In Nigeria, a stoning sentence as power play

Monday's ruling upholding the death sentence of a Nigerian woman highlights internal political rifts.

In the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, it is easy to find the prostitutes. They gather outside the Adamawa government guesthouse each evening, a member of the staff says. "They are there now," he says as three women walk through the gate.

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. Earlier this week, in the neighboring state of Katsina, an appeals court confirmed that Amina Lawal, a young woman with an 8-month-old daughter, should be stoned to death for having a baby out of wedlock.

The inconsistent application of Islamic law, named sharia, 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 nongovernmental 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 the country's current president, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a southern Christian.

The northern state governors' aggressive promotion of sharia also 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. 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.

Lawal, who was originally convicted in March, is the second Nigerian to receive worldwide 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 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 nongovernmental body, said the sentence was "cruel and inhuman," adding that an adult was being punished for having consensual sex. Just yesterday, 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, observers say. 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. Mr. 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.

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