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XI. The politicization of religion:  reactions to the implementation of Shari’a

Many Muslims interviewed by Human Rights Watch in northern Nigeria explained that they had become increasingly disillusioned with the way Shari’a was being implemented in their states.  Nevertheless, there is still a strong wish to retain Shari’a among the general public in the north, on condition that it is done faithfully and sincerely.  A man in Kano summed up the situation three years after Shari’a was introduced:  “The public were sincere in demanding Shari’a but the government was not sincere in giving it to them.”259  Another activist in Kano described the public mood as ambivalent:  “People want Shari’a but are not satisfied with what they’re getting.”260

One of the main complaints voiced by Muslims has been that government authorities have not observed the true spirit and original principles of Shari’a, and that religion has been reduced to a political tool because of the way Shari’a has been implemented.  Many people we interviewed explained that in the rush to introduce Shari’a and to prove a political point, state authorities had disregarded certain fundamental principles, in particular the state’s responsibility towards the population, and the generosity, compassion, and forgiveness which Shari’a advocates towards those accused of crimes.   Many Muslims have pointed out that Shari’a promotes fundamental rights including the right to life, to justice, and to equality, but that these were also being disregarded in its application in Nigeria.261  They claimed that if the governors had been sincere and had wanted to apply Shari’a properly, they would have taken more time and care to prepare and educate the public, and abuses could have been minimized. A representative of a nongovernmental organization in Kaduna told Human Rights Watch:  “Most Shari’a trials are stage-managed […] to terrorize people and to manipulate gullible subjects […] The politicians have hijacked the minds of the electorate.  There should be public education on what Shari’a really is.  If people had known, they would not have allowed themselves to be manipulated by politicians.”262

Many Muslims told Human Rights Watch that according to their understanding, punishment was the least important aspect of Shari’a, that the first priority should be for the state to provide for the people and that it should fulfill its responsibilities in that respect―by ensuring that everyone had a reasonable standard of living, access to housing, health, and education―before turning to the system of punishment.  A Muslim from Kaduna expressed the following view:  “This is not real Shari’a.  They should first create a conducive environment and empower people.  Then they should give you grace.  Then they should implement Shari’a.  The economic and social aspects should come first.  Instead, the punitive aspect is coming first.”263  A women’s rights activist in Kano summed up the disappointment experienced by many people who had initially been in favor of Shari’a:  “My understanding of Shari’a has been shattered.  Even in Zamfara, there is no meaningful development.  The amenities are not there.  They haven’t addressed poverty.”264  A member of another nongovernmental organization echoed these views:  “We started the implementation from the top, not the bottom.  That’s where we got it wrong.  There is a punitive dimension in Shari’a, yet Shari’a says there should first be an enabling environment.  People should be provided with welfare and there should be no corruption.”265  However, an Islamic cleric in Kaduna expressed a different view:  “Standards of living are not relevant to the question of Shari’a.  Shari’a comes first.  Shari’a is the reason for raising the standard of living.  The government doesn’t give food to the people.  God gives food to the people.”266

Criticism among the northern Muslim population has also centered on the manner in which politicians seized on Shari’a in their pursuit of electoral success.   In the run-up to the 2003 elections, candidates for political office in the north, especially in the governorship elections, included religion as a central component of their election campaign, and to a large extent, were judged by the population on the degree of their commitment, or lack of commitment, to Shari’a. An Islamic leader in Kaduna State said that all candidates for governorship in the north spoke of implementing Shari’a if they won the 2003 elections, and claimed that saying they would not implement Shari’a would have been “political suicide.”267  Voters in Kano contrasted the former state governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso, with the new governor, Ibrahim Shekarau, elected in April 2003.  Rabiu Kwankwaso was seen as unenthusiastic about Shari’a and was known not to favor harsh punishments. It was said that he only agreed to the introduction of Shari’a into Kano State because of public pressure.  However, Ibrahim Shekarau’s election campaign centered on a return to traditional Islamic values and a genuine commitment to the full implementation of Shari’a.  He has since apparently earned the respect of many Muslims inside and outside Kano State, not for backing the harsher punishments within Shari’a, but for promising to concentrate on popular welfare and adopting what they see as a more principled stance than his predecessor or other state governors.268

From around 2000, support for Shari’a also became part of the election platform for Muhammadu Buhari, the main opposition presidential candidate who ran against President Obasanjo in the 2003 elections.  Buhari sought to exploit his credentials as a Muslim and a northerner in appealing to voters in the north and professing his commitment to Shari’a.  As the 2003 elections approached, the issue of religion became politicized along party political lines, with ANPP candidates across much of the north being seen as generally pro-Shari’a, while candidates of other parties, especially the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), being seen as anti-Shari’a.  A lawyer told Human Rights Watch that in the 2003 elections, many people voted along religious lines, and that Muslims who voted for the PDP or for President Obasanjo were viewed as “traitors.”269   Shari’a had become a question of both religious and political identity. 

