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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September 2003, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
Islam in Nigeria: Simmering tensions

By Dan Isaacs
BBC Correspondent in Lagos, Nigeria

President Obasanjo likes to refer to Nigeria as a 'multi-religious' country, with a constitution that, whilst reflecting the expectations of the different faiths, remains essentially secular.

There are roughly the same number of Muslims and Christians in a country of 120 million people, which means that Nigeria has one of the largest communities of Muslims anywhere in the world.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo
President Obasanjo refers to Nigeria as a 'multi-religious' country

Although the majority of the population of Nigeria's northern states are Muslim, there are many Christians living there as well.

Perceptions of the daily lives of ordinary Muslims in Nigeria tend to be overshadowed by the media reports of conflict and crisis between Muslim and Christian communities in some northern cities.

But the vast majority of Nigeria's Muslims are devout and law abiding. Passionate views are held on events in the Middle East, often anti-American in sentiment, but it cannot be said that Nigeria is a country of Muslims radicalised by recent world events.

Religious tensions

However, over the past few years, relations between members of the two faiths have been severely strained, with sporadic outbreaks of violence related to the introduction of Islamic criminal punishments across northern Nigeria.

In the worst such incident in the city of Kaduna three years ago, more than 2,000 people died in street protests eventually brought under control by the army.

It's estimated that during President Obasanjo's first four years in office (from 1999-2003), well over 10,000 people died in clashes between the country's Muslim and Christian communities.

Many observers see this unrest not as a result of the spontaneous eruption of religious tensions, but as being provoked by marginalized politicians, using cultural divisions and misunderstandings to destabilise parts of the country for their own ends.

There is convincing evidence that opponents of Mr Obasanjo's government sought to undermine the country's stability during his first term in office.

A Nigerian army soldier walks through a destroyed neighbourhood in Kaduna after clashes in 2000
Thousands died in clashes between religious extremists in Kaduna
It is also noteworthy that following the elections in April 2003 in which Mr Obasanjo won a second four year term, inter-religious violence has largely abated.

This is perhaps a reflection of the fact that many of the political aspirations of northern Muslim leaders have been met, or at least that compromises have been made that has reduced communal tensions for the time being.

Historical roots of Islam

There have been Muslims in Nigeria as far back as the 12th Century - scholars from northern Africa making their way across the trade routes of the Sahara desert, bringing with them Islamic culture and learning.

Over the subsequent centuries waves of Islamic 'jihads' swept through the dry semi-desert regions of West Africa, from what is now Senegal across to northern Nigeria.

Traditional rulers have ceded much of their powers to the northern Muslim politicians and power brokers
These were in many ways wars of colonisation, great armies on horseback establishing powerful feudal empires, and firmly establishing the religion of Islam.

The most recent of these jihads were in the 19th Century, with religious leaders like Usman dan Fodio reinforcing the great Islamic caliphates of Sokoto, Borno and others in what is now northern Nigeria.

When the British arrived in northern Nigeria towards the end of the 19th Century, first as traders and then as colonial administrators, they established a system of indirect rule, allowing traditional Muslim rulers to continue to govern, reinforcing their positions under the loose administration of the British, and firmly establishing an extremely powerful Muslim elite.

Guide: Militant Islamic groups
Profiles of the main Islamic militant groups around the world.

This structure has proved immensely resilient throughout the later colonial period and then after independence in 1960, although more recently, the traditional rulers have ceded much of their powers to the northern Muslim politicians and power brokers.

It is in this context that many of the recent political moves towards the strengthening of Islam in the north, such as the extension of Sharia laws, can be understood - as a way of securing popular support by harnessing deep cultural and religious values developed over the centuries.

The impact of Sharia

Although some aspects of Islamic civil law had been integrated into the legal system in northern Nigeria since the early colonial period more than 100 years ago, it was the recent extension of these laws in the north to include harsh criminal punishments that has generated such controversy.

These Sharia punishments include stoning to death for the crime of adultery, amputation of limbs for theft, and flogging for the possession of alcohol.

Although non-Muslims in the these states are not governed by such laws, there is a strong feeling among Christians that the new laws represent an increasing Islamisation of the region, and with it, an intolerance of other faiths.

