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The double-edged sword of Nigeria's sharia

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

(Page 3 of 3)



A day of hearings in Judge Shitu's three-room courthouse is hardly shocking. One woman explains she doesn't love her husband any longer. The husband, clearly disappointed, says he wants to remain married but won't object if she really wants the divorce. The judge grants the divorce on the spot. One man sues another for breaking a contract. The judge tells him to bring witnesses another day.

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The strangest case comes at the day's end. A woman sues a neighbor for calling her a "harlot." The accused - who faces up to one year in prison and up to 40 lashes - denies the charge. Shitu tells the complainant that she must bring four witnesses to the next hearing.

To be found guilty in sharia court, the accused must either admit their guilt or be caught in the act by no less than four witnesses. Even sharia law boosters admit this makes it a pretty ineffective punishment tool.

Governor Sani explains that "the essence of sharia law isn't to punish the guilty. It is to deter misbehavior" - with threats of hair-raising penalties.

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 con-

struct roads. Sharia will construct hospitals. And Sharia will help us love one another. It is true."

Abbas Ibrahim, a Muslim handyman here, 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."

Thus far the federal government has treated sharia as yet another expression of Nigeria's religious diversity and devotion. But riots between Christians and Muslims in some northern states, in which hundreds were killed, have severely tested the federal government's hands-off approach. 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. Many are fleeing south, says the Rev. Linus Mary B. Awuhe, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Zamfara.

"The Muslim is not an island," Mr. Awuhe says. "They live with other people, and their laws affect us directly and indirectly." Others are more charitable. "Christian men go out at night, and we don't know what they are doing," says Julie Uwanna, a Christian restaurant owner in Kano State, where sharia law is just now being implemented. "I want them to stop that. There are many diseases these days, like AIDS. I will like sharia if it keeps our husbands home."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society