The politicization of Shari’a was demonstrated most clearly in Zamfara State.  Although many Muslims were in favor of its introduction, the manner in which the state governor appropriated the issue provoked disappointment and cynicism, as summarized by this comment by a Muslim man in Kano:  “In the 1999 elections, the Zamfara governor didn’t look likely to win.  His campaign team were trying to think of what they could do to win.  Someone suggested campaigning on Shari’a.  They said that’s it, and went out and campaigned on Shari’a. People latched onto it.  It was a very fraudulent way to bring it in.  They did not do it for the people, but to win the elections.  Then it became a bandwagon and other states all wanted it.”270

Reactions to the introduction of Shari’a from non-Muslim sectors of the public were, on the whole, negative. Although they did not fall under the new jurisdiction, Christians across Nigeria strongly opposed it.  Several Christian leaders spoke out against the move, fearing that it might herald a greater “expansion of Islam” which could eventually encroach on other parts of the country.  Some southerners also feared the political consequences of what they saw as a strengthening of power of the northern elite, and the unwillingness of the federal government to challenge or contain it.  Some civil society groups, including human rights organizations, opposed it on the grounds that Shari’a contained inherent infringements of fundamental rights and that it was incompatible with the Nigerian constitution.  However, most of the organizations who spoke out were those based in the south of Nigeria.  For reasons described above, most members of civil society in the north did not express their reservations in public.

In some areas, existing tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims became suddenly aggravated by the introduction of Shari’a and its perceived political significance.  The most dramatic manifestation of this was the explosion of violence between Muslims and Christians in Kaduna State in February and April 2000.  At least 2,000 people, and probably many more, were killed as Muslims and Christians attacked each other, following a debate around the proposed introduction of Shari’a into Kaduna State. 271 

The 2000 Kaduna riots shocked Nigerians of all faiths and prompted the federal government to hold talks with northern state governors to seek ways of averting further religious violence.  On February 29, 2000, federal government officials, including President Obasanjo, held a meeting with state governors at which, according to the President and Vice-President, it was agreed to put Shari’a on hold: “all States that have recently adopted Shari’a Law should in the meantime revert to the status quo ante.”272  However, within two weeks, the governor of Zamfara State was quoted as saying that there had been no such agreement and that northern governors would not withdraw Shari’a.273  In Kaduna, however, plans to introduce Shari’a were postponed after the violence.  Eventually, Shari’a legislation was introduced in the state on November 2, 2001, but in a watered-down form, applying only in Muslim-majority areas, in a bid to avert further violence.

Christians were not the only ones to oppose the introduction of Shari’a.  Some Muslims, including a number of Islamic clerics and teachers, objected to it on the grounds that it was being done for political rather than religious motives.  An Islamic teacher in Kaduna told Human Rights Watch:  “The penal code of northern Nigeria was working well until some states like Zamfara began agitating for Shari’a.  Their motives were purely political.  It had nothing to do with religion.  The real needs of the people are health, education etc.  The politicians did nothing about that.  Instead, they made a big fuss about Shari’a.  There is manipulation by politicians.  When politicians failed people and delivered nothing to them, they said we’ll give you Shari’a, to gain popularity.  The call for Shari’a contributed to violence and social tension between Muslims and non-Muslims, and even among Muslims themselves.”  He explained that the introduction of Shari’a was an obstacle for propagators of Islam, such as himself;  he believed that the call for Shari’a was a distortion of Islam and would not benefit people in the north.274  

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

[260]  Human Rights Watch interview, Kano, July 6, 2004.

[261]  For a concise summary of some of the fundamental rights under Shari’a, including the rights of women, see Dr Muhammed Tawfiq Ladan, “Women’s rights and access to justice under the Shari’a in Northern Nigeria” in “Shari’a and Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria – Strategies for Action,” Joy Ngozi Ezeilo and Abiola Akiyode Afolabi (eds.), a publication of the  Women Advocates Research and Documentation Center (WARDC) and Women’s Aid Collective (WACOL), 2003.

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

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

[264]  Human Rights Watch interview, Kano, July 29, 2003.

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

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

[267]  Human Rights Watch interview, Zaria, July 27, 2003.

[268]  Human Rights Watch interviews in Kano, Abuja, and other locations, July, August and December 2003.

[269]  Human Rights Watch interview, Kaduna, July 24, 2003.

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

[271]  For background information on the 2000 riots in Kaduna, and the subsequent riots in 2002, see Human Rights Watch report “The ‘Miss World riots’:  continued impunity for killings in Kaduna,” July 2003.

[272]  Text of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s address to the nation, March 1, 2000, distributed by the Africa Policy Information Center.  See also “Islamic law revoked in Nigeria after hundreds die,” Agence France-Presse, February 29, 2000.

[273]  “Zamfara governor adamant on Shari’a,” The Vanguard, March 13, 2000.

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

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