Spread of Islamic law could threaten stability of Nigeria

LAGOS, Nigeria, 17 January 2000 (Newsroom) – The 
insistence of Muslim governors to implement Sharia, or 
Islamic law, could lead to a breakdown of law and order and 
ultimately destabilize the 7-month-old democracy led by 
President Olusegun Obasanjo, some Christian and political 
analysts worry.

Muslims, however, maintain that there is no cause for alarm as 
Islamic law would not affect Christians. Sharia in Nigeria 
governs personal matters such as marriage and inheritance. 
However, the adoption of Sharia by some northern state 
governors is to be extended to civil and criminal matters. 
Penalties for various crimes may include beheading, 
amputation, and flogging.

Although Christians have called repeatedly for Islamic law to 
be declared unconstitutional and President Obasanjo has said 
Sharia violates the secular constitution, so far no legal option 
for resolving the controversy has been presented.

"There is cause to worry," argued Sina Loremikan, organizing 
secretary of Committee for the Defense of Human Rights 
(CDHR). Unless "... the implementation of the Sharia law is 
stopped, we may be laying a basis for anarchy in the country." 
The adoption of Islamic law "amounts to a gross violation of 
the country's constitution, which must not be condoned in the 
interest of the stability of the country," he insisted.

Wole Olufon, an international director of Full Gospel 
Businessmen fellowship (FGBMF), also believes that adoption 
of Sharia will cause disaffection in the country. "Politicians 
who have lost out in the present political calculation in the 
country are behind the move. They must not be allowed to 
achieve their goal to derail the present government," Olufon 

After about 14 years of military rule, Nigeria returned to 
democratic rule with the swearing-in of President Obasanjo on 
May 29. Religious tension has escalated in the months since. 

Since the proclamation of Sharia by Governor Sanni Ahmed in 
Zamfara State in the northeastern part of the country last 
October seven other states began a similar process. Among 
them, Kano, Bauchi, Borno, Kebbi, Kaduna, and Kastina are at 
various stages of implementing the controversial law despite 
vehement protests by Christians. On January 13 Governor 
Abdulahi Kure of Niger State invoked Sharia before the state 
House of Assembly could formally adopt it. The population is 
almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians in 
Niger, Kaduna, and Borno.

Kure, like other proponents of Islamic law, claimed that the 
fears of critics are borne out of ignorance. "As an integral part 
of Islam, the application of Sharia law cannot be denied to 
those who desire it on the ground that the alleged secular 
nature of our constitution prohibits it," he said.

Christians in Niger State disagreed vehemently and on January 
20 demanded that the governor resign. After attending a 
seminar that focused on the implications of adopting Sharia in 
the state, members of the state branch of the Christian 
Association of Nigeria (CAN) accused the governor of ignoring 
his constitutional duties to champion personal religious desires. 
"The governor needs to focus his attention on the needs of the 
people of the state like health care, education, poverty 
alleviation, and water resources instead of championing Sharia 
law," CAN said in a statement signed by state chairman Bishop 
Jonah Kolo.

CAN leaders earlier called for Christians to fast, pray, and stay 
home from work for three days to protest against Sharia law. 
The protest, which began on January 17, paralyzed business 
activities in major towns in Niger state as traders and shop 
owners, the majority of whom are Christian non-indigenes, 
locked their stalls and shops. Prominent among the shops 
closed in the state capital, Minna, was Zagbayi Pharmacy, 
owned by the state Deputy Governor, Dr. Shehu Zagbayi Nuhu, 
a Christian. The deputy governor has declined to comment on 
the adoption of Sharia by the state government of which he is a 

Alhaji Shaibu Bagagi, director-general in the state Directorate 
of Information, described the protest by Christians as an 
"unnecessary harassment" since the governor has promised that 
the law will not affect Christians. Christians in the state, 
however, have vowed that they will not be intimidated by any 
action that they believe subjugates their religion. "We will 
continue to challenge the state government action that is 
inimical to the practice of Christianity in the state," Kolo 

Although supporters of Islamic law insist that it does not apply 
to Christians, women in Zamfara state already have felt the 
impact. Because men and women no longer may share buses, 
many women have been stranded for hours waiting for a bus 
designated for their use. Women's sports where the jerseys 
expose female bodies have been banned in the state as well. 
There also are fears that women in top positions in the state 
government may be relieved of their posts because Islam 
traditionally forbids women to be in a position superior to men.

Femi Abbas, an Islamic scholar who opposes the adoption of 
Sharia by state governments, does not believe that the 
controversy will destabilize the democratic government. "I 
think the matter will be sorted out between Christians and 
Muslims who have over the years learned how to live 
together," Abbas said.

But Sharia is a sensitive issue that must be resolved carefully if 
Nigeria is to remain at peace, according to Adeleke Raheem, a 
lawyer and Islamic scholar. "The majority (Muslims) in this 
matter could afford to have its way and the minority 
(Christians) have their say, but there is need for compromise 
between the religious groups," Raheem said.

Christians in some of the affected states have vowed to resist 
the imposition of Islamic law. "Christians would resist the 
implementation with all the zeal and strength in us," Kolo said 
last week. "It is all an attempt to intimidate, oppress and 
marginalize Christians." 

In a letter to Governor Kure, Kolo noted that Christians 
comprise about 45 percent of Niger state's population. "The 
introduction of Sharia will polarize the state and cause 
insecurity and disharmony among the people," he wrote. "We 
fear that your Sharia might destroy the confidence reposed in 
you and democracy will be a mockery in the state."

In Borno state, where the ratio of Christians and Muslims is 
about the same as in Niger, Christians have threatened to 
create their own system of government if the state introduces 
Sharia. "We shall firmly create and recognize Borno as an 
entity that shall not in any way be affected by Sharia Law," 
Fibiulus Gwama, chairman of CAN in Borno, was quoted in 
Punch newspaper.


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