Nigerians were outraged on May 12, 2022, when a video circulated on social media of a lifeless young girl lying on the ground, while some irate youths hit her continuously with stones and sticks before setting her corpse ablaze.
The victim was later identified as Deborah Samuel, a second-year student of Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto, Northern Nigeria. She was a Christian student studying Social Studies with hopes of becoming a teacher.
According to media reports, she was alleged to have blasphemed the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad SAW, while reacting to a post on the messaging platform WhatsApp, created for her class as a means of reaching the entire group at the same time. A Crowdtangle search on Deborah showed that her story generated 1,900 posts on Facebook from May 13, 2022 to May 11, 2023. The posts also got about 236,956 public interactions–one of the few public incidents to have received such national and international attention.
THE WHISTLER traveled to Sokoto to investigate her death and that of Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, a school teacher who was similarly killed by a mob in Government Day Secondary School, Gandu, Gombe State, for allegedly blaspheming Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). THE WHISTLER was also in Gombe to speak to eyewitnesses to the tragedy.
It took two days to find Deborah’s classmates in Sokoto because the school was on holiday when THE WHISTLER visited. Three of her classmates with intimate knowledge of the tragedy that occurred agreed to speak to our correspondent after a long process of persuasion. They said the tragedy was still fresh in the minds of the people and they were afraid to reopen the wounds.
All the three students gave similar accounts of the incident that led to Deborah’s death. The Department of Social Studies had a WhatsApp group all students belong to. But on Fridays, Muslim students usually share religious messages and prayers on the forum which also had Christian students. This was a form of felicitating with fellow Muslim faithfuls on a day considered one of the holiest days of the week.
On the day of the incident, Deborah allegedly challenged her Muslim colleagues for posting about Prophet Muhammad in the group. Abdulrahman Salisu, one of her coursemates who’s now in year three, explained what led to the tragedy.
“She said some things that were not ok at all. What she said, even her roommates that were Christians cautioned her. They told her that what she did was not proper. They even said, ‘you know if you step on them they won’t let go, if you have done this to us (Christians), you know there won’t be any issue raised, but since it’s their prophet that you insulted, you should count us out of it.’ But she repeated her words, saying “‘”he is a bastard, what can they do to me?”””
“So, since it was a public group she made that utterance on, there were many students who saw what she posted. As soon as she came out of the exam hall (her paper was 8-10am while mine was 10-12 pm) some students pointed at her saying, ‘this was the lady that made the utterance, let’s take her to the school authority!’
“So, Deborah ran into the hostel and the students followed her. Then, I was in the hostel and I came out running. The lady that was even holding Deborah, helping her run was also attacked, she advised other students that the matter should be taken to the school authority so that whatever can be done to her will be done by the school, but she too was struck with an iron by another student as she attempted leading Deborah to the school authority, away from the hostel.
“There, in front of the school’s administrative building, the authorities stopped everyone from touching her, but when the students noticed that the school authority was not ready to bring her out anytime soon, they forcefully removed the door and set the building on fire. That was when she was now brought out and killed.”
Another student from the same SOS department as Deborah (now in NCE 3), Mariam Lawal corroborated the account of what happened. She said, “It happened during the exam period. We had just started the exams and had written only two papers, we were preparing to write the 3rd one the following morning, so it was that following morning that this incident occurred.
“It all started on a departmental group created on WhatsApp, where information was passed, the group was helpful especially for those who may not go to school on certain days, so they can easily access information such as assignments and the likes; so one of us sent in a prayer of success for the exams, saying; ‘Allah please give us success over this exams’, but she (Deborah) was not happy with the post and made a comment about it.
“The guy asked her why she would pass such a comment, and she replied that she had passed the comment and let him do whatever he wished to do. She said she didn’t care. The rest of the group members were trying to calm her down but she was already talking, saying so many things which aggravated the situation and angered Muslim students.”
Ayuba Lauwali, a male classmate who witnessed the killing of Deborah, said he was in class waiting to write his 12pm exam when suddenly he heard loud voices.
“I saw people throwing stones and someone in the class said armed robbers had invaded our school, but when we went out, we discovered that it was not robbery. We noticed that students were throwing stones at a particular lady.
