Cordelia Ego Ejiofor died like no one should, clobbered to death by her employer. Her dead body was never found. Around December 3, 1972, Alhaji Rauph Gaji, a senior lawyer in Kaduna, beat Cordelia to death in his own house. He drove her remains to the outskirts of the city and disposed of it on a location along Kachia Road, where, months later, scanty human remains were located after Alhaji Gaji led the police to where he said he disposed of her body.

Mamman Nasir, like Alhaji Gaji, a Muslim, prosecuted the case to conclusion, securing a conviction for manslaughter, which the Supreme Court affirmed on Friday, May 23, 1975.

If this case happened today, Cordelia’s killer would never have been brought to account. Her scanty remains would not have drawn any attention. The killing itself would hardly have merited the attentions of the justice system and Mamman Nasir would have come under unbearable pressure not to prosecute a fellow Muslim for this killing.

For a country whose coat of arms has “Unity and Faith…” as its motto, this is some distance travelled.

In one of fate’s more unfair ironies, Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto, the school named after a pioneering Nigerian teacher who rose to become president of the country and one of its most emollient public figures, could be fated to become etched in public imagination as the funeral pyre to Nigeria’s coat of arms. It is the location where, in daylight on May 12, 2022, a mob of male students set upon one of their colleagues, stoned her to death and burnt her remains.

This school was the site of Deborah Yakubu’s public immolation.

Deborah’s life ended at the un-ripe age of 22. She did not die nor was she merely killed. Deborah suffered a fate reserved for savages in an age that exists largely in pre-civilisational apocrypha.

The Guardian reports that “Deborah allegedly had argument with fellow students online and the Muslims among them claimed that she blasphemed…The interaction reportedly took place during the Muslim month of Ramadan when the college was on break. When they sighted her at the school today, all available Muslim male students surrounded her and started stoning her. They continued until she fell. They made sure she died and subsequently set her body ablaze.”

Spokesperson for the Nigeria Police Force in the state, Sanusi Abubakar, is reported to have claimed that the “Students forcefully removed the victim from the security room where she was hidden by the school authorities, killed her and burnt the building.”

Explaining why the police failed to show up until it was way beyond too late, Abubakar added that the students ‘banded together with miscreants’ to block the road leading to the school. This would suggest that there was pre-meditation to this savagery. It fails as a plea of mitigation by the police.

Deborah was a 200-level student of Home Economics Education at the Shehu Shagari College of Education, where she was also known as the Sisters’ Co-ordinator for the Fellowship of Christian Students. She came from Tugan Magajia in Rijau Local Government Area of Niger State in Nigeria’s North-Central region and worshipped as a member of the Evangelical Church Winning All, a leading Christian denomination in the region.

There were credible reports, not exactly denied at the time of writing, that “she had rejected the advances of a Muslim student, who later made the allegation.”

Deborah is the latest to suffer this gruesome fate in Nigeria. In three decades of such lynching in Northern Nigeria, no one has been brought to account. There is no reason to believe that Deborah’s case will prove to be different. Indeed, the police conveniently claim the leader of the mob that killed her is not of Nigeria nor within it.

About June 2, 2016, a mob lynched 74-year-old Bridget Agbahime in front of her shop in Kofar Wambai Market in Kano, North-West Nigeria. She had reportedly asked a male Muslim adherent not to conduct his ablution in front of her shop, an otherwise sensible request even if only for health and sanitation reasons. That was her last earthly request. Affronted, the man accused her of blasphemy, summoned a mob and they clobbered her to death.

The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), issued a statement then describing Bridget’s lynching as “sad and regrettable”, promising that justice would be done. The Sultan of Sokoto and head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Nigeria equally did the same. The government of Kano State quickly announced the arrest and arraignment of five men in connection with Bridget’s lynching: Dauda Ahmed, Abdullahi Mustapha, Zubairu Abubakar, Abdullahi Abubakar and Musa Abdullahi. A mere five months after Bridget’s murder, the Kano State government itself withdrew the charges against the five suspects. Like Bridget, this case died, never to be resurrected.

Forty five days after Bridget’s lynching, Eunice Elisha, a pastor with the Redeemed Christian Church of God, was hacked to death in Kubwa on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, after the leaders in a nearby mosque had warned her to stop her open-air preaching. Her killers were never apprehended nor was anyone brought to account.

In August 1995, a young Christian trader from South-East Nigeria, Gideon Akaluka, was beheaded in Kano again on unverified allegations of blasphemy. Some high profile arrests followed but, as with the case of Bridget Agbahime more than two decades later, the suspects were never brought to account.

Moments after Deborah’s immolation, the Sultan of Sokoto, as he did in the case of Bridget Agbahime, promptly issued a statement describing it as “unfortunate”.

Buhari followed the next day, describing “the news of the killing of the young lady by fellow students was a matter of concern.” It would have been much better if he had persisted in the eloquence of his complicit silence. If his words are to be believed, the President was not worried by the killing but by the news about it. One reading of this unfortunate sentence, crafted with the benefit of more than 36 hours of contemplation, is that it would have been better if the perpetrators had just quietly wasted Deborah!

The President could not even pretend to find any sense of indignation in this affair. It was a mere matter of concern. Forgetting that he is the guarantor of human safety and security under Nigeria’s constitution, President Buhari merely “demanded an impartial, extensive probe into all that happened before and during the incident.” Curiously, he directed this demand to no one in particular, probably because he does not think anyone should act on it.

In the same statement, however, the same President “also directed the Ministries of Information and Culture, Police Affairs and that of Communications and Digital Economy to work with GSM providers and tech companies to help contain the spread of false and inflammatory information through social media.” The man is consistent: his worry is not the killing but rather than the cameras captured it for social media. He lost his voice on the question of accountability but found it in time to direct social media censorship, even when social media had nothing to do with this immolation.

Following the example of the President, other leading politicians around the country lost their voices and their moral compass. Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, having issued a statement initially condemning Deborah’s tragic fate, proceeded to delete the statement from his social media handles before explaining that he did not have anything to do with the statements to begin with. Self-acclaimed leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress and one of its leading presidential aspirants, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, vanished.

Deborah Yakubu was killed exactly 10 days before the Practice Section on Public Interest and Development Law of the Nigerian Bar Association was to hold a widely advertised conference in Sokoto, the site of Deborah’s last earthly moments. The morning after her gruesome fate, while the smoke still smouldered from her funeral pyre, Monday Ubani, the Chairperson of SPIDEL, issued a statement denouncing those who called on him to re-consider holding the conference as scheduled as “without locus.”

Ubani’s statement is as gratuitous an insult to everyone as the line that the stoning to death of Deborah “is not a religious problem.” If blasphemy is not about religion, can someone, anyone, please explain what it is about? Determined to give lie to this, on May 14, mobs set upon some Christian places of worship in Sokoto, forcing the state government to declare a curfew.

The issue clearly is not whether the stoning to death of Deborah is a religious matter but whether the rulers of Nigeria both in and out of government have it in them to give Nigerians reason to have faith in the country. On the current evidence, there is only one answer.

About Author
Chidi Odinkalu
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is a Nigerian human rights activist, lawyer, professor and writer.