Amina Lawal, who was sentenced to death, under Sharia law
Amina Lawal's death sentence was central to the Sharia debate
Many ordinary Muslims in Nigeria initially welcomed the new Sharia laws, believing that they would provide a more 'just' moral code by which to govern their lives.

This is because during the decades of harsh military rule, they had witnessed a corrupt and bureaucratic legal system, favouring the rich, and failing to bring justice to the poor.

But what has emerged within the new Sharia court system is, to many, worse than what they experienced before. Not only do the rich and well-connected continue to escape prosecution, but for the ordinary Muslim to challenge the workings of the Sharia courts is seen as directly questioning Islam and the will of Allah.

Not surprisingly, across northern Nigeria many Muslims are becoming increasingly sceptical about a system that has brought them little benefit and has served well the interests of the established political elite.

The overwhelming desire of the vast majority of Nigeria's Muslims is that they can continue to practice their religion peacefully, and that justice - whether Islamic or otherwise - will bring about a more equitable society.

However, in reality the economic and social divisions within Nigerian society remain as wide as ever, providing fertile ground for future tensions and unrest.

If you have a question or comment about this article, fill in the form below.

Your comments:

As a Christian from southern Nigeria who was raised in northern Nigeria, I have seen first hand what religious intolerance causes. I believe that religion is a private issue and should not be brought to the fore. Nigeria is a secular state and we don't need sharia law.
Nwakego Eyisi, USA

Shari'a is a Muslim's right, and this right comes with the duty to prevent its abuse
Reno Omokri, United Kingdom.
I am a Nigerian Christian resident in the United Kingdom and I see Shari'a as an integral part of the life of any Muslim. A Muslim should be allowed to practice his religion to the fullest extent, and Shari'a is that extent. Shari'a is from a Muslim's perspective the law of God, and it's practise is in furtherance of God's purpose. However, I believe that Muslims must resist Shari'a being used to further any political purpose, and also being applied in the area of criminal law only the poor and helpless. This will appear to be an abuse of the law of God. No one can complain and resist this abuse effectively but a Muslim. Shari'a is a Muslim's right, and this right comes with the duty to prevent its abuse.
Reno Omokri, United Kingdom

Secularism -the division between religion and state is a Christian concept and belief. Why should Muslims have to live under Christian rules and ideas? Let the Muslims be ruled by Sharia and non-Muslims by their own laws. In the Islamic states of the past Christians and Jews were able to have their own courts and maintain their own legal systems - why can't non-Muslims extend this tolerance to Muslims in Nigeria?
Mahmood Akbar, Sweden

We often talk about democracy and allowing people to choose what they want. My question is: Would we allow people to choose the Sharia if they want it? The Muslim of North Nigeria want it, and since it would only apply to them (Muslims), why are the rest disallowing it? Where is the freedom then?
Amir, UK

The truth is that the religious crises in Nigeria are not as religious as people think. Poverty has made it easy for politicians to mobilise the lower class in the society into crises. If you take the statistics of casualties, only sons of the poor are found dead. If the life of ordinary Nigerians became better, it will be difficult to mobilise people to fight in the name of religion.
Gandu Yusuf Joe, Ethiopia

I agree with others who say that Sharia is another ruse by the political elite to further distract and subjugate their people. The real problems are economic and political and until we have a National Conference to restructure the country and determine how we wish to be governed, as a country with the Rule of Law firmly established, the problem will not go away.
Ms Yemisi Ransome-Kuti, Nigerian

I support the Sharia law
Tokunboh Odusami, US
I don't belong to any religious faith, however, I support the Sharia law if the politicians and clerics trumpeting it make it applicable to all Muslims regardless of their status in the society.
Tokunboh Odusami, US

The sharia law being practised in the northern part of Nigeria won't work and will continue to add to more suffering of the ordinary people so long it is been implemented by the same corrupt elite that don't see themselves being prosecuted by this same law.
Adetunji Onamade, Boston, Massachusetts

