New lawsuits challenge legality of Sharia in Nigeria

GUSAU, Nigeria, 22 March 2000 (Newsroom) - Three more lawsuits have been
filed challenging the legality of Islamic penal law in northern Nigeria. A
total of five suits have been filed -- one in Lagos, the former capital of
Nigeria, and four in Zamfara state, where Sharia penal law first was
instituted in September.

Three Christians filed separate suits in the Zamfara State High Court,
Gusau, this month, contending that the introduction of Sharia penal law in
Zamfara state is a violation of the 1999 federal constitution and poses a
grave danger to the survival of the federal government.

Nigeria's federal constitution forbids the establishment of a state
religion, declaring the country to be a secular democracy. However, it
permits the option of Sharia only as it relates to family matters such as
inheritance, marriage, and adoption. Islamic penal law permits flogging,
stoning, amputation, and beheading for certain crimes.

However, eight northern states, whose populations are at least half Muslim,
adopted or were in the process of inserting Sharia penal law into the penal
code when violence over the issue erupted in the northern city of Kaduna.
More than 400 people were killed during several days of rioting. Reprisal
killings of northern Muslims living in eastern Nigeria followed.

The states agreed to suspend the introduction of Sharia after a meeting with
President Olusegun Obasanjo, all 36 governors, and former heads of state.

The administration of Obasanjo, Nigeria's first democratically elected
president after nearly two decades of military rule, has sought a political
solution to the controversy over Sharia instead of resolution of the
constitutional issue.

That has prompted the lawsuits as well as calls from several Christian
groups to eliminate Sharia provisions from the constitution and for a
national conference to determine whether Nigerians want to continue living
together as one country.

Human Rights Law Service, a leading human rights group in Nigeria, filed the
first suit last month against the Zamfara state government, challenging the
adoption of Sharia. The case is yet to be heard. Lagos lawyer Obinna Abiakam
filed the second suit soon after challenging the government's lack of
response in the matter.

In the latest suits, plaintiff Yanana Shibkau contends that the adoption of
Sharia means that more than 60,000 Christians in Zamfara state now live in a
theocratic, Islamic state in which "we have been relegated to the status of,
at best, second-class citizens. This in fact causes us much apprehension and
actual experience of discrimination and great worry about our condition."

Shibkau stated that Christians in Zamfara state are afraid of "and indeed
perceive that with Sharia in place, government policy is now generally
discriminatory of non-Muslims, particularly Christians." For example, he
said, Islamic principles are taught in schools, but there is no instruction
about Christianity.

Shibkau and the others who filed suit, Emman Shehu and Evangelist David
Ishaya, also complain that while ample land and facilities are made
available for mosques, Christians are denied land for churches. The three
asked the court to clarify the legality of Islamic law in light of the
"national emergency" into which Sharia has thrown the country. No hearing
dates have been set.


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