Nigeria: Teacher on Trial After Punishing Muslim Student

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

(Compass Direct News) -- A Christian high school teacher at Government College in Keffi, in the northern state of Nasarawa, is on trial for blasphemy after he disciplined a Muslim student.

Joshua Lai is standing trial at a Magistrate Court 2 in the state capital of Lafia on charges of blasphemy against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and for “public incitement, rioting, and mischief.” Following the June 12 incident, Muslim students attacked Christian students and teachers and burned four houses, including Lai’s home.

Alerted by Christian students of a plan by Muslim students to kill him that night, the teacher fled his home. After the ensuing rampage, authorities detained Lai at the Keffi police station before he was remanded to prison custody for eight days on orders of Gov. Alhaji Abdullahi Adamu.

An English and history teacher at the school, Lai said he was teaching English when a Muslim student in the class, Abdullahi Yusuf, arrived as he was finishing the lesson.

“I asked him where he was coming from when the lesson was already over, and he claimed he was coming from the mosque,” Lai said. “I said he could not be speaking the truth, as the Muslim time for morning prayers was far gone.”

Lai told him that, as a former Muslim, he knew that Muslims pray between 5:30 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., and that Yusuf had arrived around 9 a.m.

Lai then punished Yusuf according to custom – caning, used in both elementary and high schools in Nigeria – and allowed him into the class.

“I told him that his reasons were not tenable,” Lai said, “and repeatedly told him that there was time for everything, a time to serve God and a time to be in the class – that this is how it should be, or else his parents wouldn’t have sent him to school.”

Later that afternoon, Lai said, he was working on his private property after school hours when a student came and told him that the principal, Musa Gwadabe, wanted to see him. Lai went immediately to the principal’s office, who told him a committee wanted to meet with him.

“I went into the office where the committee was sitting and I discovered they were all my colleagues, teachers in the school,” he said. “They asked me what transpired between me and the Muslim student in the morning, and I told them precisely what took place. They responded by saying that what I told them was exactly the same as what the student said, except on one point – that he said I will flog the prophet Muhammad.”

Lai denied saying this. “I never mentioned the name of Muhammad, so I asked why was this allegation being made? The committee members told me that these Muslim students were dangerous, and I should be careful in the way I handled them.”

The teacher thanked the committee – Islamic teacher Alhaji Jibrin Ahmed, Joseph Baka, Godwin Luka, and two others – and left with the impression that the matter was over.

At about 10 that night, two Christian students went to his house on the school grounds to warn him of Muslim students’ plans to kill him; another Christian student had managed to infiltrate a meeting to learn about the impending attack.

“These two Christian students who came to my house advised me to leave immediately,” he said, “so my son and I had to leave the house that night and were taken in by a Christian family in the town.”

Muslim students burned down his house on the school grounds that night; the rampaging students also demolished his private house, which was still under construction. They also attacked Christian students.

Further Attacks

The Nasarawa state government, which runs the school, took no measures to contain the violence – though the governor’s house is fewer than 500 meters away from the school.

Christians at the school learned that the Muslim attackers intended to behead Lai and evacuated him to Abuja the next morning, June 13.

The following day, police in Keffi arrested Lai in Abuja. They took him to the Keffi police station, where after interrogation they coerced him into writing a statement about the incident. Lai had no lawyer.

On Friday, June 15, the Muslim students at the Keffi school again attacked Christian students. Removing their belongings from three dormitories where Christian students also lived, they set the residences on fire.

The homes of two Christian teachers in the school were also torched. A third house belonging to a Christian teacher was spared only when a Muslim teacher told the attacking students that if they set the house on fire, his also would be burned.

The Muslim students instead went into the house of the Christian teacher and looted it. Some items they were unable to take away, so they moved them out of the house and set them on fire.

Before the Governor

Gov. Adamu intervened only three days after the attacks.

The governor ordered the police to bring Lai to his private house in Keffi. Sitting on a settee, Lai said, Gov. Adamu interrogated Lai. “So, you are the one who has caused this problem?” governor asked.

“‘No Sir,’ I replied,” Lai said. “He then turned to the police officers who had taken me from my detention cell to his house and said, ‘Why did you bring him here in one piece? You can see he is saying “No” to me.’”

Gov. Adamu then ordered that Lai be taken to prison in Lafia. “I was taken back to the Keffi police station, where I was detained from that Friday to Monday morning, and then moved to the Criminal Investigation Department of the Nasarawa police command at Lafia. And again I was interrogated and made to write a statement,” Lai said.

He was detained at police headquarters for two more days before being arraigned at the Magistrate Court 2 in Lafia on June 20. Lai recalled asking the court, “How can I, a person who is a victim of riots by Muslims, be accused of incitement, rioting, and mischief?”

It was then that the court remanded Lai to prison custody for eight days before a lawyer applied for him to be granted bail. One condition of his bail is that he report to police in Abuja every two weeks.

Since the incident in June, he has received no salary. The school has also notified him not to return. Lai estimated damages to his private property at more than 1 million Naira (US$8,033).

“What has kept me going is the fact that I believe God has a purpose for allowing this to happen,” he said. “His comfort has been my strength.”

The June crisis was the second religious conflict that has engulfed Keffi Government College. The first happened more than 10 years ago, when the house of a Religious Knowledge teacher who was a Christian was set ablaze.

Nor were the school’s religious riots the first in Keffi. Two years ago, Muslim extremists threatened to kill Christian nurses in the town’s Federal Medical Centre, and the hospital administration banned the nurses from holding fellowship activities.

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