"Shariacracy" in Nigeria

Difficult Balance between Sharia and Human Rights

A goat thief is punished more severely than a president who misappropriates government funds. The introduction of the Sharia has brought no improvements, Nigerian sociologist and economist Lamido Sanusi insists. By Lennart Lehmann

photo: Kingsley Li-Addy
Nigerian sociologist and economist Lamido Sanusi

​​"Nigeria is like a cake: the thieves sit all around it, and the one with the biggest knife gets the biggest piece. The biggest knife is the threat of national unity," Lamido Sanusi, Nigerian sociologist, religion scholar says about his homeland, an important oil-exporting country.

The West African state has always had difficulty holding together a population of 120 million people comprising more than 250 ethnic groups, most of which have their own languages. Rivalries between the Suni Muslim Haussa-Fulla (also known as Haussa-Fulbe and Haussa-Fullani) in the north and the Christian or animist Yoruba who dominate the economically powerful southwest regularly lead to harrowing outbreaks of violence.

After the election victory of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, Nigeria returned to democracy after years of military dictatorship. That same year the governors of the northern provinces adapted their legal systems to conform to the Sharia. As in the USA, each state has its own legal system. Soon Islamic law was in force in 12 of Nigeria’s 26 provinces.

Sharia - Symbol of Muslim identity

For Sanusi, the timing was no accident: "Due to the democratization and the election of a non-Muslim head of state, the military circles, who mostly come from the north, lost their political influence" – and needed a new "knife".

"The Sharia is a powerful symbol of Muslim identity. Since the late 90s regional identity has been increasingly emphasized in all Nigeria’s regions. The reason for this is the people’s profound feeling of insecurity caused by poverty, unemployment, escalating crime, corruption, etc."

According to the anti-corruption organization "Transparency International", Nigeria is one of the most corrupt states on earth. Around 200 billion dollars, almost seven times Nigeria's foreign debt, are estimated to have been misappropriated.

The majority of Nigerians are skeptical about the introduction of the Sharia – including the Muslim clergy. Christian fundamentalists hope that the Sharia will prove an effective weapon against alcoholism and prostitution.

Heated arguments on both sides

Opponents and supporters of Islamic law are engaged in heated debates about its function, interpretation and status in multicultural, multireligious Nigeria. Accusations of discrimination are frequent. The issue has long since spread beyond religious circles.

"More and more people are getting drawn into the debate. In a certain respect one can speak of a democratization of the Sharia," Sanusi believes.

Is the former British colony developing into a "Shariacracy"? This term was coined by cultural scholar Ali Mazrui to denote a liberal democratic system in which justice is administered according to the Sharia.

However, it is unclear what relationship exists between state justice and the Sharia in a multireligious state that is part of the international community. The Nigerian constitution acknowledges common law, Sharia, and the national legislation modeled on British law.

However, Nigeria has also signed international agreements in support of human rights. These agreements prohibit such actions as amputating the hands of thieves.

Lack of training for Muslim lawyers

The case of Safiya Hussainis, whom a trail court condemned to death by stoning for adultery, provoked international protests. However, even according to Sharia law, the verdict was a scandal, indicating that Nigerian lawyers are often very poorly trained.

On appeal, Hussaini was acquitted due to grave procedural errors. "In another case, a thief who had been condemned to lose his hand insisted on the punishment against the advice of his lawyers," Sanusi reports.

But shouldn't the state be required to protect a person from himself in a case like that? And can it authorize executioners to amputate its citizens' limbs, or even kill them?

Another contentious issue is the fact that Islamic law is not standardized. "According to the Malikites, an Islamic legal school, common law applies as long as it does not contradict the Koran," Sanusi says. "However, the governors of Nigeria's Muslim provinces come from different regions, which means that they have different approaches to the Sharia."

As he points out, different ideological backgrounds also play a role. Those behind the Islamization of Nigeria include people associated with the Muslim Brothers, while others are influenced by Iran's Islamic revolution. And still different groups try to reconcile western-style liberal democracy with Islam.

Justice, Sharia-style?

Ultimately, future developments in Nigeria will depend largely on whether the introduction of the Sharia will bring what people expect it to – more justice.

"Islam claims to be a religion of justice," explains Sanusi. "Now, according to the Sharia, someone who breaks into someone else's house and steals a goat tethered there is a thief – his hand is amputated.

"However, if the goat thief is a domestic servant who had legal access to the house, the deed is considered an abuse of trust, but not a theft, and it is punished less severely.

"Finally, when this is applied to a legally-elected president who misappropriates millions of dollars in government money, legal experts speak of an abuse of trust, but do not consider it a more serious act of theft.

"Thus, someone who steals someone else’s goat is punished more severely than a president who steals millions of dollars from the state. Is that just?" So far, according to Sanusi, "the introduction of the Sharia has brought no improvements."

Lennart Lehmann

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

Lamido Sanusi, sociologist, religious scholar and economist, studied religion studies in Khartoum and works as a risk manager for the United Bank of Africa. He belongs to the family of the Emir of Kano, one of the provinces where the Sharia was introduced in 1999.

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