The situation in Nigeria is desperate – not just for Christians, but for children across the country.
Fear and insecurity
According to UNICEF (10 May 2022), 18.5 million children are out of school in Nigeria due to insecurity, up from 10.5 million in 2021. UNICEF blames 'attacks on schools by jihadists and criminal gangs in the north'.
Since Boko Haram abducted 200 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok in 2014, dozens of schools have been targeted for similar mass abductions.
Last year, about 1,500 students were kidnapped by gunmen, according to UNICEF. While most of the young hostages have since been released for ransom, some still remain in captivity in forests, havens of armed groups.
In the predominantly Muslim north, Rahama Farah, head of the UNICEF office in Kano (North), said only one in four girls from "poor, rural families" finish secondary school. Insecurity, he said, "accentuates gender inequalities".
Violence and mass kidnappings have forced the authorities to close more than 11,000 schools in the country since December 2020, according to UNICEF.
The situation has resulted in increasing cases of child marriage and early pregnancy, according to the UN agency.
Attack on a Christian
But in the case of a girl called Deborah Emmanuel, at Sokoto's Shehu Shagari College of Education, her gruesome death came at the hands of fellow students - ordinary Muslim boys (as distinct from jihadists, terrorists, or 'bandits') - after one accused her of blasphemy.
Deborah was a member of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Tungan Magaija in Niger State. She was the eldest of eight children and the first child to go to college.
According to Morning Star News, Deborah was commenting in a class WhatsApp chat about how they discriminate against Christians and in favour of Muslims with regard to assignments and tests. The WhatsApp group was formed to facilitate communication about their lessons but it appeared that a number of students used it as a platform to promote Islam.
When Deborah was asked in the group how she managed to pass the exams, she said she had passed exams thanks to Christ, and when she was pressured to retract the statement and apologize, she declined.
Apparently, it emerged that a Muslim boy had wanted to date her, but she had declined. She also urged fellow group members to refrain from discussing religion, according to news outlet Ejes Gist.
The boy claimed that she had insulted the prophet Muhammad and whipped up rage against her by accusing her of blasphemy. This was a blatant lie. It also seems as though outsiders from the school were brought in to help find her.
Security officers deployed by the school to protect Deborah were overwhelmed by the angry mob. Or, in the words of one second-year student: 'The police sacrificed the lady after the students began throwing sticks and stones at them.' According to a friend, her last words were “What do you hope to achieve with this?”
The horrific killing has sent shock-waves throughout Nigeria.
Two suspects were arrested and a manhunt is under way for other suspects. On 14 May hundreds of Muslims rioted in Sokoto to protest the arrests. They targeted the palace of the Sultan, who had condemned the killing, and Christian-owned businesses and churches.
On 16 May the accused faced court backed by a team of 34 lawyers. They pleaded not guilty to criminal conspiracy and disturbing the peace. Bail is being considered. Tensions are soaring.
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari has "strongly condemned" Deborah’s murder.
Deborah’s family have decided that none of their remaining children will go to school. The school itself is now closed indefinitely.
The Christian Association of Nigeria has called for a nationwide peaceful protest on Sunday 22 May to demand justice for Deborah. However, fearing Islamic rage could spread like wildfire, the Kaduna State government had already placed a banon all religious protest in volatile Kaduna State.
As news of Deborah’s death has spread, so have accusations of blasphemy and police fears for their own safety. In Borno, Nigeria’s far northwest, a Christian graduate, Naomi Goni, responded to a derogatory social media post about Deborah from a Muslim lady. Islamists accused Naomi of blasphemy, sparking a firestorm.
Another Christian woman’s life is in danger. Rhoda Jatau wrote a comment on social media that was deemed blasphemous. In the whipped up riots, six homes and seven shops belonging to Christians were burned in the pogrom, and about 20 people were injured, including a Pastor of an ECWA church.
The Rev. Joseph John Hayab, vice-president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Northern Nigeria Chapter, said area Muslims were using blasphemy as a pretext to attack Christians.
- For Deborah’s family and friends, and other Christians in Sokoto and in Tungun Magajia in their grieving.
- That God may grant the Christians of Sokoto, including students at the College and pastors whose property has been destroyed, wisdom, guidance, discernment and protection as they navigate these difficult days.
- That God would grace Sokoto's Governor Aminu Tambuwal, the Sultan of Sokoto Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar, the judge overseeing this trial, along with others in politics, the media and civil society with a deep unbiased conviction that life must be protected, security must be guaranteed, vigilantism must be condemned, evil must be deterred and justice must be done. May God give them the courage to pursue these things in the face of Islamic protest and indignation ... for the sake of the Gospel and the Church in Sokoto.
- That the Christians may take God’s promise to Joshua for themselves: Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not be terrified or dismayed (intimidated), for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua chapter 1, verse 9)
Aira Chilcott is a retired secondary school teacher with lots of science andtheology under her belt. Aira is a panellist and editor for PSI and indulges inreading, bushwalking and volunteering at a nature reserve. Aira is married to Billand they have three adult sons.
Aira Chilcott's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/aira-chilcott.html