Holding up the Candle of Freedom in Nigeria

  • post Type / Campaigns
  • Date / 15 November 2002

IHEU President Levi Fragell in Nigeria
Less than a week after the recent ghastly religious conflagration in Nigeria, Levi Fragell, President of International Humanist and Ethical Union arrived in the country, where in Lagos, Ibadan and in Ikenne he held a press conference, met with University academics, professors, lecturers, NGO leaders, fellow Humanists, and also addressed students at Nigerias premier Ibadan university. Levi Fragell used his visit to defend Humanist principles, oppose fatwas and called for an immediate abolition of the harsh Sharia laws in 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states. Yesterday Levi Fragell also addressed 3000 pupils of secular Mayflower School, established in 1956 by the famous Nigerian Humanist Tai Solarin, to whom Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka dedicated his book The Open Sore of a Continent.

Sharia and Nigeria
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation with 120 million citizens, 250 languages and Islam in the North and Christianity in the South as the major religions. The country’s slow recovery on the path of freedom and democracy after several years of debilitating military despotism is now most significantly hampered by the introduction of barbaric Sharia laws in the country and the enmity between religious communities that this has engendered – sectarian riots have resulted in the death of over 3,000 people already in the last two years.

The country’s federal constitution is secular, but in the northern Nigerian states, Islamic punishments exist: flogging for consuming alcohol, amputation of limbs for theft and stoning to death for adultery.

Amina Lawal, Miss World and ThisDay
It is such legislation in the state of Katsina that led to 30 year old Ms. Amina Lawal’s death sentence, after being tried for adultery and for bearing a child outside of wedlock. The Upper Sharia Court judge Ahaji Aliyu Abdullahi Katsina ruled that Amina be publicly executed for adultery. Punishment will be implemented after her seven-month old baby is weaned. If the federal government does not intervene, Amina will now be buried up to her neck and stoned to death. However, the father of the ‘illegitimate’ child has been discharged, for he swore by the Koran that he was not the father of the child and Sharia law does not recognise any scientific paternity tests … A world wide campaign to save her life and to oppose the brutality of this law is on.

Amina’s case was the backdrop to the widespread boycott of the Miss World contest in Nigeria’s capital city Lagos: many foreign contestants refused to participate in an event held in a country with such barbaric punishments. Domestically, mainly Islamic fundamentalists opposed the holding of such an event – described as degrading and insulting to women and to their religion – during their Holy month of Ramadan.

In developments that astonished the civilised world, an allegedly blasphemous statement referring to the Prophet Mohammad in the fashion page of the national newspaper ThisDay, while commenting on the unreasonable protests by Islamic fundamentalists sparked off uncontrolled rioting by angry Islamic thugs, resulting in conflict between Christians and Muslim communities in Kaduna city. Over 200 people died, and thirty thousand people, both Muslims and Christians, lost their homes.

The Fatwa and IHEU’s Stance
In the immediate aftermath of riots in a community, it is important to restore calm and peace by reconciling the warring sections of society. However, taking advantage of the relative inaction by the Federal government headed by the Southerner Christian President Obasanjo, Mahamoud Shinkafi, the deputy governor of Zamfara state, another Northern Nigerian State issued a fatwa and called on Muslims to kill Ms. Isioma Daniel, the London-trained journalist who wrote the newspaper article. Isomia Daniels fled the country to save her own life.

This tense and explosive situation was the immediate context of Levi Fragell’s visit to Nigeria. Welcoming an International Human Rights and Humanist leader of Levi Fragell’s stature to his country in these beleaguered times, and underlining the significance of his visit, IHEU’s Growth and Development representative in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Executive Director of Nigerian Humanist Movement Leo Igwe said that a pluralist and predominantly religious country like Nigeria had no option but to accept the liberating message of Humanism which is based on the recognition of our common humanity. Humanism provides the philosophy of Human Rights and progress*.

Addressing a Press Conference at the Lagos headquarters of the influential Weekly Magazine Tell, and recalling the salutary role of the press during the period of military dictatorship, Levi Fragell emphasised that the “fatwa issued against journalist Isomia Daniel is malafide, and an assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly the freedom of the press and freedom of expression. To condemn to death any person for the mere utterance or writing of words, however reckless they maybe, is unthinkable in today’s world. No religion should enjoy the privilege of special protection or immunity from comment or criticism.” Terming it “another sad indicator of Nigeria’s regress into an Islamic dark age”, Levi Fragell demanded that the Federal government intervene to save Nigeria from being irretrievably thrown into the savagery of religious intolerance.

Human Rights, not Holy Books
Recalling a 2000 judgement by the Bangladesh Supreme Court (an Islamic country) which banned all fatwas, Levi Fragell said that fatwas have no legitimacy in a modern world, and those seeking to deal rough ‘justice’ in this manner in defiance of civilised law must be punished for incitement to murder. He further called upon legislation to draw its inspiration from the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights rather than outdated books claiming to have divine provenance: be they the Koran or the Bible or the Vedas. Referring to Amina Lawal’s case, Levi Fragell extended the IHEU’s solidarity with her plight and made it clear that the choice of a life partner, or the decision to have a child is a fundamental human right and an intensely personal one, which cannot be abrogated by any religious or political dictat.

The IHEU and its member organisations will step forward to help Amina and Isomia, in the same way as they came to the defence of the rights of Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. The worldwide Humanist community will continue to fight for the strictest separation of religion and state which is the sole guarantor for the freedom of conscience and of expression of all peoples, irrrespective of their creed.

Please send your letters of support to us via email. Please post this on your websites or circulate it or create a weblink to the IHEU’s website at www.iheu.org so that the voice of freedom is better heard.

Levi Fragell’s present visit covers Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda where he is seeking to strengthen the Humanist movement in those countries. Development of Humanism and support to organised Humanism in Africa is one of IHEU’s Growth and Development priorities.

*Leo Igwe’s article Muslims Turn Back the Clock on Nigeria can be read in the October 2002 issue of The Freethinker (www.freethinker.co.uk)


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