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I. Summary

Since 2000, twelve states in northern Nigeria have added criminal law to the jurisdiction of Shari’a (Islamic law) courts.   Shari’a has been in force for many years in northern Nigeria, where the majority of the population is Muslim, but until 2000, its scope was limited to personal status and civil law. The manner in which Shari’a has been applied to criminal law in Nigeria so far has raised a number of serious human rights concerns.   It has also created much controversy in a country where religious divisions run deep, and where the federal constitution specifies that there is no state religion. 

Shari’a is seen by many Muslims as an entire system of guidelines and rules which encompass criminal law, personal status law, and many other aspects of religious, cultural, and social life.  There are several different schools of thought and within each of these, different interpretations of the provisions of Shari’a.  Human Rights Watch does not advocate for or against Shari’a per se, or any other system of religious belief or ideology; nor do we seek to judge or interpret the principles of any religion or faith. We are simply concerned about human rights violations resulting from the implementation of any legal system, in any country. 

This report does not attempt to study the Shari’a system as a whole.  It concentrates on Shari’a in the sphere of criminal law as applied in northern Nigeria and identifies specific aspects of the legislation and practices which have led or are likely to lead to violations of human rights.1  Some of these practices violate what many Muslims consider to be Shari’a’s own rules and principles, as well as provisions within the Nigerian constitution.   The report makes recommendations to the Nigerian federal and state governments for reforming these aspects to ensure conformity with the international and regional human rights standards and conventions which Nigeria has ratified.

The provisions for and imposition of sentences amounting to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment, in particular the death penalty, amputations and floggings, are among the main human rights concerns arising in the context of Shari’a in northern Nigeria.  Since 2000, at least ten people have been sentenced to death by Shari’a courts; dozens have been sentenced to amputation; and floggings are a regular occurrence in many locations in the north.2   Human Rights Watch is unconditionally opposed to the use of the death penalty, in any legal system and in any country, as it constitutes the ultimate violation of the right to life and an extreme form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Human Rights Watch is also unconditionally opposed to other cruel and degrading punishments, some of which, such as amputations, constitute torture.  

Of equal concern is the lack of respect for due process which has characterized many trials in Shari’a courts. The main failings documented by Human Rights Watch include defendants’ lack of access to legal representation; the failure of judges to inform defendants of their rights and grant them these rights; the courts’ acceptance of statements extracted under torture; and the inadequate training of Shari’a court judges which has resulted in these and other abuses. The practice of convicting defendants on the basis of confessions alone is particularly worrying in the light of well-documented torture by the police, other forms of pressure exerted on defendants by police, prosecution officials and others, and widespread corruption in the judiciary. Almost all the victims of these abuses have been vulnerable men and women from poor backgrounds who have little or no knowledge of their rights or of legal procedures, or who lack the financial means to obtain legal assistance, even when they know they are entitled to it.  In the cases studied by Human Rights Watch so far, trials in Nigerian Shari’a courts failed to conform to international standards of fairness and violated defendants’ right to a fair hearing, breaching not only Nigeria’s international human rights obligations, but also provisions within the Nigerian constitution and, according to many Nigerian Muslims, principles within Shari’a itself. Human Rights Watch believes that had Shari’a court judges followed due process and had defendants had full legal representation, many of these death sentences and amputation sentences would never have been passed―especially in view of the safeguards which exist within Shari’a against harsh and unfair sentencing.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned at provisions within Shari’a that discriminate against women, both in law and in practice, and other patterns of human rights violations against women in this context.  Some of these violations do not stem directly from the legislation itself, but from the way it has been used and from a climate of intolerance which has accompanied the introduction of the new legislation.

Human Rights Watch’s research into the application of Shari’a in Nigeria has revealed patterns of fundamental human rights violations which are not peculiar to Shari’a but typify the human rights situation in Nigeria as a whole.  For example, systematic torture by the police, prolonged detention without trial, corruption in the judiciary, political interference in the course of justice, and impunity for those responsible for abuses occur not only in the context of Shari’a cases, but are at least as widespread in cases handled by the parallel common law system.

Indeed, Human Rights Watch’s concerns about the state of Nigeria’s justice system are not limited to those areas where Shari’a is in force.  In the south and other parts of the country where Shari’a is not in application, grave human rights problems persist.  Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on those concerns in other reports, and is continuing to monitor and raise these issues with the Nigerian authorities.3 

The information and views in this report are based on several months of research by Human Rights Watch in 2003, including in five northern states (Kaduna, Kano, Kebbi, Niger, Zamfara), and discussions in these and other parts of Nigeria with a wide range of people, including defendants tried by Shari’a courts, lawyers, court officials, federal and state government officials, members of the hisbah (Shari’a enforcement groups), human rights organizations, women’s organizations, and other members of civil society, Muslim and Christian religious leaders, academics, and many other men and women directly or indirectly affected by the application of Shari’a.  Most of those interviewed were northerners and Muslims, from different backgrounds and with a range of views on the question of Shari’a and the manner in which it is being applied.  We also sought the views of a number of non-Muslims and people from other parts of Nigeria. 

In view of the high level of international attention which has already surrounded the cases of Safiya Husseini and Amina Lawal, two women sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, Human Rights Watch has chosen to concentrate in this report on some of the lesser-known cases where the violations of the rights of defendants have been equally serious but have received less public attention.

Human rights in the framework of Shari’a cannot be separated from broader issues of contention in the Nigerian context; this report looks at some of these issues in as far as they relate to the human rights situation.  In particular, it refers to debates on the constitutional validity of Shari’a and points to specific sections of the Nigerian constitution which have been used by Shari’a advocates and opponents alike to support their respective positions.  The report also describes the politicization of religion which has intensified since 2000. 

