An Islamic court in northern Nigeria has sentenced a 22-year old singer, Yahaya Aminu Sharif, to death for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad in a song he circulated on the messaging platform WhatsApp in March. The man sentenced on Monday is a resident of Kano city, the state capital that is also the commercial hub for the north. Kano state, in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria, has Islamic sharia courts that function alongside civil courts. While the courts are active, death sentences for blasphemy are unusual and the most recent, handed down in 2015 to nine followers of the Tijani Muslim sect, have yet to take place. The state was among several northern states to introduce sharia law in 2000. The prosecutor, Inspector Aminu Yargoje, described the verdict as fair and said it would prevent future blasphemy in the state. However, guards at the court barred journalists from speaking to Sharif after the sentencing. A court spokesman told Reuters he has 30 days to appeal. Protesters earlier this year burnt down Sharif’s family home in a fit of rage over the song. The court also sentenced another man, Umar Farouq, to 10 years in prison for making derogatory statements toward Allah in a public argument.

President Muhammadu Buhari has assented to the Companies and Allied Matters Bill 2020, which was recently passed by the National Assembly. In a statement from the presidency, the assent on the document repealed and replaced the extant Companies and Allied Matters Act, 1990, and introduced several corporate legal innovations geared toward enhancing the ease of doing business in the country. The Act ensures “filing fee reductions and other reforms to make it easier and cheaper for small and medium-sized enterprises to register and reform their businesses in Nigeria”. It also “makes it possible to establish a private company with only one (1) member or shareholder” — as against the minimum of two people in the recent past. The bill was passed by the Bukola Saraki-led eight senate, but the president refused to assent to the bill, asking to “preserve the powers of the Attorney-General of the Federation to approve the registration of companies limited by guarantee” among other provisions. In November 2019, the president asked the national assembly to effect some corrections to the bill, which led to it passing second reading in February 2020, before the president signed on Friday.

Data from BudgIT has shown that for every ₦100 shared to the Osun State government as revenue allocation from the federation account, ₦91 is deducted to service debt. The development, according to analysts, indicates how the state’s fiscal crisis has moved from bad to worse. BudgIT said that of the ₦6.44 billion Osun received as revenue from FAAC in January through March, ₦5.87 billion of the amount went to servicing its debt. The development is coming to fore even as the state has been grappling with years of backlogs of unpaid salaries owing to the failure of the government to judiciously harness the revenue potential of huge human and capital resources. The state may even be on the brink of seeking life support, analysts have said. Osun also has the highest deduction done ever on any of the 36 states as a percentage of federal allocations, showing how terrible the fiscal situation of the state is at present. A 91% federal allocation deducted in servicing the states debt profile would leave the state with only about 9% of the revenue to be used as expenditure on health, education and other financial obligations for its over 4.6 million people, according to BusinessDay’s estimate.

President Muhammadu Buhari said Monday that the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, could have used the military to overrun opposition states in the 2019 general election but it chose to be impartial. By not doing so, Buhari said its administration wanted to show Nigerians that it was humane. He said this during a meeting with north-east governors including ones with the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – Ahmadu Fintri of Adamawa state, Bala Mohammed of Bauchi state and Darius Ishaku of Taraba. In his words, “We know we are a developing country but we respect our country, otherwise, with the use of the Army, the police and the rest of them, we could have overrun you. We just wanted to show that we are humane and we are Nigerians. We will continue to do our best.” Appreciating Nigerians for believing in him and his party, APC, Buhari said “Nigerians… understood us and they voted for us,” as he lamented over the high level of insecurity in the country, asking the military to put in more effort in curtailing crime.

