Regarded as one of the bloodiest riots ever witnessed in Nigeria, the 2002 religious uprising in Northern Nigeria was sparked off by a ‘lighthearted’ comment in a newspaper article by a young, starry eyed, 21 year old reporter – Isioma Daniel.
But that wasn’t the first time a religious riot had broken out in Nigeria. The country has had more than her fair share of ethno-religious crisis – with an end result of carnage and destruction.
A few years before independence from Britain was achieved, Nigeria recorded an ethno-religious violence – which lasted for four years.
It was infamously called The Kano riot of 1953.
Then came the 1966 massacres that led to Nigerian-Biafra civil war. The 1970s and 80s witnessed the Maitatsine riots among several others that followed.
While sectarian crisis in Nigeria is often marked by ethnic or religious clashes – religion has been the cause of a vast majority of the crises – often setting Muslims against Christians, the two major religions in Nigeria.
Nigeria, at the time of the 2002 crisis, was working towards rebuilding her international image damaged by years of military rule and abuse of rule of law, with the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo, travelling around the world in an effort to refine the image of the country and boost diplomatic relations.
That same year, the attention of the world was drawn to Nigeria following the death sentence passed by a Sharia court (then in its nascent stage) on a woman, Amina Lawal, who was accused of adultery and conceiving outside marriage – in Katsina state.
She was to die by stoning, while the father of the child was freed by the same court due to lack of evidence.
The death sentence passed on this woman drew the ire of the international community and public commentators within and outside Nigeria, with many calling for the death sentence to be upturned.
At the time, Sharia law was fighting for acceptance in some Northern states of Nigeria. It was championed by the then Governor of Zamfara state, now Senator of the federal republic, Ahmad Sani Yerima and twelve states would go on to institute Sharia law.
Daniel – a recent graduate of journalism from the University of Central Lancashire, UK – armed with the priggish white knight attitude common in foreign trained journalist, had written an article on the 2002 Miss World Competition slated to take place in Nigeria that year.
On Friday, November 15, 2002 – Daniel penned a cover story for ThisDay, on the forthcoming Miss World Pageantry, wherein she wrote: “The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity. What would Mohammed think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them. The irony is that Algeria, an Islamic country, is one of the countries participating in the contest.”
The paragraph morphed into something neither Daniels nor anyone else, could have imagined.
To Christian readers, the words written by Daniel may have been ignored, even considered innocuous, perhaps immature, but it wasn’t so as Muslims in the country found the reference to Prophet Mohammed offensive and despicable.
Despite the retraction of the story by ThisDay and an apology printed on the front page of the newspaper, violent confrontations broke out in parts of the north and resulted in the burning of the ThisDay office in Kaduna state.
In the wake of this scandal, Nigeria was to host the Miss World competition – which Nigerian, Agbani Darego, had won the previous year.
Several contestants and individuals called for the event to be hosted by another country instead of Nigeria over the death sentence on Lawal – the woman accused of adultery.
Following the refusal of the show organizers to move the event to a different country, several contestants pulled out in protest.
While many would argue that Nigeria stood to gain a lot if she had hosted the Miss World Contest, however, not everyone was excited at the prospect of Nigeria hosting the competition, especially Muslims – with many of them kicking against the show on the basis that the competition encourages nudity and promiscuity.
Regardless of this, Nigeria was still the host of the international show. But things took a different and violent turn after the article was published.
The Kaduna riot which began as a peaceful demonstration before degenerating to violence – would see thousands injured, hundreds killed as well as the burning of several properties, including the campaign office of the then governor, Ahmed Mohammed Makarfi.
According to a 2002 Guardian UK feature story: “Almost no one in Kaduna – Muslim or Christian – seems to have read Daniel’s piece. Few have any knowledge of or opinion on Miss World. It was not until four days after the publication of the article that Kaduna’s furious Muslim mobs organised themselves.”
The article further alleged that Nigerian soldiers shot at the protest: “In the Baraub Dikki hospital, the wounded say the soldiers fired at random. Mohammed Shuiabu, 20, blood still seeping from a bullet wound in his belly, said: “Soldiers shouted at me to run away but then they shot me when I did.” He had never heard of Miss World.”
It should be noted that Daniel, at the time of the riot, lived in Lagos and had no known link to Kaduna state, where the riots occurred.
Daniel, thereafter, as the violence spiraled, fled the country to Benin Republic before being resettled in Norway – where The Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International helped her through the resettlement process.
The Miss World contest was eventually moved from Abuja to London.
On November, 27, the Zamfara state government through the deputy governor, Mamuda Aliyu Shinkaf, declared a fatwa on Daniel, saying: “Like Salman Rushdie, the blood of Isioma Daniel can be shed. It is abiding on all Muslims wherever they are to consider the killing of the writer as a religious duty.”
Despite this statement by Shinkafi, he went on to become the Governor of Zamfara state.
While the Nigerian government downplayed the fatwa issued on Daniel and the riot, the then President, Obasanjo, blamed it all on “irresponsible journalism.”
“What happened in Nigeria obviously could have happened at any time that such sensitive and irresponsible remarks are made, at a time like this -particularly at a time like this, in Nigeria,” Obasanjo had said.
While Samuel Rushdie (a British-Indian novelist whose 1988 book, The Satanic Verses, provoked protests around the world for ‘satirizing’ the Prophet) went on to earn him a British knighthood and a Booker award, Daniel’s career in her home country came to a unexpected end.
Daniel currently lives in an European country where she continues to work as a journalist for a local newspaper. Little is known about her now as she avoids the limelight and is believed to have assumed a new name.
In a 2003 article for the Guardian UK, Daniel while recounting her ordeal, wrote that: “On Thursday I nearly went to the office. The suburb had another indefinite power cut and I didn’t know what was happening. My phone rang. The voice said that riots had broken out in Kaduna and Muslims were killing Christians. People were trying to find me and I shouldn’t leave the house.”
“That night on national television the Sultan of Sokoto appealed for calm and peace. On the flip side, the minister for Abuja, Nigeria’s glossy capital, broke down in front of the camera, weeping that I had blasphemed the prophet.”
“Then on Friday, riots began in Abuja. We bought every newspaper. I listened to a radio announcement claiming that all those involved with the article would be brought to book. I turned off the radio. The need for normality was what I clung to. I chatted to my brother and sister as if nothing had happened. Yet I packed my bags because my father was convinced I couldn’t remain in Lagos. I got a call saying that state security wanted to see me. It wasn’t serious, just a routine check and I wouldn’t be arrested.”
Many argue that the riots were fueled by politicians, who capitalized on the unfortunate statement to score cheap political points and hopefully sway voters using religious and ethnic sentiments.
Nigeria is largely divided along ethno-religious lines, hence it isn’t surprising for politicians to take advantage of the situation, especially because 2003 was an election year.
There were reports of people shouting political slogans as well as carrying election posters during the riots and protests.
Because the Nigerian system is often perverse to academic inquiry and record keeping, those who engineered the 2002 riots may never be ascertained, however, religious fanaticism and over zealousness have been blamed for the crisis.
But considering the time lapse between the outbreak of the violence and the publication of the newspaper article by ThisDay, it is far more sensible to assume that the embers of religious flame (ever heated in Nigeria) was fanned by politicians who seized upon the opportunity to further their political ambitions – at the expense of human life, while hiding under the umbrella of Isioma Daniel’s lighthearted but questioning article.