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Nigeria's north undermined by matters of faith

Posted by By Michael Peel on 6/13/2002 6:32:41 AM | Views: 255 |

Nigeria's north undermined by matters of faith

The red, white and green umbrella logo of Nigeria's ruling Peoples Democratic party competes for attention with a number of uncompromising slogans painted on walls in the northern city of Kaduna praising sharia, traditional Islamic law.

"Sharia is [a] must," proclaims one; another simply states: "Sharia or dead."

The scene reflects the blend of religion and politics that is destabilising northern Nigeria and attracting international concern for the fate of individuals such as Amina Lawal, a young woman sentenced in March to death by stoning for engaging in sexual relations outside marriage. Her case is on appeal to a higher sharia court.

The powerful northern state governments are accused of exploiting Islam to stay in power and of threatening ordinary people with draconian sanctions while tolerating double standards among the ruling elite.

"There is a mental siege on the people using religious and ethnic sentiments," says Shehu Sani, a human rights campaigner. "The governors have got a blank cheque to do as they want because they present themselves as moralists and puritans."

The debate reflects the rise in religious fundamentalism across Nigeria, which has become one of the world's poorest countries after suffering colonial exploitation and four decades of venal and corrupt rule.

The roads are littered with advertisements for Christian groups such as Love Chapel International and Jesus People Evangelical Mission Inc, which offer distraction to the poor and spiritual validation to the rich.

The religious controversy arises from declarations by a number of states in the past few years that they would start to apply sharia punishments such as stoning to death for adultery and cutting off the hands of thieves.

The rhetoric and a series of high-profile cases have helped spark conflicts between Muslims and Christians in cities such as Kaduna, a religiously cosmopolitan place in which an estimated 2,000 people died in riots two years ago.

The governors' advocacy of sharia is part of a long-running power struggle between the 36 states and the federal government of Nigeria, which is made up of territories forced into nationhood by the British in 1914.

The state governors and their campaigning networks will play a lead role in deciding if Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military leader elected president in 1999 after 16 years of army rule, wins a second term in office next year.

The president, a Christian backed at the last election by the northern establishment, has held back from forcing states to withdraw the most severe punishments, although he has made oblique criticisms.

People in the north say the state governments give the misleading impression that they have only just introduced sharia, which comprises a set of moral and practical guidelines to be followed by all Muslims. Adamu Liman Ciroma, a former senior civil servant and member of the northern political establishment, says sharia principles were reflected in the region's laws long before the present generation of politicians added new punishments.

"This is a very important issue," Mr Ciroma says. "If you are a Muslim, there is no option but for you to take sharia - it is the way ordained by the Almighty."

Bala Usman, a pro-democracy campaigner and university lecturer, says sharia is useful for politicians who have no beliefs but need a rallying point for the militias that help them fix elections. "It's identity politics," he says.

People living in the north point to hypocrisy among politicians who preach sharia but spend their weekends in hotels and state government guest houses drinking and sleeping with women.

Mohammed Rabiu Bako, information commissioner for the Kaduna state government, says he is unaware of any contradictions in the words and deeds of northern politicians. He says sharia is a reflection of the popular will and adds that non-Muslims have the option of taking their cases to a secular court. "[Sharia] is an issue we have already dealt with," he says. "It has been received by the people with happiness."

The entrenchment of religion in politics is clear from the graffiti daubed on the town hall. The building, which belongs to the Kaduna South local government, has a two-word greeting for all its visitors: "Sharia only."