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X. The impact of Shari’a on freedom of expression

Restrictions on freedom of expression are common throughout Nigeria, despite an outward appearance of  openness and tolerance of criticism.245  Some critics or opponents of Shari’a have claimed that the introduction of Shari’a has led to a further clampdown on freedom of expression in the north.  Human Rights Watch did not find substantial evidence of a systematic repression of criticism on the part of northern state government authorities, but a climate has been created in which people are afraid or reluctant to voice criticism of Shari’a and, by extension, of the policies or performance of state governments.   Those affected were Muslims rather than Christians.  There were instances, soon after Shari’a was introduced, when government critics, including some Islamic leaders and scholars, were publicly discredited or ridiculed.  Open and frank debate about the advantages or disadvantages of introducing Shari’a was strongly discouraged and, in some instances, suppressed.  A man from Yobe State who had expressed reservations about the manner in which Shari’a had been introduced was warned by the imam in his village not to air his views on the matter.246  An activist from Kaduna noted: “Religion is used to cordon off criticism.  You can only discuss Shari’a if you are pro-Shari’a.”247 

In 2000, Shehu Sani, director of the Civil Rights Congress, a human rights organization in Kaduna, was threatened and intimidated after criticizing the introduction of Shari’a; he had stated in a radio interview that Shari’a was being used by politicians to increase their popularity and to insulate themselves from the people they governed.  He claimed that following his interview, anonymous pamphlets were circulated, calling for him to be killed because he was “anti-Shari’a,” and clerics in several mosques in Kaduna condemned him for his comments.248

In 2001, the police prevented the Civil Rights Congress from holding a three day seminar on Shari’a and the 1999 constitution, in Zaria.  The Kaduna state commissioner police later stated that they had taken this action in order to avert a breakdown of law and order.  According to the Civil Rights Congress, the intervention by the police was prompted by threats by some Islamic clerics who opposed the conference on the grounds that the Civil Rights Congress and its director were “anti-Shari’a;” they had reportedly written to the Kaduna state governor and commissioner of police threatening to unleash chaos if the conference went ahead.249

Islamic leader Ibraheem Zakzaky, based in Zaria, Kaduna State, was also labeled as anti-Shari’a for criticizing the manner in which Shari’a had been introduced.  Zakzaky, the leader of a group sometimes referred to as the Shi`a or Muslim Brothers, had expressed his belief that the conditions in Nigeria were not right for the introduction of Shari’a, and that Shari’a can only be implemented by an Islamic government in an Islamic state.  He told Human Rights Watch that after being vilified in the press for expressing these views, he had felt compelled to take out advertisements explaining that he did not oppose Shari’a, but believed it should be applied in a proper way.250

In April 2003, Islamic teacher and scholar Hussaini Umar was arrested in Kaduna and detained in an undisclosed location.  Neither his family nor others close to him were informed of his whereabouts or of the reasons for his arrest.  Sources close to Hussaini Umar believe that his arrest and detention in a secret location were linked to his criticisms of the government.  His criticisms had focused, among other things, on the manner in which Shari’a had been introduced in Nigeria.  One year later, in April 2004, he remained disappeared.251    Human Rights Watch was also told about a civil servant in Sokoto State, Mohammed Bello Yabo, who was reportedly detained for a prolonged period for criticizing the political use of Shari’a; however, we were not able to independently verify details of this case.252


Although there have been few documented incidents where people have been arrested, detained, or subjected to other forms of serious abuse directly in connection with their views on Shari’a,  there is a strong reluctance among Nigerian northern society to express explicit or public criticisms of Shari’a or of the manner in which it is applied.  Human Rights Watch researchers observed a form of self-censorship among critics—including academics, human rights activists, members of women’s organizations, lawyers and others—who were willing to express strong reservations about Shari’a in private conversations, but not in public.  They claimed that it was not possible, or too dangerous, to express such views in public.  A man in Kano said that the Muslim elite felt ashamed and angry at the way Shari’a was being implemented, but did not feel safe expressing these views.253

Their reluctance to express criticism publicly appears to be based primarily on a fear of being labeled as anti-Islamic—a charge commonly leveled against perceived critics of Shari’a. Very few Muslims in northern Nigeria—however strong their criticisms of Shari’a – are willing to take the risk of being perceived in this way.  The consequences of this self-censorship have been a virtual silence on the part of northern civil society about the more controversial aspects of Shari’a, including some of the more blatant human rights abuses, and, for a long time, the absence of genuine, open public debate on these questions. 