The problem is that other religions wants law their way in name of federal constitution. But when Muslims want their way then there is a hue and cry. Don't care for the West and follow Sharia and respect everybody, Muslims and non Muslims with justice due to every human being.
Shadab, India

The problem here is extremism as well as intolerance on the part of secularists. I believe strongly that the Muslims in Nigeria have actually not done enough to exert their rights.
Muhammad Loquitor, Nigeria

Until Muslims truly understand their own faith and history, they will be easily manipulated by extremists
Jeff G, USA
Those who say that Sharia is God's law are completely ignorant of Islamic history. For one there are multiple versions and interpretations of Sharia. Secondly, Sharia was first developed about a hundred years after the founding of Islam and it was not implemented in any society for a few hundred years more. Only a small percentage of the Sharia Laws come from the Koran or the Hadith. Until Muslims truly understand their own faith and history, they will be easily manipulated by extremists who try to use a false version of Islam to gain power and influence.
Jeff G, USA

The problem here is extremism as well as intolerance on the part of secularists. I believe strongly that the Muslims in Nigeria have actually not done enough to exert their rights.
Muhammad Loquitor, Nigeria

Sharia in Nigeria is purely a political tool to make a statement by a tiny cabal trying to hold the country to ransom. Look at Turkey almost 100% Muslims, yet the recent Miss Turkey was crowned Miss World without any uproar in Turkey! Closer home still, Senegal has over 90% of the population as being Muslims yet Christmas is openly celebrated and acknowledged in Dakar in December, same for Mali, yet we hardly hear of any Sharia controversies! Who is fooling who? Are there different versions of the Holy Qur'an? Or is it a case of interpreting the Qur'an to suit the selfish needs of a clique craving for relevance and dominance on the Nigerian political landscape?
Niyi Olaloku, Nigeria

The tensions in Nigeria come from above not from the vast majority of people going about their lives
James Attree, United Kingdom
The real root for the tensions in Northern Nigeria and the implementation of Sharia is due to the growth of Christianity in Northern Nigeria and the attempts of the ruling Muslim elites to try and curtail it by making it near impossible for Muslims to convert to Christianity by making it punishable by death via Sharia law. Hence the real root of the problem lies not with the ordinary people who have long lived in relative peace with one another, but with the Muslim politicians of Northern Nigeria who are fearful of losing their hold of power. This is only getting worse because whether it is in China, India, Africa or wherever; the more any religious group is persecuted the more it grows. The tensions in Nigeria come from above not from the vast majority of people going about their lives.
James Attree, United Kingdom

Islam and Christianity are both built on the principles of brotherhood, peace, non-violence and equality. From Afghanistan to Nigeria, you can see that it is "the power holders" and "the traditions" rather than the religion that dismantles peace and harmony. Let's avoid blaming the religion and rather weigh our self-developed attitudes and behaviours.
Mirwais Nahzat, Canada

Asalam Alikum to all (Peace To All) I believe that Sharia can work only if applied to all classes of the population. There can be no exceptions. The Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) said with regard to the issue of equality in punishment that if his daughter were to steal he would cut off her hand. So, As it stands right now, we have to make Sharia apply evenly to all(Muslims) while respecting all the rights of non-Muslims.
Ridah Elshahawi, USA

All religions are systems of repression
Vincent Bourke, Ireland
If you study media reports of inter-religious community strife worldwide, almost all of them will excuse the religion(s) involved, and the religious segregation and indoctrination of children, from any blame in the situation. It's about time the international media called a spade a spade: All religions are systems of repression through forced indoctrination of children, and ALL repress many elements of the minimum generally accepted standards of human rights worldwide. They are all based on what have been shown, by most leading historians and scientists on earth, to be books of untruths and fiction. Every human being's relationship with her or his God or Maker is an individual matter which no-one can have any knowledge of. Anyone (or any book) who claims to 'know' this relationship for any individual is telling an untruth and must not be allowed to carry on in this deluded fashion in human society.
Vincent Bourke, Ireland

I am a Muslim and I feel that Sharia cannot be implemented by the present day Muslims since they lack a sense of fair play and are intolerant and become rash when Sharia is discussed. In most cases the high standard of evidence needed is not available and punishment is pronounced without the feel of justice or even common sense. Your president rightly remarked that Islamic law is not codified.
Mirqaiserhussain, USA

Sharia is an Islamic code of life. Just like any legal system under corrupt administration it can instigate contentious issues. If implemented in the spirit, Sharia just like any other system can bear positive results.
Salman, Oman

The problem has nothing to do with Sharia, politicians are to be blamed for failure in every field.
Abdinasir Hussein, Somalia.

