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Mob Justice in Nigeria: Religious Liberty Should Unite Nigerians, Not Divide Us

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By Matthew Ma


“We have mastered the art of taking the law into our hands. Criminals, shoplifters, burglars are stoned and beaten to death or lynched.”


On May 12, NIGERIANS woke up to watch a horrific video of the stoning to death and burning of a female student of Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto over alleged blasphemy. The female student identified as Ms. Deborah Samuel was accused of uttering unflattering comments about Prophet Mohammed on campus. What started as the slightest provocation soon became a premeditated murder case that has ruined the peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Sokoto. Sokoto state, which was said to be peaceful has been plagued with violent crime leading to the death of a female student. The consequences of this have pushed me to ask: Is Nigeria a jungle or a failed state? Virtually everything in Nigeria is going wrong. Things have fallen apart, and the center cannot hold anymore. Under the watchful eyes of the government, Nigeria has gone from being a failed state to a dead one. There is no conscience in the country. Above all, there is no institutional or judicial conscience. The result is a society crumbling in darkness, a nation at a crossroads, a country witnessing unprecedented religious radicalism, and a confused youth force that vents its anger on every slightest provocation. Hence, killing a female student at the Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto and setting her on fire is one of the wild, untamed, and inhumane actions buried deep inside the fabric of our youth. We can continue to deceive ourselves that all is well until the day the untreated cause of radicalism will overwhelm us all.

Although Nigeria has habitually experienced awful religious radicalism, it has never been this bad. On March 24, 2022, the Nigerian Vanguard reports that Bandits attacked several communities in the Giwa Local Government Area of Kaduna State, killing many people and abducting several persons. According to the news report, armed men attacked the villages of Kauran Fawa, Marke, and Riheya in Idasu, all in the Giwa local government area of Kaduna State. Two days after the abduction, bandits again attacked the Kaduna International Airport and killed the Nigerian Airspace Management Agent during the operation. Soon after the attack, the Kaduna State government shut down the airport for several hours. On March 28, 2022, a train traveling from Abuja to Kaduna was attacked by bandits using explosive devices and guns, killing more than three hundred passengers on that day. Although the number of deaths is contestable, a local security official revealed that two train staff, five security personnel, and a young dental surgeon, Chinelo Nwando Megafu were among the passengers killed. But the railway authorities could not immediately confirm the accurate number of passengers on the train, but local media reported that nearly 900 people were onboard. On May 12, 2022, news broke up on social media that a female student of Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto was killed and burnt by angry youths. According to the police, Deborah Samuel, a level-two student, was accused of making a social media post that blasphemed the prophet Muhammad. The police said angry youth forcefully removed the victim from the security room of the school authority, killed her, and burnt the building. Videos on social media show people stoning and flogging a motionless body covered in red attire. Nigerians have never been so divided along ethnic and religious lines as today. The institutions in the country have never felt so divided as it is today. For example, a few weeks ago, we heard about the awkward rape and murder of a victim in Eastern Nigeria. A video online showed that she was decapitated like an animal with her private part and head chopped off. I do not know how accurate these stories are. However, the bottom line is that the increased incidence of mob justice in Nigeria reflects the broader economy of violence in the country. For example, the social problems and the gap between the rich and the poor, the backdrop of a weakening state control amid the creeping collapse of law and order, and the inability of the police to tackle crime have given rise to salient elements of banditry, kidnapping, a rise in vigilantism, possession of illegal arms, and a succession of unsolved murders in Nigeria.

Most Nigerians are tired of this “Christians-versus-Muslims” mindset and are eager to find common ground. I have heard several Nigerians who believe that our differences are not about religion but are influenced by politics. For example, politicians have often used religious ideologies to garner the support of the public to consolidate power. Unfortunately, these political leaders continue to use religion to incite people to kill each other based on beliefs. But why would securing the support of the public requires a great deal of propaganda? Muslims and Christians had always lived peacefully together until the late 1970s. I remember as a child, we would always receive a Salah gift from our Fulani neighbors. On our part, my mother would also do the same to reciprocate during the Christmas and the Easter seasons. Although the Fulani family would not accept fresh meat from us, they will gladly accept rice, onions, and groundnut oil from my family. This notion is how simple life was during this time. However, after the 1970s, we began to witness a renewed drive for the propagation of Islam in Nigeria. Nigerians began to observe for the first time a threat to convert as many as possible to Islam and the possibility of refashioning Nigeria according to Islamic principles. This propaganda infiltrated university campuses and incited Muslim students to burn down Christian churches. The riots spread like wildfire from one town to another.

The failure of the government to control and bring to justice those responsible for jungle justice has brought many suspicions. The suspicions are based on mediocrity, nepotism, radicalism, sectarianism, fanaticism, bigotry, and intolerance among this generation. We have mastered the art of taking the law into our hands. Criminals, shoplifters, burglars are stoned and beaten to death or lynched. In our public debates, it seems that we no longer disagree. We reject the arguments of others and doubt the motives of each other. We question people and close our ears to their views. In the media, analysts insult each other, mock opponents, and spill out anything that could come out of their mouths. The internet and social media platforms have become a hotbed of outrage, takedowns, and cruelty—often targeting Christians and Muslims. Most Nigerians (whom I call the exhausted majority) are tired of this divisive nature of intolerance embedded in this generation. They know we have more in common than what divides us: our belief in sovereignty, uniformity, and the pursuit of a common dream that separates religion from a crime. They are worried about how humans decide who lives or dies. If only we all had conscience enough, no blood needs to be spilled. Nobody has the right to take a human life because it is the property of God. Only God has the right to decide who should live or die. Hence, we should not act like God. Thus, those who killed Deborah must be prosecuted and imprisoned for life. As humans, we have the conscience to stop the bloodshed by apprehending and containing murderers and people with murderous intent. In addition to the arrest and prosecution of Deborah’s killers, the government should investigate the police for failing to protect her. They claimed the mob overpowered them. Is it not a shame to hear a formidable police force say something like this? Arguably, this is a slap in the face of Nigerian sovereignty.

Deborah’s killing reflects a jungle state where anything goes. The crude and barbarous killing perpetrated on her has left many of us feeling like strangers in our land. Hence, the old notion of being a brother or sister’s keeper where safety, life, and property of every member of the household matter feel like the relics of a bygone era. The institutions that once bound us are disappearing, and we no longer seem to have each other’s backs. Angry mobs often attack and kill when people echo views or alternative opinions that oppose their beliefs. We do not seem to disagree anymore without perceiving the opinion of others as stupid, wrong, or evil. We play off each other and see each other as threats and enemies. The loudest and most extreme voices often get heard. Nobody wants to speak the truth for fear of being intimidated. Today, we seem more fractured and fragmented than anyone can remember. It is becoming clear that peaceful harmony and tolerance is the best way for Nigeria. Hence, Nigerians must ensure religious liberty does not create more divisions but binds us together.






Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit priest and doctoral student in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.










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