Urhobo Historical Society

A SPECIAL FEATURE ON SHARIA IN NIGERIA

BY

NIGERIA TODAY ONLINE
Friday 23 August 2002

''Punishments such as stoning, flogging or amputation are considered cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by international human rights standards. By ratifying the Convention Against torture in June 2001, the Federal Republic of Nigeria has decided to bind itself not to apply such punishments. Since 2000, amputation and flogging have been carried out in several states of northern Nigeria''.

 

 


NIGERIA TODAY ONLINE
Daily briefing on key political & economic events affecting Nigeria
 
Friday 23 August 2002
 

Grand hypocrisy of Sharia application...
And the politics of religious power play
Monday's ruling upholding the death sentence of a Muslim woman highlights internal political rifts and the mother of all hypocrisy in states that have introduced Sharia law. In Sokoto, grey haired men are often married to under age girls. In Kano male prostitutes have become sight seeing spectacle for visitors. In Kaduna, still in the north, it is easy to find both male and female prostitutes. They gather outside government guesthouses each evening, a state official from Adamawa State says. "They are there now," he says as three women walked through the gate yesterday. This brazenness is surprising, because Kaduna is one of a dozen northern states that has introduced a strict version of Islamic law in the past few years, which, among other things, forbids sex outside marriage.  How and why such law breakers continue to escape Sharia punishments is baffling but understandable. Yet the answer is not far fetched.

Most southerners believe, northerners are far more promiscuous and are at risk of being punished under Islamic law yet the strict Islamic law has not reduced crimes such as prostitution and fornication in the north. Thus it appears the authorities have no commitment to apprehend such lawbreakers but would rather arrest vulnerable women and make them scapegoats. ''When I did my Youth Service in the north, we heard about men who regularly had sex with donkeys, dogs and cows''  Yemi Ajakaiye, a banker in Lagos said. ''It was in the north that I saw male prostitutes for the very first time, I never saw anthing like that anywhere in Nigeria previously''.

The inconsistent application of  sharia law, has led observers to question the motives of northern politicians. Some say that states are using sharia as much as a weapon in their long-running power struggle with the federal government as out of religious principles. "I believe [the stoning] will be quashed in the end," says Shehu Sani, president of Civil Rights Congress, a non governmental body based in Kaduna. "It's part of the political scheming in this part of the country." Many human rights campaigners and diplomats doubt as well that the death sentence on Ms. Lawal will be carried out. The north is Nigeria's poorest region, but it has traditionally held great political power, supplying most of the country's presidents since independence in 1960.

The instituting of sharia is widely seen as a flexing of the region's political muscle given that President, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a southern Christian. Ironically, the embattled Obasanjo was the one who approved Sharia law when he was military ruler in the late 1970s. Today, Obasanjo says Sharia is illegal but has done nothing more than oppose Sharia punishments when confronted by the international media when  he is out of Nigeria in several of his world record overseas trips.

The northern state governors' aggressive promotion of sharia reflects a rise in religious fundamentalism across Nigerian society. Declining standards of living and rising levels of violent crime have helped raise interest in pentecostal churches, as well as in the law and order sharia is supposed to uphold. Believe it or not, in Niger State for example, there are more pentecostal churches than mosques.

Sharia is a code by which all Muslims are supposed to live, but authorities combine it with severe punishments such as cutting off the hands of thieves and stonings. In the south, such punishments are viewed as barbaric and incompatible with the Nigerian constitution. Lawal, who was originally convicted in March, is the second Nigerian to receive world-wide attention after being condemned to death by stoning. Safiya Hussaini, a woman from Sokoto state in the northwest, had a death sentence imposed last year overturned by a sharia appeal court in March. The reprieve, officially for technical reasons, came after local and foreign politicians such as Romano Prodi, European Commission president, put diplomatic pressure on the federal government.

The decision in Lawal's case, which is subject to further appeal, prompted concern from both the US State Department and the European Commission. Human Rights Watch, the international non governmental body, said the sentence was "cruel and inhuman," adding that an adult was being punished for having consensual sex. On Wednesday, the government of Cyprus said it would not return a pregnant Nigerian student to Nigeria out of concern she will be stoned for having a child out of wedlock.

Lawal's appeal may reach the federal courts and provide an important test of Nigeria's political stability three years after emerging from 16 years of military rule. The case raises issues about the equal treatment of Muslims and Christians, who can exempt themselves from sharia courts. "This is still at the early stages." says one diplomat who has been following the case. "The whole question of the constitutionality of the sharia court may be considered." President Obasanjo, who was elected with the support of the northern political establishment, has said little publicly about the sharia issue.

On Tuesday, a senior adviser called the decision unfair. In March, the attorney general called the application of harsher punishments to Muslims unconstitutional. The introduction of sharia in the north has contributed to conflicts between Christians and Muslims in religiously cosmopolitan places such as Kaduna, where some 2,000 people died in riots two years ago. Michael Moneke, a Christian student from the south living in the northern city of Kano, says sharia executions would cause anger among minority communities. "People would not be happy," he says. "It would cause fights if they started to stone people."

