By Mbasekei Martin Obono
THE growing trend of sentencing young people under the pretext of ‘blasphemy’ must stop.
Omar Farouq who was 13, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for blasphemy in Kano. The conviction was later upturned on appeal. Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was sentenced to death for blasphemy, Abduljabbar Nasiru-Kabara is still facing trial.
Mubarak Bala has been convicted and sentenced to 24 years imprisonment for blasphemy. What they all have in common is the exercise of their rights to freedom of thought and religion. The denial of freedom of thought is a denial of mental autonomy. Mental autonomy is greatly needed for a thriving democracy and nation-building.
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides in section 10 that Nigeria is a secular state. The implication of section 10 is that there is no official religion binding on Nigeria.
Also, the constitution as a “common standard” for human rights, adopted Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), Articles 2 and 8 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights among other international instruments that guarantee the right to freedom of religion, thought and conscience.
Under UDHR which Nigeria is a signatory, the instrument guarantees every person the freedom to change religion or belief and hold the same even publicly. These rights are also to be enjoyed by atheists.
By contrast and in a manner that contradicts the supremacy of the constitution, Sections 204 Criminal Code Law and Sections 210 Penal Code Law both criminalise public insult on a class of people’s religion. It is these laws in both northern and southern Nigeria that state governments depend on to violate the rights of people to freely express themselves.
By way of illustration, the primary purpose of religious leaders and preachers is to market their religion. These preachers share a number of key similarities in using demarketing strategies and utterances to drive home the concept of supremacy of their religion over the others. Therefore, if the state is to regulate that, every pulpit will be guilty of ‘insulting other people’s religion’ and the state will be left in chaos because the test for insult is subjective.
As it is written elsewhere, Democracies, development and nation-building in which citizens choose the laws that bind them are only possible if citizens have mental sovereignty.
This petition is therefore written to request an amendment of the Criminal and Penal Code laws of Nigeria by the National Assembly and the constitution to guarantee people the right to free expression of thoughts. The idea that only a class of people are permitted to express themselves while others cannot austerely impair their rights to human dignity.
The amendment should encompass the right to reveal one’s thoughts, the right not to be penalised for one’s thoughts and the right not to have one’s thoughts manipulated.
Denying an individual the freedom of thought is a denial of self-esteem, self-respect and grandeur. This is why freedom of thought is protected under international human rights law.
In actual fact, it is one of the cardinal principles of a growing democracy. We need laws that will guarantee citizens the ability to think freely because depriving any person of such rights is to completely deprive them of their humanity and existence.
We are calling on the National Assembly to amend the law and free all Nigerians from the prison of thought!
Obono is a practising lawyer and team lead at Tap Nitiative For Citizens Development based in Abuja.
The protection of human rights must always be of utmost importance to us. I’ve not been able to lay my hands on the provision in the Penal Code Law, but insulting a religion under the Criminal Code is a misdemeanour. And I think the grievous thing that makes such an insult a crime is that it was intended to be an insult. We must all respect one another and communicate our convictions with love. I hope the National Assembly take this call seriously.