Different versions of sharia
Twelve northern states currently have sharia law as the principal legal system. Sharia law derives from the teachings of the Koran. Sharia is more than a legal system, it is a way of life for Muslims in the same way the bible offers Christians moral guidance.
Sharia law is practiced to varying degrees in Islamic countries around the world and includes legal codes for banking, inheritance and marriage. Saudi Arabica, where beheadings are not uncommon, claims to implement the purist form of sharia. Malaysia and Turkey, by contrast, exercise much more liberal versions of sharia law.
The Islamist sect Boko Haram’s main aim is to enforce sharia law in the 19 states that make up northern Nigeria. Non-Muslims in the country are outraged, but are they right to fear sharia law?
By Ekwtosi Collyer, Kaduna
“Sharia law has extended so many rights to women,” insists Remi Atunwa, a practicing Muslim and barrister, from her chambers in Kaduna, the capital of a state with the same name, where sharia law is practiced. “For instance, a married woman has some rights her husband must fulfill. The Koran goes as far as saying a husband is obliged to make love to his wife.”
In 1999 sharia law was reintroduced in 12 northern states, shortly after democracy was reinstalled in Nigeria. So far the road has been littered with controversy. Two cases in 2002 particular, involving women accused of adultery who were sentenced to death by stoning, brought international condemnation. Although their convictions were later overturned, the damage was done. Hundreds of people lost their lives in inter-religious clashes between hard-line Christians and Muslims in Kaduna and Kano state as a direct result of these controversial rulings.
To date, only one person, albeit one too many for human rights activists, has been executed under sharia law in Nigeria. No amputations have been carried out. So what is it that non-Muslims are afraid of?
“Southerners feel power is concentrated in the north,” according to Shehu Sani, a civil rights activist and founder of the Civil Rights Congress. “It goes back to colonial times when the British imposed indirect rule through sultans and emirs in the north. So the fear is that sharia could spread to places where Muslims don’t make up the majority.”
Sharia law only applies to practicing Muslims living in the 12 northern states. And even then a person can decide whether or not they want their case heard in a sharia, customary or common law court. “How I advise my client depends on the type of crime. If they are accused of stealing something, but they are not caught with the item, then they cannot be tried in a sharia court. Depending on the value of the item, they will either be sent to a magistrates or customary court, or if the item is of high value they will be sent to the high court,” explains Remi Atunwa.
Nigeria’s justice system has come under repeated criticism from local and international human rights organizations. Amnesty International, in its 2011 Annual Report on human rights in Nigeria, referred to the “criminalization of poverty”, where by those who have the financial means buy themselves out of trouble. Detractors of sharia law complain that the harshest sentences are handed down to the most socially vulnerable, particularly poor women.
“Ahmed Rufai Sani is a case in point. He pushed for the imposition of sharia law in Nigeria while he was governor [of Zamfara State]. But when it was revealed he embezzled billions of naira [hundreds of thousands of euros], the sharia courts were silent,” says Sani Shehu.
Ahmed Rufai Sani played even further into the hands of those opposed to sharia law in Nigeria by marrying a 13-year old child bride from Egypt in 2010. Ahmed Rufai Sani justified his actions through sharia law which permits men to marry brides as young as 13. An investigation by the Child Protection Agency is yet to be concluded.
As Boko Haram continues its campaign of violence in the name of religion, Islam and sharia law look set to be associated with radicalism in Nigeria. It therefore seems unlikely sharia law will be imposed in the seven remaining plurality Muslim states of Nigeria’s middle belt. And only full scale-jihad will see sharia become a legal system in Nigeria’s 17 majority Christian southern states.