Nigeria's largest group of Christian churches on Friday condemned the killing of a female student who was beaten and burned by fellow students for alleged blasphemy and demanded the authorities bring the culprits to justice.
Two suspects were arrested in connection with the murder of Deborah Samuel Yakubu, was accused by other students of posting blasphemous statements about the Prophet Mohammad in a Whatsapp group.
Ms Yakubu, was a Home Economics student at Shehu Shagari College of Education in Wamako, Sokoto State.
According to Persecution watchdog Open Doors’ local sources, she posted a voice message in the group chat, saying "Jesus Christ is the greatest, He helped me pass my exams". She was reacting to a classmate’s posting of Islamic religious content in a school Whatsapp group chat created to discuss academic matters.
What she said was deemed “blasphemous”, Some witnesses even refused to repeat it to media. It was followed by death threats towards her from Muslim male students.
Nigeria is almost evenly divided between the largely Christian south and mainly Muslim north, where some states have adopted strict sharia laws, including death sentences for blasphemy.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), whose members include Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches as well as indigenous churches, said those responsible for killing Ms Yakubu in the northwestern state of Sokoto should be prosecuted.
"The unlawful and dastardly action of the perpetrators must not only be condemned by all right thinking people but the security operatives must fish them out, prosecute them as it is expected of them," Joseph Daramola, CAN general secretary said.
Video footage circulating on social media shows an unconscious and bloodied Ms Yakubu being stoned, beaten, and then immolated in a pile of tyres by a predominantly male mob who chanted “Allahu Akhbar,” and continued to stone her and fuel the flames.
In one of the videos a young man brandishing a box of matches claims responsibility for her murder, which he describes as good and justified. The college authorities had hidden Ms Yakubu in the campus security room following mounting threats to her life. However, her killers had dragged her out and burnt the building after killing her.
Witnesses said school security and police attempted to rescue the victim but were overwhelmed by the students.
Religious freedom charity Christian Solidarity Worlwide-Nigeria (CSWN) condemned the killing in a statement, writing: “The tragedy that should wake all people of good conscience in Nigeria is the fact that the stoning and burning happened within an academic environment that symbolises enlightenment, tolerance, and civilization. It should have been an environment that guaranteed her right to the secularity that the Nigerian constitution created for all. CSWN is worried that such a barbaric form of expression is gradually redefining the peaceful and harmonious culture of tolerance that the north is known for. And for such to stop happening, leaders must take the lead in sincerely addressing it so that Nigeria would continue to be home to all.”
Following her death the Sultanate Council of Sokoto state issued a statement in which it “condemned the incident in its entirety” and “urged the security agencies to bring perpetrators of this unjustifiable incident to justice.” The Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese Mathew Kukah also condemned the murder “in the strongest terms”, calling on the Sokoto state authorities to “ensure that all the culprits are brought to book. … This matter must be treated as a criminal act and the law must take its course.”
The management of Shehu Shagari College of Education issued a statement closing the establishment “with immediate effect, requiring all students to “vacate the college campus immediately.” Local police later announced the arrest of two students in connection with the murder, adding that others identified in videos would also “be nailed soon.”
However, Christian Solidarity Worldwide said local Christians have expressed doubts as to whether anyone will ultimately face prosecution for Ms Yakubu's death, as unproven blasphemy allegations directed at members of the Christian community in northern Nigeria generally result in mob violence and extrajudicial killings, with perpetrators enjoying impunity.
President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement there should be an impartial investigation and criticised those who took the law into their own hands.
"Violence has and never will solve any problem," he said.
Showing the religious and political sensitivities of the case, former vice president and presidential aspirant Atiku Abubakar, a Muslim, deleted his Twitter post condemning the incident.
Nigerians go to the polls next year to elect a new president, governors and parliamentarians. Abubakar is seeking the opposition ticket to run for president for the sixth time.
Reuters contributed to this report