…Recalls how her minders allegedly robbed her of rehabilitation funds from Vatican

This month marks exactly 18 years since a Sharia Court of Appeal in Sokoto State freed Safiya Husseini Tungar of the death penalty handed to her by a lower Sharia Court in the state. Before the respite from the Sharia Appeal Court, she had been convicted of adultery by the lower Sharia Court and was to be stoned to death after giving birth to and weaning her baby. OKORIE UGURU went on her trail to Tungar Tudu, her remote village in Gwadabawa Local Government Area, a few kilometres away from Nigeria’s border with the Niger Republic. The now 53-year-old grandma says her life has been a mixture of sadness and joy, but she has every cause to be thankful that she is alive.

Safiya Husseini. Remember her? She was the hapless divorcee a Sharia Court in Sokoto State sentenced to death by stoning on October 12, 2001, because she was found guilty of adultery. It was judgment that rattled the entire world leaders, groups and other individuals around the globe took turns to plead that the life of the then pregnant woman be spared.

Safiya, a native of Tungar Tudu in Gwadabawa Local Government Area of Sokoto State, had been sentenced to death for adultery by the Sharia Court because her pregnancy was said to have occurred outside wedlock. Her case was particularly celebrated because she was the first woman to be sentenced to death by stoning under the bug of Sharia Law that had bitten many states in the northern part of the country.

Although the court had ruled that her execution by stoning would come only after she had been delivered of and weaned the baby in her tummy, the entire world was alarmed because everyone was in the dark about the case until the judge pronounced the shocking judgment.

The reporter had sometime in November 2001 embarked on a journey to Sokoto State to explore the possibility of speaking with Safiya and getting more information about her conviction. The first challenge the reporter faced on getting to Sokoto was locating her lawyer. Surprisingly, the lawyer, when he was eventually located, knew next to nothing about Safiya’s whereabouts after her conviction.

According to the lawyer, the only contacts he had with Safiya occurred on the days they had court hearing, after which she would return to her Tungur Tudu village, off the international highway to Ilela, a border town between Nigeria and Niger.

Safiya had told the reporter, who was able to trace her to Tungar Tudu, that her pregnancy was a product of rape, further inflaming the global rage against her conviction. The question then was the whereabouts of the man that raped and impregnated her and why he was not charged to court like his hapless victim.  Women organisations, lawyers, religious bodies and other non-governmental groups all took up the fight to save Safiya from death.

Happily, on March 25, 2002, an Appeal Court in Sokoto upturned her death sentence and set her free. The Vatican offered her a brief stay and rehabilitated her. The Roman Catholic Church built a house for her and allegedly made provisions for her upkeep when she returned to Nigeria.

Exactly 18 years after, the reporter made another visit to Tungar Tudu to see how Safiya was faring.

Same old Tungar Tudu

Surprisingly, not much had changed about the dusty road that leads to Tungar Tudu when the reporter visited during the week. Eighteen years ago, vehicles only plied the road once in a week, which happened to be the day of the weekly Sokoto Market. The vehicles would go to Tungar Tudu to bring the villagers to the weekly market and take them back home when the market closed. That became their weekly contact with civilisation.

The only creatures one would meet on the way to Tungar Tudu were livestock, camels and cattle, and the situation was barely different during last week’s visit, except that the road was graded and was a bit wider than it was 18 years ago. It was also barely different in terms of vehicular traffic, save for one or two vehicles and motorcycles. The breeze from the Sahara Desert remained as strong as ever, virtually blowing the reporter and the rider off the motorbike.

Except for a few shiny corrugated iron roofs, development in the village was at a standstill. Safiya’s house was one of the few block buildings with corrugated iron roofs. A knock on the door of the outer room (shago) aroused response from a lady who answered and  turned out to be Safiya herself. Her face beamed with a smile as she sighted the reporter. She admitted that it had been many years since she saw the reporter’s face, but she could still recognise him, even though she wouldn’t remember the name.

Face to face with Safiya

Now 53, Safiya looked a different woman from the one the reporter had interacted with almost two decades earlier. Etched on her face were the strains of living in a dusty village removed from civilisation. The compound, a three or four-room apartment, was austere with little children playing around the vicinity.

