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Murder of Nigerian Student Over Alleged Blasphemy Triggers Protests, Curfew

A man rides a motorbike taxi past police vehicles at the entrance of Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto, Nigeria, May 13, 2022.

Authorities in Nigeria’s Sokoto state are enforcing a 24-hour curfew, imposed Saturday to quell protests demanding the release of suspects in the killing of college student Deborah Yakubu. Yakubu was beaten and burned by fellow students Thursday for alleged blasphemous comments about the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in a WhatsApp group.

The curfew imposed by state authorities held firm Sunday. Major streets in Sokoto state were calm and deserted. Churches and businesses were also closed.

Police and military patrols were on the streets to enforce the curfew.

The curfew followed Saturday’s protests at which hundreds of residents demanded the release of two suspects arrested by the police the day before in connection with the murder of Yakubu.

The protesters attacked two Catholic churches, destroyed vehicles and damaged many shops in the metropolis before security officials dispersed them with tear gas.

Yakubu was a 200-level student of the Shehu Shagari College of Education. She was stoned to death and her body was burned near the school Thursday amid accusations of blasphemy by fellow students.

The killing has since been criticized by many religious and rights groups, including Amnesty International which described the incident as "sad and very disturbing."

It highlights division along religious lines in Africa’s most populous country, which strikes a delicate balance between its Christian and Muslim populations.

"When impunity continues in a country, you'll definitely see a repeat of such crimes or acts and conducts," said Seun Bakare, an Amnesty International spokesperson. “This is not the first time that we've read or heard that things like this continue to happen in the 21st century."

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has strongly condemned the murder of Yakubu and demanded an impartial probe into her death.

Yakubu was buried Saturday in her hometown of Tunga Magajiya in Nigeria's Central Niger state.

But security intelligence groups are warning of a possible spike in violence across many more northern states.

Authorities in faraway Kaduna State prohibited protests in relation to religious activities Saturday to prevent the violence from escalating.

On Sunday, the security consulting group EONS Intelligence warned of possible protests in northeastern Borno state over another alleged blasphemous comment posted on Facebook. The group advised residents to avoid travel within the state.

Martin Obono, a human rights lawyer, faults the Nigerian penal code which criminalizes blasphemy.

"One of the things causing religious crisis in Nigeria is the fact that people feel that blasphemy is a criminal offense, and they also feel like the law is slower to take its cause,” he said. “If we expunge that from our laws, people will begin to think and realize that Nigeria is a secular state and people have the freedom to express themselves."

Nigeria’s secular law punishes blasphemy by up to two years in prison under the section known as religious insult.

But in the north, where a more conservative population favors the religious or Sharia law, blasphemy is punishable by death.