Legal Battles: Nigeria's Shari'a Controversy. (Global Notebook)

By Chun, Michelle | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Legal Battles: Nigeria's Shari'a Controversy. (Global Notebook)


Chun, Michelle, Harvard International Review


Human rights organizations and the international media have focused on the plight of Nigerian women since shari'a (Islamic law) came into force in the northern, predominately Muslim, states of Nigeria.

The stories of Safiya Hussaini and others affected by the new laws have sparked an escalating conflict between traditional shari'a principles and contemporary human rights standards. Underlying this tension is a series of more fundamental divisions within Nigeria. The political, economic, and religious split between the northern and southern provinces, the schism between the dominant Muslim and the minority Christian communities, and the conflict between the political-military and economic sectors have transformed the issue of shari'a and its application into a battle between opposing interests. Clearly, the country is divided by more than geography: the northern region is home to the politically and militarily empowered Islamic Hausa-Fulani group, while the southern states remain the base of the richer Christian Yoruba and Ibo groups. But those who suffer most from the division are the individuals who must abide by the new law of the land. Punishments issued by shari'a courts include stoning, lashing, and ot her practices that have outraged the international community.

Safiya Hussaini, a 35-year old divorcee, was tried and convicted of adultery, which carries a mandatory punishment of death by stoning in the state of Sokoto. Her trial presented one of the most visible examples of women caught in this cultural crossfire. Sokoto is one of 12 states in the predominantly Muslim North that adopted shari'a in 2000. Violence stemming from the controversy over shari'a erupted in February of that year when fighting broke out between Muslims and Christians in the northern city of Kaduna. Eventually, after a march in protest of the proposed introduction of Islamic law in the state of Kunda, the unrest spread to neighboring towns and eastern cities, further exacerbating the existing tension between conflicting Nigerian interests.

Along with this polarization came criticism regarding the politicization of religion. Critics have suggested that politicians in the northern states use the issue of shari'a to garner popular support from the disenchanted and disadvantaged Muslim majorities. Playing the "shari'a card" also contributes to state autonomy, which directly opposes Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's central government. The payoffs for the North are political, though the justification is disingenuously pious. Politicians who promise to bring shari'a to their districts can draw the support of large Muslim communities and thereby develop a coalition to contest the growing political strength of the Christian-dominated South. Noting this tension, Obasanjo has repeatedly argued that religious laws directly conflict with Nigeria's constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. …

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