The future of Sharia in Nigeria and the extent to which human rights safeguards are incorporated into the laws and practices will depend to a large extent on political developments in the coming period. There is an unspoken sense of relief, among Muslims and non-Muslims, that northern state governments have gradually backed away from the harsher aspects of Sharia punishments, and that gross human rights violations in this context have decreased since the laws were first introduced. However, the issue should not be ignored, as the legislation providing for these punishments remains in place and fundamental abuses continue. A shift in the political situation could lead to tougher policies on the part of state governors at any time, should they feel the need to re-affirm their political security. The use of religion as a political tool has, if anything, increased in Nigeria over the last few years; appeals to religious sentiments in the context of continuing interethnic violence in Plateau State, Kano, and other parts of Nigeria in 2004 have further polarized communities and led to a hardening of positions.
Alongside efforts to resolve the broader political issues, government authorities should be looking for ways of ending human rights abuses under Sharia. Many of these shorter-term solutions are within easy reach and do not require protracted political debates. As illustrated in this report, observance of due process in trials before Sharia courts is one of the most critical issues. Failure to respect due process has led to serious but preventable violations of human rights. The ultimate aim should be to amend the Sharia legislation to exclude the death penalty, amputations, and floggings; however, until such amendments are adopted, all executions of death sentences, amputation and flogging sentences should be suspended. Respect for due process in the Sharia system would also ensure that many such cases would not even reach the stage of conviction by the lower or upper Sharia courts. In all the cases studied by Human Rights Watch, there were so many flaws and procedural errors in the judgments that the intervention of committed defense lawyers at an earlier stage would have ensured that none of these defendants were convicted, let alone sentenced to death or amputation. Competent legal representation from the initial stage and throughout the process is therefore critical, as illustrated by several cases in this report. Comprehensive training of judges would also contribute significantly to a reduction in the number of harsh sentences.
While urging government and judicial authorities in Nigeria to institutionalize respect for human rights within Sharia, Human Rights Watch is also appealing to the Nigerian government to take measures to improve due process and human rights safeguards in other legal systems operating in parallel with Sharia and in other parts of the country. Our research on human rights in the context of Sharia has shown that some of the most serious abuses documented in this report―for example the extraction of confessions under torture by the police―are not peculiar to Sharia and occur throughout Nigeria. Government officials urgently need to turn their attention to these broader problems which are undermining the course of justice in all the legal systems in operation in the country.
In addition to encouraging the Nigerian government to implement the recommendations above, foreign governments and other organizations and individuals concerned about the situation in Nigeria should recognize that many more people have been killed and injured in Nigeria in the context of inter-communal conflicts and killings by the security forces than as a result of Sharia. The Nigerian government should be seeking to end this violence and ensure that the security forces protect the population in an effective way, without resorting to violence themselves.