Five Nigerian states consider imposing Islamic law

LAGOS, Nigeria, 19 October, 1999 (Newsroom) -- Five of
Nigeria's 36 states have implemented Sharia, or Islamic law, or
are attempting to do so in a move that Christians and some
Muslims fear will lead to the return of oppressive regimes they
hoped had vanished when democracy was restored in May.

Sharia regulates all public and private behavior of Muslims,
such as inheritance, marriage, personal hygiene, diet, sexual
conduct, and child-rearing. It sets rules for prayers, fasting, and
giving to the poor. It prescribes punishments, such as public
flogging, amputation, beheading, and stoning to death.

Of the five northern states, Zamfara's House of Assembly
approved legislation establishing Sharia on October 8; the law
takes effect October 27. The Katsina House of Assembly has
indicated it soon will do the same. Sokoto and Yobe state
governors are considering similar moves. In Kano, Islamic
laws are in effect although no legislation permits them.
Nigeria's constitution establishes a secular federal government.

Africa's most populous country is almost evenly divided
between Christians and Muslims. The southern part of the
country is predominantly Christian, while Muslims dominate in
the north.

The campaign to establish Sharia dates back to
preindependence days in 1960. Debates on the issue while
constitutions were drafted usually degenerated into
controversy, however. Today, influential Muslim groups such
as the Council of Ulama, a group of Islamic scholars based in
the north, and the Izala Islamic sects are championing the
campaign to Islamize the northern region of the country.

The Nigerian Constitution allows the establishment of Sharia
courts of appeal in any state. The courts have jurisdiction over
Muslims -- but not non-Muslims -- in civil proceedings.
Although section 10 of the federal constitution prohibits the
adoption of any religion as state religion, section 38 guarantees
freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

If Sharia is enforced, opponents fear that Islamic education will
be forced on everyone, and the rights of non-Muslims --
including freedom of religion -- will be restricted. "We see that
the implementation of Sharia in Zamfara will be inimical to
peace, law, and order in the state," said the Rev. Peter Danbo,
Zamfara State chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria

Christians and some Muslims in Zamfara worry about the
impact of Governor Ahmed Yerimah Sani's declaration of an
Islamic state. In a written statement the Northern Christian
Elders Forum called for Sani to explain how he will protect
religious minorities in Zamfara: "The Forum would like to ask
His Excellency what he intends to do with those parts of his
state that do not embrace his Islamic faith."

The chairman of the northern region of CAN asked the federal
government earlier this month to declare the promulgation of
Sharia in Zamfara State unconstitutional. The association noted
that Sani's action "may cause religious and political upheavals
in the country."

"We call on the federal government and security agencies to
watch this trend in Zamfara, which is a conspiratorial
arrangement to cause confusion in the country using religion as
a political instrument," Archbishop Peter Jatau said at a press
conference in Kaduna on October 13. The federal government
has not responded so far.

Meanwhile, the Christian and Moslem Youths in Northern
Nigeria accused advocates of Islamic states in northern Nigeria
of being insincere. "Those calling for Islamic states in northern
Nigeria are those that have woefully failed to establish schools
or offered scholarship to our youths to study Islamic Religious
Knowledge," the youth group said in a statement signed by
Sani Shehu Dan-Izala.

Bowing to pressures from Islamic militants, governors of the
affected states have claimed they are bound by the wishes of
the majority of their citizens. "The government decided to
introduce Sharia law to serve the interest of the Muslim
community," which forms almost 99 percent of the population
of the state," said Sani, Zamfara state governor. Zamfara,
which is almost entirely Muslim, was carved out of the former
Sokoto State, which is the headquarters of Islam in the north.
The Christian Association of Nigeria disagrees that 99 percent
of the population is Muslim and contends that the governor has
no formal survey or census on which to base that claim.

Nigerian media reported that Sheikh Umar Kano, chairman of
the Ulama in Kano, told state Governor Alhaji Rabiu
Kwankwaso that there will never be peace until Kano is
declared an Islamic state.

Although Muslim leaders continue to push the Islamization of
the north, some say they are concerned about how that is
implemented. Sheik Ibrahim Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic
movement in Nigeria who has championed the adoption of the
Islamic system of government, believes that Sharia could be
abused by the states. "If you have Sharia law, in the course of
administering law, it may be an instrument which could be
misused," Zakzaky said. "It might be a sort of instrument to be
used to oppress others."

Another Islamic scholar in Kano, Sheikh Ismail Abe, argued
that it would be wrong for Sharia to be introduced without the
consent of non-Muslims in their states. "It is un-Islamic for
anybody, group, organization or governments to enforce any
law particularly Islamic law in any area without seeking the
agreement of other non-Muslims living in the area," he said.

Although Christians and non-Muslims have been assured
repeatedly that Sharia would not affect them, indications are
that government policies would be influenced by Islamic
principles to the detriment of non-Muslims. For example, in
some northern states non-Muslim children may not attend
government-run schools.

In Zamfara, Sani has revoked liquor licenses to hotels, beer
parlors, off-license establishments and liquor businesses. So far
it does not appear that the ruling applies to churches that serve
wine during communion. After October 27 any Muslim who
breaks the law will be prosecuted in an Islamic court, while
non-Muslims will be tried in common law courts.

The government in Kano State has directed all private schools
to employ at least one instructor of the Arabic language.
Previously only government-run schools were required to
employ at least one Arabic teacher.

Christian churches in Zamfara have been demolished and
permits for new houses of worship denied. "We have received a
lot of humiliation here as Christians, especially my church,
Winners Chapel," said Dr. Christina Ochiafi, a church elder.
"Our church was bulldozed last year and sometime last month
again, after erecting a new structure, it has been marked to be
pulled down."

The governor has indicated his intention to reduce further the
number of worship centers, Christian and Muslim alike. "I am
going to impose serious restrictions on both mosques and
churches in the state," Sani said. "There will be a law which
will stipulate a specific number of places of worship in a given

The state government has recruited an army of Muslim youths
known as Soldiers of Islam to enforce the law. There are fears
that jungle justice would be the order of the day in the attempt
by the usually fanatical youth to enforce the law. "We are well
informed of the state government's clandestine military training
it is giving to a large number of Muslim youth who will be
used to force non-Muslims to bow to Islam," Danbo said. "The
question being asked in the state is whether the governor will
be able to control the excesses of the practitioners, especially
the youths who are going to enforce it," observed Bodunrin
Beckley, a Zamfara journalist.

President Olusegun Obasanjo may be powerless to stop the
spread of Sharia under the existing constitution. However, the
National Assembly could invalidate any state law it deems
inconsistent with the constitution. That seems unlikely as one
state house of assembly has approved the actions. Observers
say that only a breakdown of order could move the federal
government to intervene.

Neither Obasanjo nor any government official has addressed
the matter. Tive Denedo, campaign secretary of Media Rights
Agenda, a media-based rights group, notes that "except there is
a breakdown of law and order when the federal government is
empowered to declare a state of emergency in a state, it cannot
interfere in the affairs of a state."

Christians in the affected states, however, seem poised to resist
any denial of their rights based on Sharia. "Let our political
leaders realize that Christians in the north will not fold their
hands and allow some religious fundamentalists to impose a
religious law on the generality of the people in a secular
society," said Pastor Joshua Gana of Nupe Kalvary Ministries,
a former CAN chairman in Niger State.


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