Tensions rise over Islamic law in northern Nigeria

22 December, 1999 (Newsroom) -- Tension continues to mount
in Nigeria over the introduction of Sharia (Islamic law) by
some northern state governors in apparent opposition to the
country's secular constitution and efforts by President
Olusegun Obasanjo to redress human rights abuses of the past.

The declaration of Islamic law in Zamfara and Kano states in
recent months poses a significant challenge to the 7-month-old
democracy and its Christian president, who faces increasing
pressure from Christian leaders to overturn Sharia.

Although both Obasanjo and Justice Minister Kanu Agabi have
declared the action of the northern states unconstitutional, the
Muslim governors remain undaunted. "Only death can stop
me," said Zamfara Governor Ahmed Sani, who triggered the

Nigeria is a secular country with the population evenly divided
between Christians and Muslims. The northern region with 19
out of the country's 36 states is predominantly Muslim, while
Christians dominate the south. In October, Zamfara became the
first Nigerian state to introduce Sharia. Legislators in Kano are
expected to formalize the practice in three weeks. Two other
northern states, Sokoto and Yobe, also have taken steps to
introduce Islamic law. Sharia prescribes punishments such as
flogging, amputation and beheading for some offenses.

The Sharia controversy has heightened fears of religious riots
and disintegration of the country.

"The introduction of Sharia in some states could lead to the
disintegration of the country," said Anglican Bishop Emmanuel
Mani of Borno state. "We have lived peacefully hitherto
without agitation. Why would some people suddenly use
religion, which is a sensitive issue, to divide the nation and
weaken the unity of this country?"

Sunday Mbang, president of the Christian Association of
Nigeria (CAN), which is leading the anti-Sharia campaign,
argues that Islamic law is a threat to democracy. "It would deny
non-Muslims their fundamental human rights and create
disaffection among various groups in the country and endanger
the peaceful co-existence of the citizens."

A coalition of more than a dozen women's and other rights
groups who met in Nigeria last month opposed the introduction
of Sharia in Zamfara state as well as threats to declare Cross
River state in the east a Christian state. Legislators in Cross
River state, where nearly the entire population professes
Christianity, passed a resolution on November 1 calling for a
review of Sharia in Zamfara and warning the federal
government not to use revenue generated by their state to
support Islamic law in the northern state.

Although Sharia is not due to take effect in Zamfara until
January, it is taking its toll already on social and economic life
in the state. Women are particularly hard hit as the law denies
them free movement. Because men and women may not mix on
public transportation, most bus drivers in Zamfara now refuse
to transport women, leaving them stranded at bus stops.

Sharia denies women "the right to free movement as well as to
work and earn a decent wage," said Benedicta Dandi,
coordinating secretary of Women in Nigeria. "This will keep
women in perpetual servitude in an already patriarchal society.
The role of women as Zamfara's Sharia law is concerned is that
of baby-making machines and pleasure objects to men."

Business also is beginning to suffer in Zamfara as many
traders, the majority of whom are Christians from the south,
have started returning to their home states for fear of
persecution when the law takes effect.

Attempts to integrate Sharia into Nigeria's legal system are not
new, but this is the first time predominantly Muslim states have
succeeded in passing laws to implement Islamic law. Under
military regimes, the secular nature of the country was strictly
adhered to as state governors were military officers appointed
without regard to their religious background.

There were instances when Christian military officers governed
some core northern Muslim states. Muslims in some states
were allowed to establish Sharia courts to adjudicate personal,
not criminal, matters.

The 1999 Constitution by which the country presently is
governed also allows Sharia courts at the state and federal
levels only for issues like marriage, succession and
guardianship of children.

Although the constitution does not allow the adoption of a state
religion, Zamfara Governor Sani and his supporters justify
Islamic law by citing the clause that entitled every Nigerian is
entitled to freedom of worship, including freedom to propagate
that religion and practice it.

Human rights activist Femi Falana, however, maintains that
"what Zamfara state has done is a clear derogation of section
10 of the 1999 Constitution which says no state or federal
government can adopt a state religion."

Some Muslims were uncomfortable with the adoption of Sharia
law at first, but Sani's crusade has since become the basis for
broader anti-Obasanjo and anti-Christian campaigns.

"Northern Muslims have ruled this country for so long that they
are very uncomfortable with a Christian who seems to be
surpassing all that has been done in the past," said a
presidential aide who asked not to be named. "The Sharia
controversy is just an opportunity for northern leaders who are
feeling sidelined in the new dispensation to hold the
government to ransom." In Islamic law, the aide said, "the
north sees a weapon to counter the South, which has been
advocating for a Sovereign National Conference to determine
the basis of the country's continued unity."

Sharia now has the support of many prominent Islamic groups,
including the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs
(NSCIA), Jamatu Nasil Islam (JNI), Islamic Circle and the
Council of Ulamas, which have embarked on various
enlightenment campaigns.

In many northern states, traditional rulers and governors are
under pressure from Islamic groups to ensure the
implementation of Sharia in their domains. The spiritual head
of Muslims in Nigeria, Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammed
Maccido, had not commented on the issue, but recently had to
declare his support to dispel speculation that he was against it.

State Houses of Assembly in southeastern Nigeria have
called on Obasanjo to ask the courts to decide the
constitutionality of Islamic law. "There is need for a legal
interpretation of the constitution so as to avoid sending
wrong signals that might affect the unity of the country
of Nigeria," the legislators stated.

The Christian Association of Nigeria hopes that the judiciary
will rule on the issue so it can determine its next line of action.
"We are hoping that the judiciary will act fast and tell us
whether what is happening is right," Mbang said.

The federal government does not appear to be in a hurry to
pursue the judicial option, however. "We are being careful
about the very sensitive issue," explained a government official
who asked not to be identified. "We don't want to be accused of
taking sides."


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