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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 22:13 GMT
Stoking Nigeria's Sharia fires
Safiya Husseini with her child, outside court
Safiya Husseini's death sentence has sparked an outcry
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By the BBC's Mannir Dan-Ali
In Abuja

The Nigerian Government's declaration that certain aspects of the Islamic Sharia law being operated in 12 northern states are unconstitutional has re-opened the acrimonious debate on the contentious subject in the volatile nation.

There are reports of widespread condemnation of the government position at Friday prayers where people are trying to make out what the latest pronouncement could mean.

After months of prevarication, Justice Minister Kanu Agabi on Wednesday made public a letter he had written to the governors of the affected states advising them to "take measures to amend or modify the jurisdiction of the courts imposing these punishments".

I want to thank the government for coming out boldly to declare Sharia illegal

Ademola Ishola
Nigerian Baptist convention

The position of the federal authorities comes just days before an appeals court is expected to rule in the most controversial judgement since Sharia was reintroduced over 2 years ago.

A court in Gwadabawa local government area of north-western Sokoto state sentenced a 35-year-old woman, Safiya Husseini, to death by stoning after she was found guilty of adultery.

The European Union and the Italian parliament, as well as a host of non-governmental organisations, have all appealed for Safiya to be spared.

Click here for a map of Sharia states

In an apparent reference to the case, the Nigerian justice minister said that he receives hundreds of letters daily protesting against the discriminatory punishments imposed by some Sharia courts for certain offences.

Under Sharia law, stealing could lead to amputation of the hands of offenders while those found guilty of drinking alcohol are given a specified number of lashes.

So far, at least two people have had their hands amputated and many have been flogged for one offence or the other.


Ahmed Sani, governor of Zamfara state where Islamic law was first introduced in 2000, was the first to condemn the federal government for declaring Sharia unconstitutional.

In an interview with the BBC, he maintained that Sharia was constitutional and the justice minister was either ignorant or being over-zealous.

Judge Mohammed Bello Sanyinlawal
Judge Mohammed Bello Sanyinlawal sentenced Safiya to death
But others like Dr Ademola Ishola, the general secretary of the Nigerian Baptist convention, welcomed the new government position.

"It is a good thing, I want to support the government for declaring it as illegal. I want to thank the government for coming out boldly to declare Sharia illegal."

People like Dr Ademola are mostly worried about the violence which followed plans to introduce Sharia in Kaduna state which has almost an equal number of Christian and Muslims.

In the clashes which erupted in February 2000, more than 1,000 people are feared to have lost their lives.

Such outbreaks of violence have further heightened sectarian differences in Nigeria.


A public commentator in Abuja, NaAllah Mohammed Zagga, told BBC News Online that he wonders why the government waited so long before taking a stand on the issue.

''What the government is doing is like swapping horses in the middle of the river, because this is a stage when Sharia has taken a firm emotional grip on the hearts and minds of Muslims.''

But even among Muslims, there has been concern about the way poor people bear the brunt of stiff punishment while those in positions of authority do not seem to be within the reach of even Sharia law.

They think the bloodshed they have had is not enough

Michael Chukwu

Until the recent pronouncement, the federal authorities have been ambivalent, maintaining that it was likely to fizzle out on its own.

In an echo of President Olusegun Obasanjo's often stated position on the subject, Michael Chukwu, a lawyer, told BBC News Online that he believes the whole Sharia matter is political.

But he blamed the ensuing sectarian clashes on the president and other members of the political leadership.

"The people who are ruling us are cooking this pot of Sharia to scatter us one way or the other."

He also asks: "Why are they bringing back it back now? To me it is because they think the bloodshed they have had is not enough.

"Let me tell you that President Obasanjo is not yet ready to make this country settled, because if he wants to make this country settled he would not even think of bringing back the issue of Sharia again."

With a new chapter of the Sharia debate now open, it is almost certain to become an issue at the general election due early next year.

Mohammed Saga says that politicians who have nothing else to sell to the electorate will exploit the issue.

For the moment, it is still unclear whether electoral considerations or pressure from abroad is responsible for the government's seeming about-turn on the combustible subject of Sharia in Nigeria.

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See also:

18 Mar 02 | Talking Point
Sharia Law: What do you think?
18 Mar 02 | Africa
Nigeria stoning decision delayed
23 Jan 02 | Africa
Nigeria's 'adulteress' set free
19 Oct 01 | Africa
Nigerian appeals Sharia sentence
14 Sep 01 | Africa
Nigerian sentenced to stoning
14 Jan 02 | Africa
Nigeria stoning appeal delayed
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