On blasphemy and the economy

Below is a part of my column in BusinessDay today. If you want to read the full thing, click on the link and just pay them small. It’s only like ₦1000 ($2.11) each month.

Nigeria runs three criminal legal systems, the Criminal Code, the Penal Code and Sharia. These contradictions are pulling the country in different directions. The lack of central identity has served to dampen any attempt to forge nationhood. Nigeria’s foundation was steeped in violence and the setting up of its armed forces was hinged on the need to coerce indigenous people to bend to the will of the colonialists. But what is even more troubling is the formation of a country that has a largely Muslim conservative north and a somewhat socially liberal Christian South.

With each passing flare up the belief that Nigeria is united and indivisible is tested and stretched thin. The recent uproar following the sentencing to death of a singer in Kano on account of alleged blasphemy is yet another flashpoint. Last week the Kano Upper Shari’a Court sentenced 22-year-old Yahaya Sharif to death by hanging. I expect that Sharif will appeal and win at the secular courts, but the damage has been done.

The damage was in the deep ethno-religious blowback that followed. In the North, there was vocal support for the sentence, in the South, the verdict was roundly condemned, showing that mistrust is high. We may as well be two different countries.

Northern Nigeria has seen some of the worst riots with religious undertones. In 2002, an attempt to hold the annual Miss World event in Nigeria led to a riot in some northern cities that claimed at least 200 lives between 20–23 November. Two years earlier, Kaduna had already seen violent Christian-Muslim clashes. Many inhabitants had a strong sense of injustice because none of the perpetrators had been prosecuted afterwards. Moreover, the riots had caused Christians and Muslims to concentrate and isolate themselves in separate districts.

While these are pointers to a deeply divided state yet to attain nationhood, we need to ask ourselves why it is mostly the South who take on liberal causes. Protests both online and offline about injustice and bad governance have been largely done in the South. The kidnap of about 200 girls in Chibok, Borno state by Boko Haram in 2014 led to massive protests that began in Southern cities. In the case of Sharif, most people leading the outrage on social media against the judgement are Southerners. There have been some prominent Northern Muslims who have spoken up against the sentencing, and they have been subjected to violent threats as well. The existence of these moderate Muslim Northerners proves that the North is not a monolithic murderous empire.

Next year, Nigeria would sit atop lists of the worst place to do business, or the worst place in terms of security, or worst place for human rights and the rule of law, and people will wonder how it happened and claim that the lists are not well researched, or racist. But consider, if you were a non-Nigerian investor, and you hear that someone is being killed for expressing an opinion, would you want to come and invest in such a country?

When foreigners ask questions about risk in Nigeria, they ask questions about gangs of people going to burn down a man’s house because of his opinions, bandits operating with impunity, and an Islamist insurgency in which the government punishes people who protest, and grants amnesty to people who take up arms against the state. And they don’t ask localised questions, they ask about NIGERIA.

These kinds of things raise Nigeria’s security premium, because in simple terms the more risk you factor into a place, the larger the amount you spend on mitigating that risk, which in turn affects the cost of doing business. At a point, it becomes clear that any perceived profits are not worth the aggravation of these ridiculously high costs, and when you throw in the fact that the long-delayed unemployment data shows that Nigeria’s real market is not more than 50 million people, then investors begin to move away from Abuja/Lagos to places such as Accra, Kigali and Nairobi.