As democracy returns to Nigeria, Muslims are sticking to religion


The muezzin call to Islamic prayer comes five times a day, and five times a day, the pulse of daily life in this northern Nigerian town almost stops. Merchants stop selling, children stop running. The women become invisible. And the hot wind from the Sahara carries with it everywhere the sound of prayer.

Roughly half of Nigeria's 120 million people, as calculated by the United Nations, are estimated to be Muslim, which makes the country's largely Sunni Muslim population a statistical force: the largest in Africa and one of the largest in the world.

Yet in the predominantly Muslim north, in a society firmly anchored by the practice of Islam, religion and politics simply don't mix.

Run-up to presidential elections

In the run-up to the presidential elections in February - which are expected to return the country to civilian rule after 15 years of military dictatorship - the political debate in the north has focused on the merits of the candidates, irrespective of their religious affiliation.

"One thing that will not determine the outcome of these elections is religion," says Abdul Oroh, the director of the Civil Liberties Organization, a human rights group based in Lagos.

Boding well for the February elections was the Commonwealth's satisfaction with the "successful conduct" of Saturday's local elections. The Commonwealth suspended Nigeria in 1995 for human rights abuses and failure to reestablish democracy.

Nigeria's candidates from the south are mostly Christians or unorthodox Muslims who drink, smoke, and generally do not fast. In the north they are assessed on the basis of their ties to the discredited military establishment, which has ruled Nigeria for all but a decade since independence from Britain in 1960. The stronger a candidate's ties with the military, the smaller the credit with the northern electorate, and this despite the fact that the north has always controlled the military.

"I don't care if he's a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, or an atheist as long as he is not a thief or a murderer and can run this country," says Usman Kumo, a devout Muslim in charge of the student government at Bayero University in Kano, the largest city in the north and a center of Islamic faith for the whole of West Africa. Interestingly, Mr. Kumo is about to get a combined degree in law that will tailor the practice of common law to the underlying principles of sharia, the law of the Koran.

"We are Muslims, all of us, our law is the law of Islam. But politics is a different thing," he explains.

Similar convictions about the political irrelevance of Islam were echoed in the old stone market in Kano. None of the vendors - peddling everything from beads to silver jewelry to cowhide, spices, and yams - saw the faintest connection between their religious beliefs and the upcoming transition to democracy.

"There is no matter about being Muslim or Christian, no matter at all," says Yohusa Abdullahi, a blanket seller. His friend Ali Hamisu agrees: "Those who have used Islam for politics in other parts of the world are like someone who sees you slapping a person and says he saw you beating him with a stick. And then there's trouble."

Islam came to Nigeria in the 10th century with the great trans-Saharan trade. It followed the caravan routes across the desert from north Africa, brought by merchants who traded in gold, ivory, and slaves. It took a jihad - a holy war - by the Fulani dynasty in the 18th century to homogenize Islam and impose it on the Hausa kings who had long ruled the north of Nigeria and whose brand of Islam was judged impure.

Tribal beliefs accommodated

The result, however, was not a society redefined by Islam. On the contrary, Islam accommodated a vast substratum of tribal practices and beliefs that naturally rejected any form of sanctioned extremism.

"In this respect, Nigeria is not the exception, but rather the rule in Africa," says Salih Booker, a senior fellow and the director of the African studies program at the Washington-based Council of Foreign Relations. "Most of sub-Saharan Africa has rarely seen the sort of Islamic fundamentalism one finds in the Middle East."

The sole exception in sub-Saharan Africa is Sudan. The Islamic government there is under international sanctions for its ties to terrorist organizations in the Middle East.

Sudan remains embroiled in Africa's longest civil war, a struggle which pits the Islamic north against the Christian and animist south. But even Sudan has only one Islamic fundamentalist party, though it's the one that enjoys state power. The fundamentalist nature of the regime became obvious with the ascent of powerful politician Hassan al-Turabi and his National Islamic Front.

By contrast, predominantly Muslim countries like Mali, Niger, Ghana, Chad, and Senegal in West Africa, practice a largely apolitical brand of Islam that is more indicative of the norm, says Mr. Booker.

"Everyone tends to associate Islam with fundamentalism but that simply isn't the case," he argues. "Look at the Muslim populations in Asia, which are among the largest in the world. There is hardly a trace of fundamentalism there."

In Nigeria, the government has stepped in with little fuss to curb fundamentalist tendencies, however small and fleeting. Two years ago, it used its arbitrary powers of detention to jail Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, leader of the Shiite faction in the largely Sunni north.

Sheikh Zakzaky published a pamphlet in which he stated that "there is no government in Nigeria except Islam." Despite the outcry of some human rights groups, he is still in jail awaiting trial on charges of sedition. He was accused of running an illegal radio station and arms possession. Neither the radio nor the arms were ever found, but the government maintains that the pamphlet constitutes sufficient ground for imprisonment.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.