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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 July 2007, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Cracking down on Nigeria's 'pleasure island'
By Senan Murray
BBC News, Kano

The Sharia police, or Hisbah, say they will soon commence raids in an enclave in northern Nigeria's ancient Muslim city of Kano - dubbed by locals as "pleasure island".

Kano's Sharia police chief Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim
Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim says he wants to rid Kano of sin
The Hisbah have given themselves the task of enforcing morals and Islamic law in the city, but so far have largely left Sabon Gari, or New Town, alone, complete with its bars, brothels and night-clubs.

But they say they must stamp out such "sinfulness" in case it "pollutes" the rest of the city.

Sabon Gari has always been a district populated by "settlers" or non-Muslim southern traders and professionals who have settled and worked in Kano.

But after years of ethnic and religious violence, much of Kano's small Christian population withdrew further to Sabon Gari to seek safety in numbers.

This has resulted in a peaceful co-existence between residents of the area and the rest of the city.

Sabon Gari also happens to be one of Kano's biggest ghettos, with blocked sewers, gullied streets and piles of rubbish on almost every street corner.

Cannabis is also openly smoked in this part of the city and pipe-born water is even rarer than in the rest of Kano.

'Open secret'

Kano is among a dozen states in northern Nigeria practising Sharia law, despite initial strong opposition from the federal government, Christians and human rights groups.

More than a dozen Muslims have been sentenced to death by stoning for sexual offences like adultery and homosexuality since the Sharia legal system was introduced in 2000.

Sharia is not a one-day affair. We will get there very soon
Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim
Sharia police chief
Many others have been sentenced to flogging for drinking alcohol.

Two petty thieves have also had their hands amputated - but no death sentences have so far been carried out.

The BBC News website learnt that some Muslims often cross the religious divide - under the cover of darkness - from the Sharia part of Kano to Sabon Gari for dancing, alcohol and sex.

"I often bring many of them here at night to drink," says Mohammed, a taxi driver in the city.

"It's an open secret, my brother. The code is thou shall not be caught," he says with a knowing smile.

Mohammed wouldn't say whether he also makes the nocturnal pilgrimage to the city's pleasure island.

"As long as no-one sees you, you remain a good Muslim and the Hisbah can't come after you."

'Instruments of sin'

Even in the Sharia part of Kano, prostitutes often disguise their trade by covering themselves up in the Islamic veil.

Open sewer in Sabon Gari
Sabon Gari is one of Kano's biggest ghettos
But now, the Hisbah are saying enough is enough.

"Sharia has been very successful in Kano. So, we cannot allow a tiny spot in the city to ruin our successes so far," Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim, who is in charge of operations at the Hisbah, told the BBC News website.

He says his men will soon launch a raid on Sabon Gari to cleanse it of all "instruments of sin".

But Mr Abdulkarim also understands the complex cultural nuances of his environment.

Beer smuggling

"Sharia is not a one-day affair. We will get there very soon. Knowing the nature of our environment, we have to be really careful," he says.

He says he has started by reducing the amount of alcohol that goes into Sabon Gari without actually entering the district.

They say Sharia is for the Muslims. As for me, my religion does not stop me from selling or taking alcohol, why should they try to interfere with my business?
'Madam Cash', Bar-owner

"We mount checkpoints on the main roads leading into the city and impound all lorries attempting to bring alcohol into our city. So, in fact, all the beer you see in Sabon Gari was smuggled in."

But Obinna Amaechi, sitting in a roadside bar with a beer bottle in his hand, is not worried.

"They are not serious. They come here at night and join us at the bar and now they say they want to come and destroy the beer parlours? I think they are joking," he says nonchalantly.

Bar-owner Chidinma Anakwe or "Madam Cash", as her customers call her, further points out that that the Hisbah said non-Muslims would not be affected by Sharia.

"They say Sharia is for the Muslims. As for me, my religion does not stop me from selling or taking alcohol, why should they try to interfere with my business?" she asks.

Madam Cash runs a roadside bar on a main road in Sabon Gari. Despite her passionate defence of her liquor trade, she wouldn't want her picture taken, afraid that her bar might be singled out by "some people" for cleansing.

Massaging the system

Her fear is common among the Christian and animist residents of Sabon Gari.

Having been through many ethnic and religious clashes, in which hundreds of people were killed, they have learnt to massage the system rather than rock the boat.

Kano mosque
Kano is an ancient Islamic city
Many of them reacted almost violently when attempts were made to take their pictures or those of their bars.

"As long as they remain this careful, they will keep their businesses and the Hisbah may never come here," Solomon Gapsiso, a Christian who has lived in Kano for more than a decade, said.

"The Hisbah are only joking," one sex worker said with what seemed like a genuine carefree attitude.

"Even for Saudi [Arabia], ashawo dey - there are prostitutes even in Saudi," she said.

Mr Abdulkarim says other societies may tolerate sex workers, but his green-uniformed Hisbah will not allow Kano to become the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.

However, there is yet another district where Mr Abdulkarim and his band of Hisbah volunteers will not go, even if they rid Sabon Gari of its "sinful" night life - the army and police barracks.

These also boast small "mammy markets", where alcohol is freely sold and sex-workers operate unhindered.

It is unlikely that Mr Abdulkarim's unarmed patrol teams could venture into these enclaves, suggesting Kano will continue to implement Sharia in patches for a long time to come.


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