The Miss World Beauty Pageant

Nigeria: Beauty Turns Ugly

This Day, Nigeria
An article from Lagos' This Day sparked bloody riots in Nigeria and forced the journalist responsible to flee for her life (Photo: AFP).

The trouble started brewing almost as soon as it was announced that the 2002 Miss World contest would be held in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. In Nigeria, a country already sharply divided between a Muslim-dominated north and a mostly Christian south, Western values and Islamic fundamentalism were suddenly put on a direct collision course.

For a start, there was the fact that a beauty pageant featuring swimwear modeling had been slated to take place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan—a piece of scheduling that many of the country’s Muslims saw as insensitive at best and, at worst, as a direct insult to their faith. Then came the issue of Amina Lawal, sentenced to a stoning death for alleged adultery by an Islamic Shariah court in northern Nigeria’s Katsina state. With several beauty queens threatening to boycott the pageant in support of Lawal, it seemed the stage was set for conflict.

But these factors notwithstanding, few people could have predicted what would happen when an article by 22-year-old reporter Isioma Daniel in This Day (Nov. 16) asked what the Prophet Muhammad would have thought of the beauty queens. “In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them,” Daniel answered, drawing outraged protests from Muslim groups across the nation.

One statement, issued by the Muslim group Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), called for the cancellation of the Miss World pageant, the closure of This Day, and the prosecution of the newspaper’s owners and Daniel, warning that “failure by government to take this action will clearly signal to the Muslims of this country and the world at large that the Miss World contest was planned in Nigeria to insult Muslims.”

This Day issued an apology in its Nov. 18 edition, but it was too late: On the same day, gangs of Muslim youths responded to their leaders’ calls for action by taking to the streets of Kaduna, burning This Day’s regional office and attacking and killing Christian bystanders in a stunning display of violence. Before the week was over, dozens of hotels and churches in Kaduna had been burned, at least 200 people were dead, hundreds more were injured, and thousands had been displaced as they fled their homes in fear for their lives.

In the week following, the pages of This Day overflowed with contrition. A second apology on Nov. 21 called Daniel’s comment “not only unjustified but utterly provocative,” and a Nov. 22 editorial gave a list of the paper’s Muslim staff members. Still, some Muslims remained unmoved. On Nov. 26, three days after it was announced that the Miss World pageant would move to London, the deputy governor of the northern state of Zamfara issued a fatwa against Daniel, saying, “Just like the blasphemous Indian writer Salman Rushdie, the blood of Isioma Daniel can be shed.”

Despite this apparent attack on press freedom, few commentators in the Nigerian press rushed to Daniel’s defense. A typical reaction came from Sam Nda-Isaiah in the Daily Trust (Nov. 25), who blasted Daniel’s article as “irresponsible and thoughtless” while also condemning the rioters for “[wanting] to kill a Christian about a This Day publication that he (the Christian) probably knows nothing about.”

Daniel “has learnt the hard way what Nigeria is and what it is not,” wrote Dr. Aliyu Tilde in the Weekly Trust (Nov. 29). Tilde concluded that “the newspaper knows the best way to punish her,” and cautioned that “the sincerity of [This Day’s] apology can only be judged by the measure it takes regarding the reporter”—a seemingly redundant piece of advice given that Daniel had resigned her job and fled the country.

While several of Nigeria’s prominent Muslim organizations were quick to join the federal government in overturning the fatwa, on Dec. 3, Agence France-Presse reported that a group going by the name of the Movement Against Attack on Prophet Muhammad had sent a letter to the offices of This Day in which it threatened to kill 16 of the paper’s journalists by cutting off their heads or limbs.

The Kaduna violence was the latest in a long line of ethnic and religious riots in Nigeria, which has become an especially divided nation since several northern states adopted Shariah law in 2000. Writing in The News (Dec. 9), Richard Elesho called the Miss World contest “just a tinderbox needed to spark off violence of a large-scale proportion in a tired conjugal relationship between the north and the south.”

But others found some hope in Nigeria’s transition from the 1993-98 military dictatorship of Sani Abacha to the current democratic state presided over by President Olusegun Obasanjo. “Had Abacha been in power today…he would have come down heavily on the newspaper; withdrawn its license, and suppressed whatever revolt the article and its context had ignited,” wrote Mathatha Tsedu in Johannesburg’s Sunday Times (Nov. 24).

The latest wave of violence also occasioned some soul-searching editorials in the Nigerian press by moderate Muslims, who urged their more radical brethren to reflect on the moral issues at stake.

“The violent reaction in Kaduna…cannot in all honesty be said to be in the defense or advancement of Islam, especially in the holy month of Ramadan,” wrote Mikail Mumuni in Tell magazine (Dec. 9). “The imams need to do more in calling their followers to the true path of Islam.”

Writing in This Day on Dec. 6, Muslim commentator Kayode Ogunbunmi addressed the rioters directly, saying, “No sirs, you are not my spokesmen.” Ogunbunmi concluded, “It is time Muslims in Nigeria speak up.…I think our leaders must ponder on which act gave the faith a bad name—the forgettable article published in This Day or the orgy of destruction and mayhem some religious leaders engineered.”