The calculation made by both foreign analysts and Nigerian political activists is that the northern states will be restrained by the potential consequences of carrying out a stoning. Bala Usman, a university lecturer and democracy advocate, says Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, the Katsina governor, knows that the execution could provoke a confrontation within his state, with the federal government, and the international community.  Yar'Adua could not be reached for comment.

The stand-off between state, federal, and international politicians means Lawal could remain under a death sentence for some time. The punishment †which would be carried out by burying her up to her head in sand and pelting her with rocks †has already been deferred until January 2004 to allow her time to finish breast-feeding her baby. Even before then, elections next year may change the political balance of Nigeria at both the federal and state levels.
 

Muslims back stoning sentence
A Nigerian Islamic group yesterday fired a salvo at critics of a sentence handed down on a woman for having sex out of wedlock, saying the punishment of death by stoning was in line with Islamic law. The Jamatu Nasril Islam (JNI) said in a statement that criticisms against the death sentence were misplaced.

"It is most unfortunate that some people could interfere in an issue that does not bother them," JNI secretary general Abdulkadir Orire said. He said adultery is an offence punishable by death under Islamic law, or Sharia, which has been reintroduced in 12 northern states since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in May 1999. "A billion eyes of the whole world cannot make us abandon our religion and jettison our faith as dictated by the Sharia," he added.

Sharia cuts crime but violates human rights
Bands of vigilantes in frayed red uniforms, armed with homemade machetes, whips, and clubs, roam Sharia states, detaining anyone suspected of misconduct. The list of possible offenses is long, and justice is swift and severe. In the past year, one cattle thief lost a hand, an unwed teen mother received 100 lashes, and countless other men and women endured similar public lashings for lesser transgressions. Not surprisingly, crime has plummeted by more than half.

"People here are afraid to commit crime," says Musa Ossa, a policeman lazing around the capital's quiet marketplace. "We don't have many thieves anymore." In Zamfara State, bands of ragtag volunteer army, known as the Zamfara State Vigilante Group, patrol the streets arresting anyone suspected of committing any of a long list of offenses against Islam, which include drinking, gambling, premarital sex, even name calling.  One year ago this overwhelmingly Muslim state in Nigeria's far north adopted sharia law, a legal code based on various Islamic texts, and sparked an Islamic revival.

The move has transformed Zamfara from a crime-ridden backwater to a safe, model state and catapulted its first democratically elected governor - who campaigned on a promise to restore Muslim morality - from unknown bureaucrat to the darling of the Islamic world.

But some Muslims say that sharia law has replaced their fear of crime with fear of government oppression. Consider the story of Mohammed Sani, a pious tailor who neither drinks nor smokes but nevertheless ran afoul of sharia law. Sitting behind his old sewing machine, bare feet on the metal foot pedal, Sani recalled the Friday last August when he preached to his fellow Muslims in the cavernous dusty courtyard of the capital's main mosque.

He pointed to the hundreds of banners, bumper stickers, and posters featuring the governor's photograph and praise for sharia law. Covering buildings, cars, and public spaces, they give this state the feel of China under Mao. "This is a political campaign," Sani told the group of men who had gathered to listen. "Not sharia."

"I told them that sharia is from God not a governor." Why, he asked the group, were government officials allowed to keep their satellite dishes and VCRs, when the two cinemas in town were closed? Why were the rich not compelled to give charity to the poor, as is required under Islamic law? Why were only the poor dragged before sharia court judges? "Because this governor is using sharia law for his own political purposes," Sani told them. Police quickly arrested him.

"He went right into the mosque and criticized the government," says an incredulous Umar Shitu, the judge who heard Sani's case last September. "We tried to make him understand that he can cause anarchy. He refused to listen. We decided to put him in prison."

Sani spent four months there. "Islam does not permit someone to criticize the government," explains Abdul Kadir Jelani, the paramount Islamic leader  and an adviser to the governor. While Islamic scholars debate that point, the message to the people of Zamfara is clear. Judge Shitu chilled public debate further when he jailed a well-known opposition party supporter on suspicion of throwing a stone at the governor's convoy. In a recent interview in his dingy sharia courthouse, Shitu said with a shrug, "We weren't convinced that he threw the stone." The man spent two weeks in jail anyway.

Nigeria's firebrand Muslim leaders
Ibraheem Zakzaky may well have a reputation as a firebrand Muslim preacher with a large and devoted following, but he also stays constantly in touch with world events."If we want a million people out on the streets on any issue we can do that," he says.

This may be something of an exaggeration, and he has perhaps lost some of the zeal of his younger more militant days in the 1980s and 90s, but he still commands widespread support among the legions of impoverished Muslim youths in northern Nigeria.

Abubakar Mujahid has attempted to fill the militant gap. He broke away from his mentor, Zakzaki a few years ago, and is now considered to lead a more radical Muslim faction in the north - known as the Ja'amutu Tajidmul Islami, The Movement for Islamic Revival. He too has displeased the authorities sufficiently to have spent time in detention. Mujahid lives in much more modest surroundings than does Zakzaky.