Despite what most Muslims say about Sharia serving the interests of all religions, this is a completely false claim
Mark, Saudi Arabia
I am an expat living in Saudi Arabia which is governed by strict Sharia Law. Despite what most Muslims say about Sharia serving the interests of all religions, this is a completely false claim. No other religion is allowed to be practised in Saudi Arabia except for Islam. There are countless people languishing in Saudi jails because they dared practise Christianity in their homes. But the Saudi's spend millions building mosques all over the western world. Muslims are duty bound to try to convert all others to their religion - it is their sacred duty. They don't publicise this fact though. People that have no experience of living in a country ruled by Shariah law should be under no illusions as to the dire consequences to human rights and freedom of religious practises which are imposed by this archaic and inflexible faith.
Mark, Saudi Arabia

I am a Christian youth from Northern Nigeria. In fact as at the time of writing this email, we cannot understand what they mean when they say that it is only for Muslims, and that the implementation of such legal code will not affect non Muslims. Let me assure you that our rights has been denied. In this part of the country, there is nothing like equal rights or opportunities
Bazza, Nigeria

I used to work in Nigeria, and continue to study the relationship between Christians & Muslims in that country. I noticed that Dan Isaacs states that there are roughly similar numbers of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. Why then does your map show that Nigeria is a majority Muslim country? Northern Nigeria is, the centre is contested, and the south is clearly Christian. Nor are there any reliable official statistics as to the religious balance as the question has been too controversial for recent government censuses
Paul Todd, U.K.

Sharia is the Law of God and will be established regardless. It serves the interest of both Muslims and non-Muslims. It brought down corruption and crime. The bottom line is that Muslims are obligated to carry out their duties to Allah by establishing His command and treat other (non-Muslims) with respect and dignity
Mohamed Dini, U.S.A

The statement from Mohammed Dini that Sharia is God's law and should be imposed on even non-Muslims shows exactly what the problem with Muslims is. Its an Islamic belief that Sharia is God's law. 5 billion people don't think so. The day Muslims learn to respect this, there will be peace in Nigeria and other troubled parts of the world.
Aditya, USA

To say recent world events have not radicalised the Nigerian Muslim is to deny the obvious
Ibrahim Abdullahi, Nigeria
I do strongly disagree with the view expressed in this article that recent religious upheavals are unconnected with events elsewhere. In fact recent events in the Middle East and Afghanistan have contributed immensely in radicalising a large percentage of Nigerian Muslims and further drawing a wedge between them and the Christian population. This was highly evident during the recent in Afghanistan and Iraq where you could see people of the two religions taking opposing sides. In fact to say recent world events have not radicalised the Nigerian Muslim is to deny the obvious.
Ibrahim Abdullahi, Nigeria

Like many UK based Nigerian parents, mine sent me to federal government college in Nigeria to have an understanding of life back home. The school was in Kano State in Northern Nigeria. I can't remember what started it, but there were rumours in 1987 about some religious tension which lead to a church burning down in the town. I remember the words of a friend of mine who was a Muslim from the southern Yoruba tribe who said that he "will never fight brothers". That comment spread across the school and seemed to calm the whole situation which was becoming increasingly volatile. It seems to me that as Nigerians we are quite happy to co exist until outside influences come into play.
Sunday Adeyemi Adepegba, United Kingdom

I guess it's time we allowed our beliefs to enhance our lives. It's so disheartening when we spend our already very limited resources and energy without adding real value whether it is in the name of politics or religion.
Nat Adade, Ghana

Sharia is no good for any state in Nigeria. We should drop it and live according to the laws enshrined in the federal constitution.
Samuel Ojoro, Nigeria

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