Commentary

  • Our view at SBM is an unequivocal condemnation of this sentence. No one should have to be killed in this day and age for expressing an opinion, even if some consider it offensive and blasphemous. Having said that, it bears noting that this is not the first such sentence by a Sharia court: in 2016, a cleric Abdulazeez Dauda, AKA Abdul Inyass was sentenced to death for the same crime of blasphemy. This sentence has not been carried out because although these sentences are given under Sharia law, the accused persons still have the right of appeal to the Supreme Court, which is under the common law system and does not recognise blasphemy as a crime. We expect that Mr Sharif will appeal and win as well. However, what is more relevant here is the deep ethnoreligious divides in Nigeria that this sentencing illustrates. In the North, there has been vocal support for the sentences, and as evidenced by an arson attack on Mr Sharif’s family house, the threat of violence if the verdict went otherwise. In the South, the verdict has been roundly condemned by both Christians and Muslims alike. The reactions to this sentence, especially from the South, have shown that mistrust is high and this has grave implications for the future of Nigeria, a country that essentially runs three criminal legal systems, the criminal code, the penal code and Sharia. These contradictions are pulling the country apart at the seams and they will only escalate the calls for a much-needed restructuring of the country. To any neutral observer, it could as well be two different countries. The popularity of these sentences among Northern Muslims continue to show why the introduction of Sharia law by about 12 northern states in the early 2000s gained huge political capital for their principals. More than that, it also highlights the growing divide within the Northern Muslim community itself: all the sentenced are of the Tijaniya Sufi sect while the sentences are popular with those who identify with the Izala sect, the country’s pre-eminent Salafist movement which enjoys ideological and financial support from Saudi Arabia. The Izala movement is widely considered as the incubator of extremist elements such as Boko Haram – a group with which it shares a lot of ideological similarities, chiefly its hard-line views on Islamic purity and rejection of a pluralistic society. The implication of this is that the hardening of ideologies will continue to slowly move the North towards a Syria/Iraq-type sectarian situation, especially considering the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East and the worsening security crisis in the North-West; crises which are being taken advantage of by terrorist groups – not just JAS & ISWAP – but also other Islamist groups in the wider Sahel region such as AQIM & MUJWA. The social and security crises are sure to reinforce each other in a way that only portends more bloodshed and instability for a region all too familiar with chaos.
  • The new CAMA also contains filing fee reductions and other reforms to make it easier and cheaper for small and medium-sized enterprises to register and reform their businesses in Nigeria; requires the disclosure of persons with significant control of companies in a register of beneficial owners to enhance corporate accountability and transparency, and enhances the minority shareholder protection and engagement; introducing enhanced business rescue reforms for insolvent companies, and permitting the merger of Incorporated Trustees for associations that share similar aims and objectives. In addition, the CAMA allows for remote/virtual general meetings, subject to the Articles of Association of the company. This is important considering the coronavirus pandemic and should allow for more inclusive of stakeholders’ interests. It is also likely, as the new NBA President, Olumide Akpata, has noted, to reduce the tension between lawyers and the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) on the technicalities of regulations around business operations. This is a useful effort in encouraging the movement of businesses from informal sectors, which some have estimated to be as much as 64% of Nigeria’s GDP, to the formal sectors and assist in deepening the tax base. However, the new CAMA has done a few harmful things. Section 839 empowers the CAC to suspend the trustees of any NGO or religious organisation and appoint an interim manager or managers to manage the affairs of an association “where it reasonably believes that there has been any misconduct or mismanagement of the association, or where the affairs of the association are being run fraudulently.” That same section permits the CAC, without judicial backing, to dissolve any NGO and direct transfer of monies in any ‘dormant accounts’ of NGOs in collusion with the banks if the commission is satisfied that the NGO is not a going concern. This government has made no secrets of its intentions to curtail the activities of a vibrant domestic NGO sector – the failed NGO Regulation Bill was a barely disguised effort in that regard. The new CAMA represents the proverbial Greek gift – doing some good while doing a lot of harm. It is already a candidate for an amendment.
  • Osun is an extreme expression of the fact that most states of the country are technically insolvent and cannot meet their obligations. This burden on the state’s purse could have been a bit lighter but for the government’s inability to look inward and grow its stream of internally generated revenues. As at March 2020, Osun had an outstanding domestic debt of ₦137.3 billion. Asides Lagos and some oil-producing states (Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, Imo and Rivers), only a handful of other states (such as Ogun) have as much outstanding debt. A look at 2019 full-year internally generated revenues shows that it only generated ₦17.9 billion (1.34% of total and 19th highest nationally). It means that Osun State’s IGR only covers 7% of the domestic debt owed (one of the worst ratios in the country). In light of the recent economic crisis resulting from the coronavirus induced lockdown, we can expect that all states will experience a significant decline in IGR, an indication that 2020 will be a difficult year for states like Osun to fund social programmes. Unfortunately, the Federal Government is also in dire straits and is unable to help them with bailouts this time. This explains the current desperate drive for extortionary revenue generation from many states and the Federal Government. Of course, such measures will be counterproductive as they will cause businesses to shrink back. Governments need to ruthlessly cut their costs and take a view to enable businesses as opposed to extorting them.
  • It is very troubling to hear the President of Africa’s largest democracy say these things 21 years after the country’s transition to democratic governance. President Buhari’s statement is tantamount to setting himself a low bar and giving himself a high pass mark for scaling it. This is besides the fact that it is inaccurate considering reports by election observers during last year’s general elections, and after the Bayelsa and Kogi governorship elections in December 2019 that accused the military of siding with the ruling party, making those elections remarkably less than free and fair. Beyond this, however, the President’s statement sends an ominous signal on how the military can be easily used by those in power to do their bidding and rig elections, either directly or through the intimidation of opponents. This is a clear sign of how institutions in Nigeria are still not strong enough, and their neutrality in elections highly dependent on the decisions of those in power to not use them for such purposes. Sometimes that is difficult considering that such occupants of positions of power are often interested parties in such elections. We cannot but look at the President’s statement in the light of the upcoming governorship elections in Edo and Ondo States especially as President Buhari failed to commit himself to ensure that the military would remain neutral in these elections. It is important for such a commitment to be made public and for the administration to stand by it, especially considering the rising political tensions in both states, particularly Edo State which carries a huge prospect of electoral violence.