Nigeria's first Sharia execution
In January this year, a 27-year-old man was hanged for murder in the first execution since Islamic law - or Sharia - was introduced in much of the north of the country. Sani Yakubu was convicted of killing a woman and her two young children during a robbery at their home in the northern state of Katsina.

His hanging at a prison in Kaduna, 290 kilometres (180 miles) south of Katsina, was witnessed by relatives of the victims and government officials.  The Islamic court in Katsina had initially sentenced Yakubu to die by stabbing, using the same knife he was alleged to have used to murder his victims. Reports suggest the Sharia authorities changed their minds to avoid triggering renewed outbreaks of violence between Muslim and Christians in Kaduna, where more than 2,000 people died two years ago during protests against the introduction of Sharia.

The many faces of Sharia
When many non-Muslims think of the Sharia, they often conjure up an image of a public beheading or amputation. However, Sharia differs enormously in its various implementations throughout the Islamic world.

Saudi Arabia has long practised a harsh form of the law, under which murderers and drug smugglers may be executed, thieves lose their hands, and adulterers may be stoned. But as Nadeem Kasmi of the Al-Khoi Foundation in London explains, this does not offer a satisfactory understanding of the Sharia. "Some offences require harsher penalties, but of course, it's not the case that everyone in Saudi Arabia is walking around with one or other limb missing. Nor are they all in fear of being put to the cane or being lashed," he says. Other Muslims add that Saudi Arabia's judges are the only branch of state over which the country's royal family has no control, as Sharia makes them fiercely independent of all but their religious obligations. Yet, as  Kasmi explains, not all Muslim societies prevent politics from interfering with the purity of Sharia.

"In Malaysia for example, you have a completely different situation. Although the majority there is Muslim, the society itself is very cosmopolitan. There are a lot of non-Muslims. And of course the country is economically very successful as well. So it has a completely different set of political social and economic dynamics, and they dictate a completely different interpretation of the law."

Applied fully, the Sharia extends well beyond the sphere of criminal justice. It is a code for living that all Muslims should adhere to, including prayers, fasting and donations to the poor. Women must cover themselves, and the sexes are frequently segregated. In effect, the Koran becomes a country's constitution. Ahmed Sani, the governor of Zamfara, referring to this wider role of the Sharia, says: "There'll be no stealing or corruption, and people's mental and spiritual wellbeing is going to be encouraged." But such wellbeing is, of course, open to argument.Iran's Shi'ite Islamic revolution in 1979 led the way to a particular version of Sharia to which even many Muslims do not conform.

The "Hadd" penal code of unalterable punishments for certain crimes was firmly applied. And the Sharia's call for "jihad" - loosely interpreted as Holy War, but which can also be used metaphorically to mean conversion of the unfaithful - was stressed.

In Pakistan too, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for Sharia to be made supreme law in 1998. But to what extent is it - or has it ever been - properly enforced? Not much, believes Nadeem Kasmi: "It's really questionable to what extent Sharia as a philosophy is actually applied. "One could easily argue that in Pakistan - as in other places - it's applied rather selectively and that certain interpretations are used simply to gain political points on the part of some administrations. "It's used willy-nilly, it's used ad-hoc. And so there is no systematic Sharia law, in the same way as Saudi Arabia or Iran, where there is a Sharia tradition." Sharia has been most consistently applied in those societies without a significant non-Muslim population.

It was completely abandoned in Turkey as part of the country's latter-day secularisation. Elsewhere, as in partly-Christian Sudan, it has been seen as divisive by those who do not want to conform to an Islamic lifestyle. And as such, it remains a potent weapon in the hands of those populist Muslim leaders who want to steal a march on their opponents.

Nigeria and Islam
Islam first came to Nigeria before Columbus arrived in America. For hundreds of years, Muslim emirs ruling mud-walled city-states across northern Nigeria applied sharia law in civil and criminal cases. When the British Empire arrived at the turn of the 20th century sharia law continued - greatly watered down. The legal system's death sentence came after Nigeria's independence in 1960, when a new national legal code allowed sharia only in civil cases.

The people of Nigeria's Muslim north, from a mix of nostalgia, religious fervor, and desperation, have called for the restoration of sharia law ever since. They see it as the clearest way out of their chaotic and corrupt condition. "Sharia will provide for the needy ones," says Garba Umar, a farmer and ministry of agriculture employee. "Sharia will construct roads. Sharia will construct hospitals. And Sharia will help us love one another. It is true."

Abbas Ibrahim, a Muslim handyman, talks about sharia in the same manner as Americans fed up with crime might discuss the death penalty. "Before there was no justice," he says. "The bad people were free. The police did nothing. Now with sharia, the bad people are afraid."

The small Christian communities in northern Nigeria have been told that they will not be subject to sharia regulations. Still, demonstrations and violence have been sporadic. Brewers, bar owners, and cinema operators (most of whom are Christian), have lost their livelihood in many northern states. Other Christians worry that their businesses - no matter how innocent - may be next.


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