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The double-edged sword of Nigeria's sharia

Islamic law cuts crime, but critics say it violates human rights.

By Rena Singer Special to The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 2001



ZAMFARA STATE, NIGERIA

Bands of vigilantes in frayed red uniforms, armed with homemade machetes, whips, and clubs, roam this poor and parched state on the edge of the Sahara, detaining anyone suspected of misconduct.

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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."

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.

Since that time, residents across Nigeria's Muslim north have demanded that their newly elected state governors follow suit.

So far, another 10 of Nigeria's 36 states have announced their intention to introduce sharia law - returning the region to its pre-colonial roots, when Islamic scholars, not secular judges, meted out justice.

"This is the benefit of democracy," says Isa Ibdulsalam, an academic who is advising Kano State government on the reintroduction of sharia law. "The people can come forward and demand something. Under previous regimes, people didn't have that freedom."

But the world isn't celebrating this first tangible sign of democracy at work in Nigeria, which for the past 15 years struggled under a series of military dictatorships. From the beginning, Western governments and nongovernmental organizations called sharia law a travesty of human rights.

Christians react

Christians, who make up half of Nigeria's population, say sharia law has ushered in an era of persecution and intolerance of non-Muslims. Sporadic riots in which hundreds of Christians and Muslims have died in northern states preparing to institute the Islamic legal code have confirmed those fears. Many Christians here wonder aloud if this fragile new democracy can survive what they see as a "Muslim holy war."

And now some Muslims here 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.