A 21st-century stoning in Nigeria

Students at the Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto, Nigeria, have a WhatsApp group to coordinate their coursework with activities. Like WhatsApp groups everywhere, not everyone sticks to the topic at hand. 

On a Thursday morning earlier this month, Deborah Samuel, a 22-year-old economics student, had had enough. In a voice note, she told people to stop posting “religious stuff. The group wasn’t created for that,” she said. 

Later that morning, she was dead; clubbed and stoned to death by fellow students on the college’s grounds, who accused her of blasphemy.

Her death epitomises some of modern Nigeria’s most glaring fault lines.

Samuel, a Christian, lived and studied in Sokoto, a predominantly Muslim city in the far north. Ahead of next year’s elections, politicians from both sides are fanning these flames for their own ends.

Samuel had phoned her father to tell him that she was in danger. She was locked inside a room on campus, with an angry mob forming outside. He phoned the police, who eventually responded in force. But they failed to disperse the mob and in the end, watched as Samuel was murdered.

In the absence of effective law and order, citizens tend to take matters into their own hands. Sometimes, this means that people band together to effectively police themselves and enforce the law. Sometimes, this means that innocent people are summarily executed.

Samuel’s death was captured on video. It was shared on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp. 

The killing was all that Nigerian social media could talk about. Samuel was an apostate who deserved it, or an accidental martyr. Her killers are the worst of humanity, or heroes of the faith. Some religious leaders called for peace; others for revenge. New videos emerged, “proving” the culpability of one side or another — these were mostly faked or unrelated.

For Ayodeji Rotinwa, the Abuja-based deputy editor of African Arguments, it all got to be too much. 

For his own sanity, he decided to switch off for a few days. One evening last week, he was halfway through the Disney classic Aladdin when his phone started buzzing. 

“Have you seen this?” his friends were asking.

Rotinwa’s photograph had been posted online next to a screenshot of a Facebook post. The post, written by a “Dr Christopher Uche-Ayodeji”, read: “I think my three months’ service in the north before I left for the UK was just so fun because I literally allowed the northern Muslims to die under my care as a doctor. I wasn’t even bothered because I know they don’t value human life.”

Rotinwa does not know how his photograph came to be associated with this post. 

But the damage was done: there were dozens of furious posts on Twitter and Facebook calling for action to be taken against the “killer doctor”.

Rotinwa panicked. “People have died for less. Deborah Samuel died for less,” he said. 

He packed his bags and moved to the home of a sympathetic acquaintance. A few days later, he left the country. 

There is no such person as Dr Christopher Uche-Ayodeji. The most likely explanation for the inflammatory post is that it is a sophisticated piece of disinformation, designed to deflect criticism from the perpetrators of Samuel’s murder.

Uche is an Igbo name, while Ayodeji is Yoruba and seems carefully calibrated to inflame Nigeria’s geographic and ethnic divides.

“Someone chose to create the fake Facebook profile with an Igbo-Yoruba name, knowing that it could lead to the rejection, or worse, of southern doctors in northern Nigeria,” said Rosemary Ajayi, research director at the Digital Africa Research Lab.

Once alerted, Facebook deleted the posts with Rotinwa’s photograph within minutes and also removed the video of Samuel’s murder.

Twitter was much slower, taking up to 30 hours to acknowledge the misidentification of Rotinwa and begin taking down posts. The video of Samuel’s murder can still be viewed.

“There ought to be consequences for the people posting this nonsense as well as companies that repeatedly fail to act proactively and swiftly to counter them,” said Ajayi.

Back in the real world, there have been few consequences for the men who murdered Samuel, who bragged of their culpability on camera. Only two people have been arrested.

On Saturday, a crowd of several hundred people gathered outside the palace of the Sultan of Sokoto to demand the release of the alleged killers.

The protest was live-streamed, and fuelled another vicious cycle of online hate speech and disinformation — all of which serves only to exacerbate divisions, and make another Deborah Samuel even more likely. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison, The Continent
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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