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XII. International reactions to Shari’a in Nigeria

At the international level, the introduction of Shari’a in 2000 suddenly threw Nigeria into the spotlight.  The sentences of death by stoning imposed on Safiya Husseini and Amina Lawal were at the centre of an unprecedented level of public attention and provoked reactions of outrage among women’s organizations, human rights organizations, parliamentarians, Christian organizations, and members of the general public in many countries.  Their cases were the object of massive public protests, appeals and petitions from around the world.   Some of these interventions focused specifically on the cases of Safiya Husseini and Amina Lawal, urging the government to ensure that their lives were spared.  Others also called for an end to discrimination against women and an abolition of the death penalty. 

Several Western governments and intergovernmental organizations, particularly the European Union, also took up the issue of Shari’a with the Nigerian government, both privately and publicly.  Their readiness to do so and the strength of these diplomatic interventions contrasted starkly with the almost complete silence on the part of these same governments on the multitude of other human rights problems in Nigeria.  For political reasons, it was easier for these governments to raise the issue of Shari’a with President Obasanjo, knowing that he personally did not favor Shari’a and shared some of their concerns about the harsh punishments.   Their diplomatic approaches could therefore be less confrontational on Shari’a than on other patterns of human rights violations in Nigeria, especially as their criticisms would not be perceived as directly implicating federal government authorities and agencies, other than in terms of their failure to confront the issue.  

While most of the international public protests were motivated by a genuine concern for the victims, some of the media coverage in the West was ill-informed and painted a sensationalist picture of the situation in Nigeria. Some articles and reports gave the impression, for example, that Shari’a was applied throughout Nigeria, that the stoning of the women was imminent, and that these were the most urgent—and indeed the only—human rights problems in Nigeria.  The unfortunate, if unintended, effect of some of this coverage was the perception within northern Nigeria that these criticisms were motivated by stereotypical, anti-Islamic feelings, which took no account of the reality in the country.   Vocal attacks by Christian groups from the political right, especially in the United States, only served to confirm this perception, sometimes using alarmist and misleading language and describing northern Nigeria as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.  In the climate of fear which spread throughout the West following the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the U.S., there was a readiness to interpret the introduction of Shari’a in Nigeria as a further strengthening of resolve on the part of Islamic militants and the introduction of Shari’a as a gesture of defiance on the part of Muslim “extremists.”275   Renewed clashes between Muslims and Christians in Kaduna and Plateau states reinforced these perceptions, even though most of these conflicts were localized and did not have their origins in religious differences;  the fact that Christians and Muslims shared the blame for this violence was largely ignored, as was the fact that Shari’a is not even applied in Plateau State.276  In reality, the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims do not subscribe to “extremist” ideals and, as indicated in this report, are deeply disappointed with political and religious leaders’ appropriation of the Shari’a agenda. 

An additional complication arising from the exaggeration or distortion of the situation in Nigeria in some Western circles has been a polarization of opinion among nongovernmental organizations.  As mentioned above, most Nigerian human rights and women’s organizations have opted for a strategy of non-confrontation on Shari’a, preferring to work through the legal system or behind the scenes to achieve change. Their strategy contrasted with the huge international outcry and public protests around the world on the cases of Safiya Husseini and Amina Lawal.  Overall, there is little doubt that the persistent efforts of Nigerian organizations as well as the more public campaigns of international organizations have both had a positive effect in minimizing human rights violations, and the two approaches can be seen as complementary.   However, some Nigerian activists have claimed that these international protests were counterproductive and could have an harmful effect on the cases; some went as far as appealing publicly to international groups to stop their public campaigns and appeals.277 

[275]  See for example “The Talibanization of Nigeria: Shari’a law and religious freedom,” Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House (Washington, D.C.), April 2002.

[276]  See Human Rights Watch reports “Jos: a city torn apart,” December 2001, and “The ‘Miss World riots’: continued impunity for killings in Kaduna,” July 2003.   For an analysis of the role of radical Islam in Nigeria, and related issues, see Peter M. Lewis, “Islam, protest, and conflict in Nigeria,” in Africa Notes, December 2002, Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington DC).

[277]  See “Please stop the international Amina Lawal protest letter campaigns,” by Ayesha Imam and Sindi Medar-Gould of Baobab for Women’s Human Rights, May 2003.

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