Nigerian governors back off implementation of Islamic law

ABUJA, Nigeria 29 February 2000 (Newsroom) -- The National 
Council of States voted Tuesday to suspend the adoption of Islamic 
law (Sharia) in northern Nigeria in the wake of religious riots that 
killed more than 200 people in Kaduna last week and spread to 
southeastern cities on Monday. The council is composed of 
President Olusegun Obasanjo and all 36 state governors. 

Violence erupted in Kaduna on February 21 when Muslim youths 
attacked Christian demonstrators protesting the adoption of Sharia. 
Churches, mosques, and shops were incinerated before the army 
and state police restored order. By Monday the conflict had spread 
to the southeastern towns of Onitsha, Aba, and Owerri, where 
another 30 people were reported killed.

"What happened in Kaduna is a shame to all of us and we have all 
sinned," President Obasanjo said in Kaduna after visiting the scene 
of the riots. "We must all pray and seek forgiveness."

Obasanjo, who describes himself as a born-again Christian, has 
been criticized in recent months for not acting quickly to stop the 
spread of Sharia, which many Nigerians regard as unconstitutional. 
While some analysts acknowledge that Obasanjo did not want to 
risk offending Muslims in a nation divided almost evenly between 
Christians and Muslims, many Christians and human rights 
activists have been frustrated by government inaction. Two 
lawsuits were filed within the last week to challenge the legality of 
Sharia, one in Zamfara state and the other in Lagos, the 
commercial capital of Nigeria.

On Tuesday the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria blamed 
the riot in Kaduna on the government's failure to curb the spread 
of Sharia. "It is the duty of government to ensure law and order, 
not only by arresting disorder, but above all by taking steps in time 
to prevent it breaking out," Archbishop John Onaiyekan, vice 
president of the bishops conference, said in an eight-paragraph 
statement. "It is our strong conviction that the present tragedy 
could have been avoided if government had heeded our warning as 
contained in our memo to it as early as October 1999. Even now, it 
is not yet too late for government to take vigorous action to halt 
this mad rush to national suicide."

Every governor attended Tuesday's meeting in the federal capital. 
Afterward, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a Muslim, announced 
that an agreement had been reached to revert to the original 
provisions of the penal code. Abubakar said that northern 
governors agreed that Sharia was not a new issue because the penal 
code, which has been in place in the region since independence, "is 
substantially Sharia law." Sharia family law has been part of 
Nigeria's constitution for decades; the Islamic penal code has not. 
The latter allows floggings, amputations, and beheadings for 
certain crimes.

"To restore normalcy and to create confidence among all 
communities, the Council of State decided that as far as Sharia is 
concerned the nation will return to status quo," Abubakar said.

Zamfara state Governor Ahmed Sani initiated the adoption of 
Sharia in his state last October. Other northern states, including 
Niger, Kebbi, Sokoto, Bauchi, Kaduna, Yobe, and Kano, followed 
suit. Some offenders have been tried under the law and have been 
flogged publicly or fined. 

Governors of Zamfara, Niger, and Kaduna states joined the vice 
president in addressing journalists after the meeting. Sani, who had 
vowed previously that nothing could stop him from implementing 
Sharia, said he would abide by the council's decision. "That is the 
decision we took," he said. "I have no objection." He declined 
further comment.

The governors returned to their states where security has been 
increased in case there are violent reactions to the council's 
decision. President Obasanjo was to address the nation about the 
decision Tuesday tonight.

The clashes between Muslims and Christians in the southeastern 
trading city of Aba on Monday appeared to be in reprisal for the 
Kaduna riots and began as bodies of Igbos killed in the northern 
city were returned home, various news agencies reported. Igbos 
originate mainly from southeastern Nigeria. The Guardian, 
Nigeria's leading newspaper, reported that Igbo youths burned the 
central mosque and quoted witnesses who said that some victims 
were set on fire. 

In Kano, northern Nigeria's largest city, troops patrolled the streets 
as thousands of Igbos and other southerners tried to flee possible 
reprisals for the killings in the southeast. Kano is primarily Muslim 
and Hausa-speaking. 


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