“I went there myself and asked, ‘Please what’s happening that people are throwing stones?’ Then I was told that a lady had blasphemed the prophet Muhammad; the word she used was undesirable to hear.
“There was a large crowd stoning her. Then policemen came and tried to calm the situation, but as they shot warning shots into the sky, the crowd too threw stones at them. Finally, they were able to save her. They went through Ali Shinkafi and went towards the gate with her.
“At this juncture, we the students believed they took her outside the gate and believed it was over, but suddenly, one of the female students said ‘it’s a lie, she has not been taken out, check this particular office’.
“The crowd charged towards the office, scaled through the fence and broke down the door, unaware that there were two DSS operatives in there hiding Deborah behind them.
“They started throwing stones at the building and succeeded in bringing down one side of the building, then we saw some Mobile Police Officers (MOPOLs) trooping in, they started shooting into the air to scare off the crowd, but soon after they realised it was an overwhelming crowd.
“They told us that they will not shoot us inside the school, but if we dare go outside the school premises, they will shoot. But students continued hauling stones at them. I still remember seeing how a particular MOPOL was hit with a stone and he fell to the ground with his gun.
“Deborah tried to run to save herself, but stones and sticks were hauled at her until she slumped and died. They brought a container with fuel together with a motorcycle close by, dropped three car tires on her, before spilling the fuel and setting her ablaze on fire.
“After she was set ablaze, military men arrived at the scene and started shooting. So, these are the things I can testify that happened in my presence.”
Deborah’s Father Disagrees
Emmanuel Garba Yakubu, late Deborah’s father who lived in Rijau Local Government in Niger State, during the time of the incident, spoke to THE WHISTLER on the telephone and gave a different account of his daughter’s death.
According to him, the issue started when Deborah and her classmates traveled for a “course” in Kaduna and she took the first position, then her classmates allegedly decided she would not travel back with them because she was a pagan.
He said, “What some people told me happened to my daughter is that Deborah insulted their prophet, and I asked, where is her phone to enable us know how she committed the offence? Left to me, her phone will enable us to hear the conversation that took place. Can one person communicate on the phone alone? It must be two people right? I went and investigated this issue but it was not like that.
“All I know is that it started when Debo went for a course in Kaduna, then she called and said, ‘Dad, these people (from my school) said they will not come back with me because I’m a pagan.
“I now said ‘Debo, let me send you transport fare to board another vehicle,’ so she boarded another vehicle and went back to school.
“But as soon as she came back (to her hostel), she met them waiting, ready to kill her. They had already piled stones and sticks ready to kill her.”
According to the bereaved father, the killers asked the other students in Deborah’s room to identify their religion, but Deborah stood her ground and insisted that she will not deny her identity as a Christian. Even when they killed her, they kept throwing stones at her dead body before they set her on fire.
“They were lying, she did not insult any prophet. Her phone up till now we didn’t see it. Since they say she made the insult through the phone, let’s see the phone and know if they are right.
“This problem was between her, her lecturers and fellow students. Isn’t it the lecturers that will take them for this course in Kaduna? Can students go for a course without their lecturers?”
Maryam Lawal, her hostel mate who described Deborah as a friendly and amiable person, however disagreed with her father’s account of the tragedy.
She said, “I was on the same level with her (NCE 2) and we lived in the same female hotel, sharing the same block. In each room in the hostel, only 3 to 4 persons are meant to stay.
“We were also from the same department, SOS. We usually bump into each other. But Deborah was studying Home Economics, but in the same department, SOS.
“The school doesn’t take us outside for any course, but those that study Hausa and some other courses are sometimes taken to Niger, Zaria, Kaduna, but because of insecurity, the school no longer takes students far away from the school. Every course is studied here in Sokoto.”
The Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Shehu Shagari College Of Education, Sani Garba, also confirmed to THE WHISTLER that the school never went for any course. “There was nothing like that about travelling to Kaduna, but I was told that they do go out for excursions within the state, not outside the state,” he said.
– This story was produced with the support of the International Center for Journalists( ICFJ) in partnership with Code for Africa.