A young lady, whose only face could be seen in her bukka dress, emerged from one of the rooms. Safiya smiled at her presence and asked the reporter: “You remember her? That is Adama. She was about two years old the first time you came. She got married about four years ago and gave birth some months ago. She stays in her husband’s house and comes occasionally to visit me.”

Adama, the baby Safiya was pregnant with when the Sharia Court ordered her death by stoning, was less than one year old the first time the reporter met her and her mother. As if to prove that her claims were not false, she (Safiya) called a child about seven years old and told her to bring Adama’s baby.

Adama herself was shy and unwilling to talk to a stranger. She was almost her mother’s height, dark complexioned with more pronounced Hausa features, unlike her mother who looks purely Fulani.  Adama went back into the room and refused to come out again.

Born in 2001, the Sharia Court’s judgment had been that her mother would to be stoned to death once she was weaned. But the then toddler is now a mother at the age of 19.

Adama, from all indications, has become more like her mother’s keeper, coming over to her mother’s house to check on her and to see how she is doing. Memories of the turbulent past are something she is probably trying to avoid.

The little girl returned carrying an infant on her back.

“That is Adama’s baby,” Safiya said proudly.

‘I’ve forgiven everyone’

For Safiya, it is a case of all is well that ends well. But there are things she would rather not talk about. Once her minders during those challenging periods were mentioned, her countenance changed.

She believes things might have turned out differently if her minders had been more sincere with her. But she says she holds no grudge against anybody over her travails. She said she would rather move on with her life, particularly now that she is a grandmother.

Asked about her minders and other people who had surrounded her while the case raged, she said: “None! I don’t see anybody now. It is only me and my children.”

She said some of them took advantage of her lack of education and refused to hand over what the Vatican made available for her rehabilitation. She recalled making several trips to Sokoto to get the documents that would enable her collect what she got as help from different individuals and organisations, especially the Vatican, but was denied by one of them.

She said: “I went there several times. Whenever I went there, I would tell him, ‘You’ve cheated me. I was handed over to you. You made money, built your house, had cars and other things while you were representing my interest. Why would you cheat me? I have begged you in the name of Allah and His prophet. I also used my mother’s name. Please return my documents that was prepared for me from Vatican.’

“He knew the details of the money were in the documents because I had given him those documents when we returned from Rome. He denied; he said I didn’t give him any document. I asked him, ‘Between you and Allah, are you saying I didn’t give you any document?’ He didn’t say anything.

“He built a house with the money immediately we returned from Rome. I asked him three times. After I pleaded with him in the name of Allah and he refused to bring out my documents, I told him that I was tired of travelling back and forth to Sokoto because of my money. I had to even borrow money to come here.

“You see, I have not been lucky in marriage, but right from my childhood, I have never been stubborn. You see, in the whole of this Sokoto, anybody that cheats me, because of this unfortunate issue that I found myself in, I am asking Allah to avenge me on those who  cheated me.

“He didn’t say any other thing apart from looking at me in the face to say, ‘May Allah do according to your words.’

“He said I should enter the car (he had also bought a car) so that he would drop me at the park.  We came back.

“Less than two months after that, I didn’t know that he had paid for a seat to Hajj. He had even promised me in front of my mother that he would take me to Mecca. I told him if I am saying the truth, you would see what would happen. Allah is not human; He sees everything.

“Two months after, Basiru, a boy who had accompanied me to Sokoto, asked me whether I knew that the fellow paid for a seat to go to Hajj. I said I didn’t know and that the last time we met, we parted on a sour note and I refused to go back there.

“Bashiru told me that the fellow paid for a seat to Mecca, but unfortunately, the day he arrived at Jeddah, Allah decreed it was his last. He died that day.”

But it is not all tales of woe for Safiya. Whenever she talks about Adama, her daughter, her face beams with a smile. At 19 years, Adama is fully settled in her husband’s house.

It was obvious that Adama herself did not have much of education. She got married in 2016 at the age of 15 years. Her baby girl is just some few months old. She gave birth almost four years after her marriage.

According to Safiya, Adama got married to somebody from the family of her father.