Zamfara, an overwhelmingly Muslim state in northern Nigeria, adopted Shari’ah law on October 27, amidst celebrations by the area’s Muslim population and widespread support among other Muslims in the country. However, voices of concern were raised by Nigeria’s non-Muslim population - inevitably - and also by some Islamic movement leaders, including Shaikh Ibrahim Zakzaky. Most Islamic concern about the move, however, was voiced only privately.
Zamfara’s state governor, Ahmad Sani Yerima, inaugurated the state’s new legal system at a ceremony in Gusau, and invited federal president Olusegun Obasanjo, a ‘born-again Christian’, to attend the ceremony. But the former military dictator, who is now also a ‘born-again democrat’, had other ideas; he preferred to travel to Washington to confer with US president Bill Clinton about how best to deal with this new ‘affront’ to his country’s Christian minority, than go to Zamfara’s capital and join in inaugurating a project that he had devoted a lifetime to resisting.
In the event, neither Clinton nor Obasanjo thought it wise to comment publicly on Zamfara’s adoption of Shari’ah law when they met at the White House on October 28. But the US leader strongly praised his Nigerian counterpart’s leadership - indirectly sweeping aside mounting complaints that Obasanjo is sidelining his country’s largely Muslim population, and surrounding himself with fellow Yorubas from the west. Since he has also been accused of gradually disenfranchising the country’s Muslim majority in favour of Christians, both Yorubas and others.
Christian leaders and media in Nigeria, however, have not seen fit to withhold their criticism, at least initially - raising an outrageously irresponsible outcry that is out of all proportion to the perceived ‘threat’ of the new law, which will come into effect in January. The law will not apply to non-Muslims, who will continue to be governed by the current legislation, and Zamfara is the only state (out of a total of 36) adopting Shari’ah. And in any case, the state’s small population of two million - compared to more than 100 million countrywide - is an overwhelmingly Muslim area, where virtually all women routinely wear strict hijab.
Members of the tiny Christian minority are Igbos and Yorubas who migrated from the south and have lived in harmony for many years with the State’s predominantly Hausa-speaking Muslim majority. They are familiar with the Islamic way of life of the society they live in, and know that the courts already apply Shari’ah laws to civil matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritances whenever the parties to a dispute are Muslim. In instances where the parties are not Muslim, or are Muslim and Christian, the Shari’ah is not applicable, and the new law will not change that.
But the social and economic aspects of the law, which will affect Muslims and Christians alike, will target prostitution and the sale of alcohol. Ahmad Sani, the state governor, has already served notice on prostitutes to quit and on bars to wind up their businesses before the law comes into force. It is the prostitutes and bar-owners who will be most inconvenienced by the introduction of the Shari’ah, and those who speak in the name of Christianity should be the last to side with them, let alone back them with such Messianic zeal.
The Anglican Church has issued the sensational warning that the adoption of Shari’ah by Zamfara state is the first step towards turning the whole of Nigeria into an ‘orthodox Islamic state’. The Pentecostal Church has resorted to taking newspaper adverts (the Nigerian press is largely controlled by Southern Christians) denouncing “Sharriah on the attack”.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Anthony Achage, as if not to be outdone, has warned gravely that failure to nip Islamic law in the bud would lead to the dismemberment of the country. “If it is not halted now it would have a multiplier effect, particularly in the northern states of the country, and engineer far-reaching consequences,” he said.
It is true that large numbers of enthusiastic Muslims attended the inauguration of the Shari’ah at a square in Gusau on October 27. It is also true that this development enjoys the support of many Nigerian Muslims, that legislators in other predominantly Muslim states have raised the issue of the possible adoption of Shari’ah, and that Muslim politicians who do not privately back the Zamfara declaration have refrained from openly criticising it. But the response to the isolated application of Shari’ah, in a small, little-known and overwhelmingly Muslim state, has been completely over the top and irresponsible.
Such dire warnings from top Church officials are in fact more likely to cause than prevent the very strife they profess to fear. And there is a strong probability that those making them either subscribe to the line of Christian Solidarity International - the Swiss-based organisation that funds southern Sudanese warlords and accuses Khartoum of enslaving Christians - or are making political capital out of the larger western and Christian effort to demonise Islam.
What other explanation can there be for their frenzied reaction to a programme whose central plank is the creation of 42 Shari’ah courts with jurisdiction only over Muslims and without any competence whatsoever to consider constitutional issues? Could this reaction and the Nigerian Bar Council’s absurd allegation that the programme is subversive of the country’s secular constitution have to do more with the presence of a Sudanese delegation at its inauguration than with the perceived threat of “Sharriah on the attack” as the Pentecostal church’s spokesperson put it?
In any case, the assertion by Zamfara’s state-governor that the ‘role-model’ for the proposed system is Saudi Arabia should have reassured the Nigerian Church leaders and corrupt powerful officials, whether religious or secular. Not only does the application of Shari’ah in the kingdom not prevent the House of Saud from misappropriating most of its oil-wealth, but it does not prevent it from joining the US-led anti-Islamic global alliance either. Imagine the reaction if the state-governor had sent the prospective judges of the Shari’ah courts to Iran or Sudan, instead of to Saudi Arabia, for training!
The reservations of some Islamic movement leaders have been on other grounds: that the partial and incomplete application of the Shar’iah by politicians rather than by ulama or an Islamic political order is unlikely to bring positive results overall, as experiences in other countries have repeatedly shown.
Most of the Islamic movement leaders preferred not to speak out at this time, but privately many have let their feelings be known. They have warned that the effects of the experiment could prove negative in the long run, as a result of both the fuel that it gives to Islam’s enemies, and because its limitations and shortcomings are likely to distort people’s understanding of how an Islamic legal system - and by extension, an Islamic state and social order - would really operate.
Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1999