With the exception of state government officials and some conservative Muslim leaders, the majority of people interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed their dissatisfaction with the manner in which Shari’a was being applied in Nigeria.  Many had initially supported its introduction and continued to profess their commitment to Shari’a, but explained that they were disillusioned with the way in which it had become politicized in the hands of state government officials.  The result, in their words, was that the Shari’a in application was not “proper Shari’a,” but “political Shari’a.”  They doubted the sincerity of state governors in introducing Shari’a and complained about politicians’ failure to implement the economic and social aspects, pointing to the continuing poverty across northern Nigeria and the absence of visible improvements in their daily lives.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on what constitutes “proper Shari’a,” but our own research confirmed the view that Shari’a has been manipulated for political purposes, and that this politicization of religion has led to further human rights violations―beyond those already contained in some of the legislation.4  As explained in this report, there is little doubt that most of the governors who introduced Shari’a into their states did so primarily for political reasons, in order to secure votes and increase their popularity.  They have been prepared to overlook and even sanction human rights violations for the sake of their own political ambitions.  They have disregarded the more compassionate and generous aspects of the philosophy which many Muslims believe underlie Shari’a, both in the criminal justice sphere and in the economic sphere.

Since around 2002, the application of Shari’a appears to have lost steam in northern Nigeria.  Shari’a legislation is still in place in twelve states and Shari’a courts are continuing to function and hand down sentences; but the political will to be seen to be enforcing it in a strict manner has waned.  State government officials—who, along with some religious leaders, have been the main champions of Shari’a in Nigeria—have staked their personal reputation on its successful implementation, and are therefore reluctant to admit that it has lost its impetus.  However, a study of the outcome of a number of trials, combined with comments made by state government officials and others, shows a reluctance to carry out some of the harsher aspects of the system, such as death sentences and amputations, and a desire to avoid further controversy.  For example, death sentences are still being imposed, but less frequently, and with one exception (which resulted in an execution by hanging), all the capital trials that have been concluded so far since 2000 have resulted in acquittals by the court of appeal.  Likewise, dozens of people have been sentenced to amputation of the hand, but only three amputations have been carried out, and none since mid-2001.  The Shari’a enforcement groups, known as the hisbah, appear to have lost some of their initial enthusiasm for the strict enforcement of Shari’a in public life, and cases of harassment by the hisbah have decreased.   It would appear that the combination of external pressure and domestic disillusion with the manner in which Shari’a has been implemented has had the effect of dampening the politicians’ zeal:  they have realized that their strategy of using Shari’a as a quick way to boost their popularity is no longer politically viable, particularly because it has made them unpopular among constituencies upon whom they had relied for support. 

Human Rights Watch believes that the time is right for the Nigerian federal and state governments to re-evaluate the application of Shari’a, now that it has been in operation for several years.   Whatever the political considerations—some of which are described in this report—federal as well as state government officials have a responsibility to ensure that the application of Shari’a does not lead to human rights violations.  In practice, this would mean amending aspects of the Shari’a legislation and removing those provisions which constitute inherent violations of fundamental rights, including discrimination against women.   But it also means implementing less controversial measures, such as ensuring that all defendants are fully informed of their rights, particularly the right to legal counsel, and that judges are properly trained before taking on criminal cases, particularly those cases involving death sentences or corporal punishments.  Such administrative and procedural measures would go a long way towards minimizing gross injustices of the type witnessed since 2000.5  However, attempts to improve the conduct of trials within the existing Shari’a legislation should not obscure the need to eliminate provisions for cruel punishments and discrimination enshrined in the law. 

This report also contains recommendations to the international community.  The volatile politics surrounding Shari’a have attracted significant attention both inside and outside Nigeria.  In particular, the cases of Safiya Husseini and Amina Lawal, two women sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, captured the public imagination at the international level and were the subject of massive publicity.  Some of this media coverage has been ill-informed, selective, and sensationalist.  Human Rights Watch believes that action on the part of foreign governments, international organizations, foreign media and others can be instrumental in leading to human rights reforms in Nigeria, if it is based on an accurate assessment of the situation.  The disproportionate amount of international attention on Shari’a has led to the erroneous perception that this is the only, and the worst, human rights problem in Nigeria.  Yet there are numerous other human rights violations in Nigeria which are at least as serious and deserve urgent attention on the part of the international community.  Thousands of people have been killed in inter-communal conflicts or in massacres by the Nigerian army; extrajudicial killings and torture by the police are routine across Nigeria; and more than two thirds of the prison population have not even been tried.  Human Rights Watch urges readers of this report to extend their concern about Shari’a to some of these other problems, which have been documented in detail by Nigerian and international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch.6

[1]  Human Rights Watch has not carried out research into the application of Shari’a to civil and personal status law.  However, several Nigerian nongovernmental organizations have been working in this area, notably to improve the status of women and to educate women about their rights.

[2]  As explained in this report, accurate figures about trials and sentences by Shari’a courts are difficult to obtain from official sources in Nigeria.  These figures are based on Human Rights Watch’s own research and on information provided by Nigerian lawyers, nongovernmental organizations and other sources. 

[3]  Human Rights Watch reports on other aspects of the human rights situation in Nigeria are available on our website

[4]  Human rights concerns about the legislation relate in particular to women’s rights and to the imposition of corporal punishments, as detailed in this report.

[5]  These improvements are needed not only in Shari’a, but also in the rest of the justice system in operation in Nigeria. 

[6]  All Human Rights Watch’s reports on Nigeria are accessible on the Human Rights Watch website

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