The recently announced decision to implement Sharia law in the northern Nigerian state of Zamfara poses a significant challenge to the principals underlying Nigeria's fledgling democracy. The struggle for Sharia, which is being mirrored in other Nigerian States such as Yobe, Kebbi and Sokoto, is more than a debate over the worthiness of Islamic law in dealing with Nigeria's present turbulence. It is a question of the nature of Nigeria's new democracy and of the very character imported secular democracy should take in non-Western societies.
Some prominent Nigerian leaders have denounced Zamfara's move towards greater use of Sharia law. While such leaders have not kept themselves from more emotional criticism, including warning of large-scale hand-chopping and dark portrayals of life under Islamic law in such countries as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, the crux of the argument concerns the nature of Nigeria's newly adopted democracy.
In an interview published October 20 in the Lagos-based Guardian, a Kuduna State constitutional lawyer, Emmanuel Toro, said the Zamfara announcement is unconstitutional. Nigeria's 1999 constitution, which Toro admits "has its weaknesses," says in section 10 that no state is able to adopt any religion as its state religion. "What the [Zamfara] governor is doing smacks of fundamental challenge to the authority of the federal government and our constitutional framework," Toro told the Guardian.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), previously silent on the Sharia issue, yesterday joined the ranks arrayed against Zamfara. CAN president Sunday Mbang told the BBC that the move towards greater Sharia in the North would "endanger our hard-won democracy," as quoted by the Guardian on October 20.
Zamfara's governor, Ahmed Sani Yarima, maintains that the changes will not affect anybody but the State's 99 percent Muslim population, and that his call for greater use of Sharia reflects the desire of the people themselves. Zamfara State Attorney General Ibrahim Okala, speaking October 19 on the BBC's Hausa service, according to the Guardian, said the move towards Sharia was a result of popular outcry. He said the government had received some 50,000 letters demanding an improvement of living standards through the greater application of Sharia law. He reportedly told the BBC that, despite the present constitution, democracy meant that the state should listen to the people and not suppress their yearnings and aspirations.
Others have defended Sharia as not being in conflict with democracy. Sokoto State coordinator of the National Orientation Agency (NOA), Jeli Abubakar said in an October 19 statement summarized by the Guardian that Sharia law drew on such principals as justice for all people, the alleviation of poverty and honesty and rationality in all things from government to marriage contracts.
Speaking to a mosque gathering over the weekend, Lateef Adegbite of the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) said that the notion of separation of Church and State was not a legitimate basis for the attack on Sharia. He said, "Those who maintain outright opposition to the application of Sharia law are reminded that Nigeria is a federation, a democratic and a multi-religious state and not a secular state as being erroneously peddled," as quoted by the Guardian on October 18.
As the Nigerian central government seeks to legitimize itself through democratic principals rather than authoritarian practice, the Sharia debate evidences a conflict over how the government should carry out its lofty principals of service to the people. The variety of ethnic and religious divides among Nigeria's 36 States has come to the fore since democracy came earlier this year. Nigeria as a country must quickly decide on the nature of its government in the new democracy: whether to allow for greater State, ethnic and religious autonomy or whether to pursue a unified national identity.
An October 18 Guardian report indicates that such a discussion is currently underway. State assemblies, under a mandate granted by the National Assembly, will soon conduct hearings on the 1999 federal constitution, the apparent central issue being the need for greater rights and funding for State governments.
The current controversy over the nature of Nigerian democracy, highlighted by the Sharia debate but by no means the controversy's only source, is no less than a question of whether democracy can truly exist in Nigeria. In religiously and ethnically diverse African societies, torn apart and pitted against each other by European rule, it is not necessarily democracy that is a foreign idea but rather the concept that democracy originates from a removed national government and is then to be imposed on the people. The Sharia debate is thus another spark in an argument that has been played out in Africa ever since independence. Is the central government able to tolerate different customs and values or does the state, in order to be legitimate, need to follow the Western example in forging its people into a collective body under one ideology of secular nationalism?
The inappropriateness of the imported secular state in Africa, whose structures and methods were usually inherited directly from the oppressive colonial regimes before them, has been observed by many leading Africanist scholars. The Yale professor and expert on Muslim-Christian relations in West Africa, Lamin Sanneh writes in his book, The Crown and the Turban (1997), that unlike in the West where secularism had centuries to develop, the "imported structure" of the secular state in Africa must always resort to political absolutism and the unitary state idea because of its lack of credibility in African society.
Nigeria's secularists and Christians no doubt believe they are standing up to protect Nigeria's democracy. And it is perhaps true that granting Zamfara and other northern States the right to implement Sharia law would undermine the unity and cohesive identity of Nigeria. But the idea of a national identity in Africa, and especially in Nigeria, is a myth that is well illustrated by history and current events around the continent. Nigerian examples are provided by the civil war in the late sixties and the current strife in the Niger Delta region. It is now a question of whether the Nigerian government will attempt to sooth evident divisions or whether it will attempt to erase them through the imported ideology of the secular state.
Instances abound where African governments have been able to manipulate the unified, secular state ideology to their own advantage, often resulting in years of authoritarian rule. Far from defending democracy, Nigeria's quite vocal opposition to Sharia in the Zamfara state is an unconscious attempt to reinforce the notion of an authoritarian government in Nigeria. It remains to be seen whether Nigerian President Obasanjo will grant the northern States the right to practice Sharia law, thereby resisting the temptation for absolute power to which many of his African predecessors have fallen victim.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com