As Fela Anikulapo Kuti once said, music is the weapon. But how harmful is it?
In Kano, Nigeria’s second most populous state, the authorities apparently consider songs very dangerous. For the second time over the last two months, a singer has been arrested for the content of his lyrics. In the first incident, on June 17, Mohammad Yusuf Yakasai, popularly known as A.G.Y. was arrested and accused of releasing a song and video without the approval of the Kano State Board and criminal defamation of Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje. Some of the song’s lyrics criticized Ganduje, who had been surreptitiously filmed numerous times apparently taking bribes from public works contractors. Here is one the videos circulating. (I would welcome questions or comments regarding its authenticity or translation of specific comments.)
Leading human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and PEN (Nigeria), as well as think tanks such as the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja and the Center for International Policy in Washington criticized the sentence and his year-long detention. Article 39 of the Federal Constitution states “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” I was honored to join the writer Wole Soyinka and the musician Femi Kuti in a letter calling for his unconditional release. The public pressure campaign worked, and he has been released.
In the second major incident in Kano, Yahaya Sherif Aminu was recently sentenced to death by hanging for insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a song he shared on WhatsApp. In the song, he praises an imam with the Tijaniya Muslim brotherhood. Salafi Muslims have often clashed with Tijaniya Sufi followers in Nigeria.
“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”Article 39, Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended
Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Jama’atu Ahlussunnah Lid Da’awati Wal Jihad (aka Boko Haram) quickly released a video where he condemned the singer’s right to appeal the sentence. “He should just be killed. If you really sentenced him, we should only hear that you slaughtered him,” says a report by Aliyu Dahiru Aliyu in HumAngle analyzing the broadcast. Shekau criticized Kano as a den of infidels that should not be mistaken for an Islamic state, since it practices democracy. The sentence, carried out by a Shari’a court, is complicated since the constitutionality of state laws passed in 1999 and 2000 that extended Shari’a to criminal law, rather than limiting it to civil affairs, have never been decisively ruled upon by the Supreme Court.
Article 10 of the Constitution states, in full, “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” The application of Shari’a law to civil matters stems from a political compromise dating back to the colonial era. During the drafting of the 1979 constitution, northerners famously walked out over the Shari’a issue and nearly derailed the transition to the Second Republic. David Laitin analyzed this in a classic article in The Journal of Modern African Studies, and I discussed the compromise, revisited in 1999, in my book, Dictators and Democracy in African Development.
A press statement by Amnesty International on August 13 called the sentence “a travesty of justice. There are serious concerns about the fairness of his trial; and the framing of the charges against him based on his Whatsapp messages. Furthermore the imposition of the death penalty following an unfair trial violates the right to life. Yahaya Sharif Aminu must be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Osai Ojigho, the Nigeria country director. Where does Mohammed Lai stand on Article 39? And how can Kano reconcile popular support for Shari’a (of some sort) with Article 10?