The northern Nigerian State of Zamfara has announced a decision to implement Islamic law, or Sharia as the prevailing law of the land in the region. The move, although reportedly popular among Zamfara's 99 percent Muslim population, has provoked criticism from some of Nigeria's prominent Christians and secularists. But despite the harshness of the reaction, the move towards Sharia law seems to provide the basis for valuable debate over the nature of the Nigerian government and the meaning of secularism itself.
The introduction of Sharia in Zamfara will come into effect October 27, but state funds have already been released for the launch and State Governor Sani Yarima has said the move is part of an election promise. While a writer for the Lagos-based The News alleges that Yarima is acting on a promise made to several prominent Muslim Mullahs from whom the Governor had secured prayers for his election victory, Yarima says he is honoring the wishes of the Zamfara people.
And although the Nigerian constitution prohibits the formation of a religious state, Yarima holds that Muslims should be allowed to practice Sharia as part of their religious freedom. In an October 18 interview with The News, Yarima said: "We are a Muslim state. As a Muslim dominated state, therefore, we are trying to improve upon our religion. Because in Islam to you cannot be a partial Muslim, but you have to be a total Muslim and without Sharia you wouldn't be described a Muslim because Allah has declared in the Koran that for you to be a Muslim you must embrace Sharia and that is what we are doing. So we are a Muslim state, not an Islamic state per se."
The current Sharia courts in effect in northern Nigeria do not constitute the application of Sharia law, according to Yarima, because judges are rarely trained in Islamic law. Although Islamic courts will continue to be under the State's' chief judiciary, the actual implementation will be controlled by a council of religious scholars, Yarima told The News. Other states in northern Nigeria, such as Yobe and Sokoto, are moving to adopt similar measures, reflecting the apparent desire of Nigerian Muslims for a greater reliance on Islamic law.
Aside from the judiciary, Sharia law would also alter current methods for dealing with prostitution, alcohol consumption and crime prevention. The president of the Federation of Muslim Women's Associations in Nigeria (FOMWAN), Justice Uwani Adamu, told a conference in Yobe that, "We believe that the introduction of the Sharia law into our legal system is a step in the right direction in moral upliftment in our society. This will correct moral decadence and overall insecurity that may remain pervasive in the next millennium," as quoted by Nigeria's Guardian on October 18.
While minority non-Muslims in northern Nigeria, mainly ethnic Yoruba and Ibo Christians, have remained silent on the introduction of Sharia, according to an October 18 report in the The News, many outside the state have reacted strongly to Zamfara's decision. The President of Nigeria's League for Human Rights, Nankin Bagudu, was quoted by the Guardian on October 18 as saying the move is "unconstitutional and capable of leading to chaos and breakdown of law and order" by "igniting extreme religious views." While Bagudu was no doubt implying that Muslims would be the source of chaos and extremism, the only such instance to occur thus far in the controversy over Sharia was the blame of government troops. A messenger sent to alert a locally stationed military division of the ban on alcohol was severely beaten, The News reported on October 18.
Further opposition has been manifested by several southern newspaper editorials. The Igbo Youth Movement issued a statement warning of possible abuse of Sharia and calling on the Nigerian government to stop the implementation of Islamic law. But Rev. Peter Dambo, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), has so far reserved judgement on the issue. Dambo told The News in a recent interview that lack of knowledge prevented him from being able to "condemn or praise" the introduction of Sharia.
Proponents of Sharia law in Nigeria have made efforts to allay the fears of non-Muslims. Yarima met with CAN last month to answer any questions and assure Christians that Sharia law would only apply to Muslims. In his interview with The News, Yarima said that in cases involving both a Muslim and a Christian, the Christian would be able to opt to try the case in a civil court. Yarima told The News that, "These laws will apply to Muslims. It is not going to affect non-Muslims. Christians have the freedom as guaranteed in the Constitution of this country to practice their religion without any hindrance. We are not going to do anything that would affect their religion at all."
It is possible that Muslim leaders in Nigeria will be able to assuage, on a religious basis, the rifts with non-Muslims incurred by the introduction of Sharia. But Muslims face a more difficult challenge in convincing secularists -- those who believe in the separation of Church and State -- of the legitimacy of religion's place in the public sphere.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com