retrial



It seems convicted Kano-based Muslim musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu has a chance to escape a controversial death sentence for blasphemy under Islamic law, also known as Sharia. The Appeal Division of the Kano State High Court observed irregularities in the trial that led to his conviction and ordered a retrial.

However, the question is whether he should have been tried for blasphemy in the first place, considering that the charge is inconsistent with the country’s overriding secular constitution. It is noteworthy that the two-man appeal panel comprising Justice Nuradeen Sagir, who is also the state chief judge, and Justice Nasiru Saminu, did not address this fundamental issue. Their silence on the unconstitutionality of the initial trial, and the order that a retrial be conducted under the same Islamic law, were seen as a win by Sharia proponents.

“This is a victory to Kano people as the law is here to stay. ?The court ordered that the accused be retried under the same law,” the state attorney-general and commissioner for justice, Musa Abdullahi Lawan, was reported saying in reaction to the appeal court’s judgement which he interpreted to mean that the Sharia penal code is not unconstitutional.

Importantly, the singer’s appeal had emphasised that his trial, conviction, and sentencing “were unconstitutional, null and void, having grossly violated and conflicted with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) as amended, and having violated the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

An upper Sharia court in Kano State, in August 2020, had found Sharif-Aminu guilty of “insulting religious creed” based on a song he circulated via WhatsApp.  The Islamic singer’s song was said to have elevated Senegalese Sheikh Ibrahim Niass of the Tijaniyyah Muslim sect above Prophet Muhammad. Qadi Aliyu Muhammad Kani, who sentenced the singer to death by hanging, said the verdict was based on Section 382 (6) of Kano State Sharia Penal Code Law 2000.

This case yet again highlights fundamental issues about the operation of Sharia in the country. Nigeria is a multi-religious but secular country where the Islamic system of justice operates in 12 northern Muslim-majority states alongside a secular justice system. Only Muslims can be tried in the Sharia court. Non-Muslims are required to give their consent before trial under Sharia. Flogging and amputation are lawful penalties under the Sharia system which handles both civil and criminal matters involving Muslims and has its own court of appeal.

Sharia has been controversial since its introduction in 1999. In 2002, for instance, Amina Lawal was sentenced to death by stoning under Sharia in Katsina State for conceiving a child out of wedlock. The conviction, condemned worldwide, was overturned by the Sharia Court of Appeal in 2004.  The first execution under Sharia happened in Katsina State in 2002 when a man was hanged after pleading guilty to murdering a woman and her two children.

Apart from conflicting with the country’s overriding constitution, the death penalty for blasphemy under Sharia also violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Nigeria is a signatory to this treaty that is designed to protect basic human rights and restricts the death penalty to the “most serious crimes,” which are crimes that involve intentional killing.

Blasphemy is not a crime under the country’s secular constitution, which is the supreme law of the land. Although the country’s federal system of government accommodates the sharing of power between the national authority and the constituent units, such an arrangement should not redefine the country’s pivotal secularism.

In the circumstances, there is a need to address the Sharia question. Sharia court judgements can be challenged in Nigeria’s secular Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, and Sharif-Aminu may ultimately need to explore the option.  At some point, the Supreme Court will need to make a clarifying and definitive pronouncement on the operation of Sharia and the supremacy of the country’s constitution.  .

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