The politicization of religion has meant that criticism of northern state governments is also automatically labeled as criticism of Islam, even when it is not connected to issues of religion or religious law, and even when it focuses on specific legal or technical points.   In the aftermath of the 1999 elections, opposition parties in the north were often described as anti-Islamic if they criticized the state government.  Around 2000, it was reported that a labor union in Zamfara was tagged “anti-Shari’a” for criticizing the Zamfara government for using state funds to build a hotel in Abuja.254 

A Muslim man from Kaduna summarized the situation as follows:

Deep down, people are fed up with Shari’a.  But Muslims are ashamed to say ‘we don’t want Shari’a.’  There is no room for explanation about why we are saying no.  In Zamfara, saying no to the governor is like saying no to Islam.  Challenging the government is like challenging Islam.  If there were a secret vote, the ‘no’ would win, but people won’t come out and say so.  There was a war about it in 2000 [riots and killings in Kaduna], so if they [Muslims] denounce Shari’a now, it would mean that all those people had died in vain.  There is a fear of being misunderstood, so people keep quiet.  They would be seen as blasphemous.  It was a deliberate deception from the beginning.  In real Shari’a, you should be able to challenge openly, for example to say to a governor: ‘where did you get that shirt from?’  They don’t want that.255

A researcher in Kano explained: 

Debate within Islam has been prevented by sensationalism.  There used to be debates before […] about what to do in a multi-faith, multi-cultural country.  But it became a debate between those for and those against.  It is difficult to raise issues within Islam.  Even those who wanted to raise issues of modernity had to back-track.  Internal debates became highly conflictual.  ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against Islam.’  The debate became violent verbally.  Those expressing views publicly were accused of challenging Islam.256

Since around 2003, the climate appeared to be shifting slightly, with a greater opening of debating space, and some newspapers, such as the Daily Trust, widely read in the north, publishing articles by Muslim writers who were openly critical of the application of Shari’a.  A human rights activist and academic in Kaduna explained:  “The atmosphere is calmer now.  People can discuss the issue more freely.  In 2000 and 2001, people were either for or against Shari’a.  Now there is a more sober discussion.”257 

However, most nongovernmental organizations in the north, including human rights groups and women’s groups, have still preferred to avoid addressing head-on the controversial issues which are seen as central to Shari’a, such as the nature of some of the punishments, and have concentrated their activities on raising public awareness, training, and other less sensitive areas.  Some of these groups have played an important role in providing defense lawyers in cases before the Shari’a courts; but many of these lawyers too have concentrated on technical and procedural aspects of cases.  One of the lawyers involved in the defense of Amina Lawal explained that the legal team decided not to challenge the constitutionality of the Shari’a court of appeal in Katsina State (see below), and claimed that it was in the interests of the defendant to argue the case within the framework of Islamic law:  “If we argue the constitutional point, people would assume we were against Shari’a.”258  Other groups, in particular women’s organizations, have prioritized work in the area of personal status law, for example activities on inheritance, custody and domestic rights, rather than criminal law.

As a result, most of the public criticisms of Shari’a have come either from predominantly Christian civil society groups based in the south or other parts of Nigeria, or from foreign or international organizations.  This has led to an increased polarization of opinion, and a perception that Christian or Western organizations are leading the “attack” against Shari’a.  The more nuanced criticisms of the Muslim population of the north have not been heard. 

[245]  See Human Rights Watch report “Nigeria: Renewed crackdown on freedom of expression,” December 2003.

[246]  Human Rights Watch interview, Kano, July 30, 2003.

[247]  Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, July 23, 2003.

[248]  Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, July 23, 2003.

[249]  Ibid.

[250]  Human Rights Watch interview, Zaria, July 27, 2003.  For a fuller explanation of Zakzaky’s views on the appropriateness of introducing Shari’a in Nigeria, see “Why 79 constitution adopted penal code, by Williams,” The Guardian, June 26, 2000.

[251]  For further details of the disappearance of Hussaini Umar, see Human Rights Watch report “Nigeria: Renewed crackdown on freedom of expression,” December 2003.

[252]  Human Rights Watch interview, Kaduna, July 25, 2003.

[253]  Human Rights Watch interview, Kano, July 30, 2003.

[254]  Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, July 23, 2003.

[255]  Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, July 21, 2003.

[256]  Human Rights Watch interview, Kano, July 31, 2003.

[257]  Human Rights Watch interview, Kaduna, July 23, 2003.

[258]  Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, August 7, 2003.

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