As Democracy Returns to Nigeria, Muslims Are Sticking to Religion MOSQUE AND STATE

Article excerpt

The muezzin call to Islamic prayer comes five times a day, and five times a day, the pulse of daily life in this northern Nigerian town almost stops. Merchants stop selling, children stop running. The women become invisible. And the hot wind from the Sahara carries with it everywhere the sound of prayer.

Roughly half of Nigeria's 120 million people, as calculated by the United Nations, are estimated to be Muslim, which makes the country's largely Sunni Muslim population a statistical force: the largest in Africa and one of the largest in the world.

Yet in the predominantly Muslim north, in a society firmly anchored by the practice of Islam, religion and politics simply don't mix. Run-up to presidential elections In the run-up to the presidential elections in February - which are expected to return the country to civilian rule after 15 years of military dictatorship - the political debate in the north has focused on the merits of the candidates, irrespective of their religious affiliation. "One thing that will not determine the outcome of these elections is religion," says Abdul Oroh, the director of the Civil Liberties Organization, a human rights group based in Lagos. Boding well for the February elections was the Commonwealth's satisfaction with the "successful conduct" of Saturday's local elections. The Commonwealth suspended Nigeria in 1995 for human rights abuses and failure to reestablish democracy. Nigeria's candidates from the south are mostly Christians or unorthodox Muslims who drink, smoke, and generally do not fast. In the north they are assessed on the basis of their ties to the discredited military establishment, which has ruled Nigeria for all but a decade since independence from Britain in 1960. The stronger a candidate's ties with the military, the smaller the credit with the northern electorate, and this despite the fact that the north has always controlled the military. "I don't care if he's a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, or an atheist as long as he is not a thief or a murderer and can run this country," says Usman Kumo, a devout Muslim in charge of the student government at Bayero University in Kano, the largest city in the north and a center of Islamic faith for the whole of West Africa. Interestingly, Mr. Kumo is about to get a combined degree in law that will tailor the practice of common law to the underlying principles of sharia, the law of the Koran. "We are Muslims, all of us, our law is the law of Islam. But politics is a different thing," he explains. Similar convictions about the political irrelevance of Islam were echoed in the old stone market in Kano. None of the vendors - peddling everything from beads to silver jewelry to cowhide, spices, and yams - saw the faintest connection between their religious beliefs and the upcoming transition to democracy. "There is no matter about being Muslim or Christian, no matter at all," says Yohusa Abdullahi, a blanket seller. …


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