Sharia still wrenches Nigeria

The stoning verdict overturned last week hasn't resolved split over Islamic law.

In the northern Nigerian town of Katsina, Muslims preparing for afternoon prayer filled tins and colorful plastic teapots with water from three large earthenware pots opposite the town's main mosque.

A small crowd gathered around Mohammed Kabir, a carpenter, as he gave his view prior to the successful appeal of Amina Lawal, a young woman sentenced under sharia, or Islamic law, to be stoned to death for having sex outside marriage.

"Stoning is appropriate," Mr. Kabir said. "It is apportioned to her crime."

The remark highlights why the controversy over the introduction of severe sharia punishments across northern Nigeria is seen as likely to continue, despite Ms. Lawal's acquittal last week. Beneath the domestic and international relief at the verdict, many observers think the nexus of religious ambition, political power struggles, and deprivation that have driven the spread of hard-line sharia will hold the threat of execution over the lives of other impoverished people like Lawal.

"We hope the international community will not abandon us now," says Hauwa Ibrahim, Lawal's lawyer and friend. "This is when we need them most to keep an eye on us."

The case against Lawal, who was convicted in March of last year and lost a first appeal five months later, was thrown out on a series of technicalities rather than because the authorities decided stoning was wrong.

The grounds cited for allowing the appeal, supported by four judges out of a panel of five, included the fact that Lawal was not allowed to withdraw her confession, and the possibility that the embryo of Lawal's young daughter, Wasila, could have sat in her womb for a number of years from the time when she was married.

Some observers question whether heavy international pressure to acquit Lawal led the authorities to intervene in the case; Abdullahi Aminci, deputy governor of the state of Katsina, denies political interference.

On the day Lawal was acquitted, a report from a Muslim court in the state of Bauchi showed how prominent the issue of sharia remains in northern Nigeria. The court decided last week that a man who had sex with three boys should be stoned to death for sodomy. Bauchi is one of a dozen northern states that have introduced severe sharia punishments, such as amputation for stealing, since the return of civilian rule to Nigeria in 1999. People in other states are living under stoning sentences, including a young couple in Niger convicted of having extramarital sex.

The spread of the sharia punishments is widely seen as part of a power play between the state governors and the federal government, as each tests the authority of the other after the end of more than 15 years of military rule. Federal- government officials have declared the new punishments unconstitutional, but the authorities have yet to launch a court challenge to the governors' action.

No stoning case has yet progressed from the highest sharia courts of appeal to the federal courts, although some amputations have already been carried out. In March last year, an Islamic appeals court overturned a stoning sentence imposed on Safiya Hussaini, the first Nigerian woman to be condemned to death under the new laws for having sex outside marriage.

The northern state governors claim they have mass political support for their policies. In elections held earlier this year and undermined by allegations of widespread ballot-rigging, Olusegun Obasanjo, the reelected president, scored heavily in the country's south but saw his share of the vote dip below 25 percent in several sharia states. His Peoples Democratic Party lost the governorship of the northern heartland state of Kano to Ibrahim Shekarau of the All Nigeria People's party, who is seen as an enthusiast for strict Islamic law.

The governors' emphasis on sharia and law-and-order issues has a street-level appeal in a country suffering from mass poverty, entrenched corruption, and a federal judicial system notorious for its slowness and unfairness.

Sharia, a series of rules by which all Muslims are supposed to abide, has long been part of the civil law in the north, covering issues like divorce. People on the streets of Katsina say the expansion of the system and its stricter enforcement have helped reduce public drinking and prostitution - although even supporters of sharia acknowledge that "big men" are able to drink and sleep with women in private while ordinary people are prosecuted.

"The law has always been discriminatory in Nigeria," says Shehu Sani, a human rights campaigner in the northern city of Kaduna. "It is only applied against the poor."

In the minds of many observers, the new sharia punishments are seen as particularly stark and brutal manifestations of the huge inequalities and abuses of power that exist throughout Nigerian society. Unless that changes, analysts warn, Lawal is unlikely to be the last poor and uneducated person to be threatened with a terrible punishment that causes an international outcry.

As Mr. Kabir, the carpenter, put it, moments before excusing himself to answer the call to prayer: "As a Muslim, whatever the sharia prescribes is for me - I believe in it."

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