The double-edged sword of Nigeria's sharia
Islamic law cuts crime, but critics say it violates human rights.
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.
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, 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.
"He went right into the mosque and criticized the government," says an incredulous Umar Shitu, the judge who heard Sani's case last September. "We tried to make him understand that he can cause anarchy. He refused to listen. We decided to put him in prison."
Sani spent four months there.
"Islam does not permit someone to criticize the government," explains Abdul Kadir Jelani, the paramount Islamic leader here and an adviser to the governor.
While Islamic scholars debate that point, the message to the people of Zamfara is clear.
Judge Shitu chilled public debate further when he jailed a well-known opposition party supporter on suspicion of throwing a stone at the governor's convoy. In a recent interview in his dingy sharia courthouse, Shitu said with a shrug, "We weren't convinced that he threw the stone." The man spent two weeks in jail anyway.
Politics vs. religion
Many here are clearly disappointed - with the government, not with sharia law.
A middle-aged shopkeeper too fearful to give his name said in a whisper, "We think the people are being deceived. This is not true sharia. This is for the governor. We want true sharia."
Gov. Alhaji Ahmad Sani, who was greeted with cheers on recent tours of Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, dismisses such complaints.
"You cannot cheat God," the governor said in his state house office. "You cannot cheat the people. God knows your heart. If I was not sincere, the people would not follow me."
Western governments, non-profits, and Christians in and outside Nigeria have entirely different criticisms of sharia law. These critics hold up the case of Bariya Ibrahim Magazu. A pregnant, unmarried, and illiterate teenager, Ms. Ibrahim Magazu told a sharia court judge last September that she had been coerced into having sex with three fellow villagers. When the men denied the charge, she was found guilty of fornication and sentenced to 100 lashes. Her sentence was carried out last month before a crowd of about 500 onlookers, a few weeks after the birth of her baby. Western diplomats protested. Newspapers around the world howled injustice.
Frustrated Muslim leaders here say they are misunderstood. They explain that lashings are meant to serve as highly regulated public humiliations not brutal punishments.
According to Zamfara state's legal code: "(f) The executioner shall be of moderate physique; (g) The lashes shall be of moderate force so as not to cause lacerations to the skin of the convict; (h) The executioner shall hold the whip with the last three fingers."
Custom dictates that the executioner holds a book under the arm with the whip to further reduce the force of the blow.
Whips, made from an arm's length strip of stiff cowhide, are sold in most markets and commonly used by public school teachers and parents here to discipline children.
Ibrahim Magazu's village headman would not permit this reporter to interview her, her parents, or her neighbors, but insisted the punishment requirements were met.
Muslim leaders argue that amputations are similarly misunderstood. Amputation is reserved for only the most egregious theft cases. Since sharia law was brought back to Zamfara in January 2000, only one criminal has received the punishment. A cattle thief's hand was amputated last March because he stole purely out of greed (judges had determined that he and his family had sufficient food, housing, and clothing).
Inside a courtroom
These sensational cases notwithstanding, the day-to-day workings of sharia law are actually quite boring. Traders in the market use specially marked measurement cups approved by the government to prevent cheating. Women use female-only taxis to get around town. And everyone is supposed to dress modestly.
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.
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