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Isioma Daniel: Blessings of a fatwa

Published in Punch, Nigeria, Thursday, 18 Sep 2008

Isioma Daniel. Remember her? She is the former THISDAY journalist whose article on the Miss World Beauty Pageant in 2002 sparked violence across the land, leaving about 200 persons dead, properties worth billions of naira destroyed, and the 98 beauty queens, who had arrived Nigeria for the competition, scampering out of the country for safety. The journalist herself had to hurriedly flee the country after a state governor declared that her blood should be spilled for disparaging Prophet Mohammad in her article.

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Our Correspondent

Isioma Daniel: Blessings of a fatwa

But six years down the line, the incident has turned out a blessing in disguise for Isioma. She now lives in total comfort in Norway where she has been granted asylum and is widely celebrated and regarded as a folk hero of some sorts. Even though she still feels bad that her article led to the needless killing of innocent people, Isioma appears to have put the incident behind her and is charting a fresh course for her life. Almost everybody in Norway, where she currently works as a journalist with Stavanger Aftenblad, a regional newspaper, and some other parts of Europe knows her story and consider her as a brave young woman who suffered substantially for daring to exercise her right to freedom of expression. Apart from being constantly interviewed on Norwegian radio and televisions and in newspapers, a beautiful 30-minute documentary, which was screened to participants at the just concluded Global Investigative Journalism Conference, has been made about her ordeal by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.

As Isioma, looking radiant and relaxed, spoke at the conference, where she drew a huge crowd and responded to endless enquiries during and after her presentation, it was clear that she had blended completely with her new environment and is not thinking about returning to her country. Even though she had no member of her family with her in that European country, she, now exceptionally fluent in the Norwegian language, had settled down fully, making new friends and forging new alliances. ”Since that incident, I had developed a strong aversion for my home country. I am not thinking of returning home because there is yet no guarantee that I can get the level of freedom I enjoy here,” she said in response to a question on whether she would ever return to Nigeria. ”May be I will think about coming home one day. But if Nigeria remains the same sexist and chauvinistic society that I know, I can‘t stay there.”

Isioma fled Nigeria six years ago in the heat of the sectarian carnage triggered by her article. In the piece, published in the 16 November 2002 edition of THISDAY, she made a comment considered blasphemous by a section of the Nigerian Muslim population. By the following week, her comments had led to clashes between angry Muslims and Christians in the north of the country, leaving several deaths and destruction in its wake. Reacting to the publication, the Zamfara State Government, which had then introduced Sharia, the strict Islamic legal system, declared a fatwa on her. Speaking through its then deputy governor, Alhaji Mahmud Shinkafi (who is now governor), the state government said the THISDAY journalist should be beheaded as a matter of religious duty.

Isioma was scared and shell shocked. Fearing for her life, she, aided by a human trafficker, crossed into neighbouring Benin Republic for refuge after she received a call from the State Security Service ordering her to report to their office. ”I could not honour the SSS invitation because I was not sure what would happen to me. I decided to hurriedly flee Nigeria,” the 27-year old journalist recalled.

But even in Benin, Isioma did not feel safe. She was apprehensive that people in Nigeria might soon get to know her whereabouts and that the disturbance might spread across the border into Benin Republic. So the United Nations High Commission for Refugee was contacted to intervene in her case. ”I must say that the UNCHR expedited action on my case and before a week, Norway had accepted me. I didn‘t want to come here but I was told that everybody in the country speaks English. And that was how I came here,” she said.

However, after arriving Norway, Isioma felt depressed and totally lost interest in religion. She did not understand the Norwegian language which is the major language of communication in that country. Also, it was difficult for her to accept her new status of a refugee. ”It was very painful that I had to abandon my life and family in Nigeria, losing a lot of self confidence in the process. But for the incident, I did not want to live outside Nigeria. My plan was to stay in my country and practised journalism. So, I felt seriously depressed and I kept blaming myself for all that happened.”

But before long, she realised that she had to shake off her gloom and get on with life. She learnt the Norwegian language fast and made new friends and acquaintances. One of her friends then persuaded her to get back into journalism, a profession she felt had terribly shattered her life. She agreed and gradually warmed back to her calling. She began to contribute articles to Stavanger Aftenblad, which became impressed with her performance and eventually hired her. ”I thank God that I am still alive and living in one of the best countries in the world. I have been able to build a new life for myself here and I am glad that things have worked out well. The incident is something I have put behind me. What I am interested in now is to give a new meaning to my life.”

But how does Isioma feel today that the article she wrote caused so many deaths and destruction? ?If I knew what I know today, I would not have written the way I did. At the time, I was inexperienced. I was only 21 and it was my first job. I was not accustomed to most aspects of Nigeria‘s culture, ?she explained. ” I left for Preston in England at 17 for a degree in journalism and only returned at 21. When I wrote the article, I did not see any trouble coming. It was a humorous stuff that I wrote though I felt many people might feel offended. But once my editor okayed it, I let it go. When the editor passed by later, he said it was okay, so I passed it on to the editorial desk.”

Now that she has realised that her article caused a lot of damage, will she apologise to those who felt offended? ”I don‘t think I have anything to apologise about,” she said sternly. ”I didn‘t kill anybody. I only made a joke. But I have learnt not to write again just to make a point.” In fact, rather than apologise, Isioma said she remained angry ”with the people who got so incensed over one little sentence and had to kill fellow human beings in anger.” She also said she felt disappointed that it took so long for many Nigerians to realise that what she wrote had to do with her freedom of expression.

But the Norway-based journalist is especially irritated with the way her former editor and newspaper related to her during and after the incident. ”I didn‘t get any support from my colleagues when this happened and my editor did not back me up either. He asked me why I hadn‘t written properly but he hadn‘t even read through the whole article before printing it. I clearly felt they needed a scapegoat in that situation.” Isioma also claimed that during that trying period, she tried several times to talk to her editor but that she was given a cold shoulder. She added that since she fled Nigeria, she had had no contact with both her former editor and newspaper.

Though she has found a new life in Norway, a hugely prosperous country of about 4.7 million people, Isioma said she is deeply missing her family back home in Nigeria. She said since she left her country six years ago, she had only met her mother and one of her brothers in New York last Easter while she had only kept in touch with other family members via telephone and e-mails. But the desire to reunite with her siblings appears not strong enough to pull her back to Nigeria. ”I haven‘t actually considered going back to Nigeria,” she declared.

And despite the severe pains that journalism had caused her, Isioma said she would stick to journalism wherever she is. ”The fact is once you are a journalist, you can‘t do anything else. I have a journalism degree and I must continue to use it,” she said, as she stroked her hair and laughed heartily.