Bands of vigilantes in frayed red uniforms, armed with homemade
machetes, whips, and clubs, roam this poor and parched state on the
edge of the Sahara, detaining anyone suspected of misconduct.
The list of possible offenses is long, and justice is swift and
severe. In the past year, one cattle thief lost a hand, an unwed
teen mother received 100 lashes, and countless other men and women
endured similar public lashings for lesser transgressions.
Not surprisingly, crime has plummeted by more than half.
"People here are afraid to commit crime," says Musa Ossa, a
policeman lazing around the capital's quiet marketplace. "We don't
have many thieves anymore."
One year ago this overwhelmingly Muslim state in Nigeria's far
north adopted sharia law, a legal code based on various Islamic
texts, and sparked an Islamic revival.
The move has transformed Zamfara from a crime-ridden backwater to
a safe, model state and catapulted its first democratically elected
governor - who campaigned on a promise to restore Muslim morality -
from unknown bureaucrat to the darling of the Islamic world.
Since that time, residents across Nigeria's Muslim north have
demanded that their newly elected state governors follow suit.
So far, another 10 of Nigeria's 36 states have announced their
intention to introduce sharia law - returning the region to its pre-
colonial roots, when Islamic scholars, not secular judges, meted
"This is the benefit of democracy," says Isa Ibdulsalam, an
academic who is advising Kano State government on the
reintroduction of sharia law. "The people can come forward and
demand something. Under previous regimes, people didn't have that
But the world isn't celebrating this first tangible sign of
democracy at work in Nigeria, which for the past 15 years struggled
under a series of military dictatorships. From the beginning,
Western governments and nongovernmental organizations called sharia
law a travesty of human rights.
Christians, who make up half of Nigeria's population, say sharia
law has ushered in an era of persecution and intolerance of non-
Muslims. Sporadic riots in which hundreds of Christians and Muslims
have died in northern states preparing to institute the Islamic
legal code have confirmed those fears. Many Christians here wonder
aloud if this fragile new democracy can survive what they see as a
"Muslim holy war."
And now some Muslims here say that sharia law has replaced their
fear of crime with fear of government oppression.
Consider the story of Mohammed Sani, a pious tailor who neither
drinks nor smokes but nevertheless ran afoul of sharia law.
Sitting behind his old sewing machine, bare feet on the metal
foot pedal, Sani recalled the Friday last August when he preached
to his fellow Muslims in the cavernous dusty courtyard of the
capital's main mosque.
He pointed to the hundreds of banners, bumper stickers, and
posters featuring the governor's photograph and praise for sharia
law. Covering buildings, cars, and public spaces, they give this
state the feel of China under Mao.
"This is a political campaign," Sani told the group of men who
had gathered to listen. "Not sharia."
"I told them that sharia is from God not a governor."
Why, he asked the group, were government officials allowed to
keep their satellite dishes and VCRs, when the two cinemas in town
were closed? Why were the rich not compelled to give charity to the
poor, as is required under Islamic law? Why were only the poor
dragged before sharia court judges?
"Because this governor is using sharia law for his own political
purposes," Sani told them.
Police quickly arrested him.
"He went right into the mosque and criticized the government,"
says an incredulous Umar Shitu, the judge who heard Sani's case
last September. …