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IX. Freedom of conscience and religion, and the impact of Shari’a on non-Muslims

Unlike some other Muslim countries where Shari’a is in force, in northern Nigeria, Shari’a does not apply to the entire population, only to Muslims.  As explained above, a parallel and separate judicial system is in operation to try criminal cases involving non-Muslims.  Likewise, outside the criminal justice sphere, non-Muslims are not expected to conform to other aspects of Shari’a or social or cultural practices prescribed for Muslims.  Human Rights Watch did not find evidence of a campaign to “islamize” Nigeria―as alleged by some critics of Shari’a―nor of systematic attempts by proponents of Shari’a to enforce it upon non-Muslims.  In most northern states, non-Muslims do not face coercion or harassment of a religious nature.  For example, in most cases, non-Muslims are able to consume alcohol, albeit sometimes only in designated areas or in their homes, and non-Muslim women are able to wear their own style of dress without adverse consequences―with some exceptions, illustrated above.  

Apostasy (or renunciation of Islam) is not defined as a crime in the Shari’a codes in force in Nigeria.  In April 2002, two Muslims were brought before a Shari’a court in Mada, Zamfara State, for converting to Christianity.  The judge reportedly said that according to Islam, they should be sentenced to death, but threw the case out as there was no legal basis for a conviction in the Shari’a legislation in force.231  Other cases where Muslims have converted to Christianity have not been pursued through the courts at all. 

Nevertheless, non-Muslims have been directly or indirectly affected by certain aspects of Shari’a, and representatives of some churches and Christian organizations have reported instances of discrimination and marginalization.   While Christians have always been a minority in northern Nigeria and complained about social and cultural marginalization before the advent of Shari’a, these complaints have increased since the scope of Shari’a was extended in 2000. 

Complaints from some Christian leaders have been vociferous; on occasions, they have tended to exaggerate the impact of Shari’a on non-Muslims, feeding into a climate of fear and suspicion.  Nevertheless, these complaints should be taken seriously in the light of the real potential for an escalation of tension.   Although Nigeria has a long history of religious tolerance, with Muslims and Christians living side by side for decades in different parts of the country, in recent years there have been several serious explosions of violence.  Clashes between Muslims and Christians, often triggered by seemingly minor disputes, have led to thousands of deaths in northern and central Nigeria.232  The worst riots were in Kaduna in 2000.  A Christian leader in Zamfara State attributed this directly to the introduction of Shari’a in Zamfara:  “When Yerima [the Zamfara state governor] set the time-bomb, it didn’t explode here; it exploded in Kaduna.”233  

Since the extension of Shari’a, there have also been religious tensions and sporadic incidents of violence in several other northern states, including Kano, Jigawa, and Bauchi.  Some though not all of these were sparked by disagreements over the introduction of Shari’a to criminal law; more generally, Shari’a had the effect of hardening positions and accentuating the polarization between Muslims and Christians. 

The general insecurity caused by these incidents of violence created fears among some non-Muslim communities in the north, leading many to move away from the area.  In a typical example, a Christian taxi-driver who had lived in Kano for fifteen years told Human Rights Watch why he had decided to move to the federal capital Abuja:  “Business was bad because of all this Shari’a.  People became frightened of more clashes.”234  In some states, such as Zamfara where an estimated five to ten percent of the population is Christian, the introduction of Shari’a in late 1999 was enough to drive many Christians away, even though there had not been any outbreaks of physical violence.  Many Christians who left at that time have not returned.235

Some church leaders in Zamfara have complained of difficulties in obtaining land and accommodation.  In late 1999, an Anglican leader in Gusau was refused accommodation by three different landlords and was told by a fourth, first that the accommodation was going to be let to someone else, then that he would have to pay double the rent.236  The Anglican church in Zamfara  also encountered numerous obstacles and delays when applying for permission to build a church, a nursery and accommodation.  Christian leaders in other northern states have also complained about difficulties in obtaining authorization to build churches.  Some have reported that churches have been demolished on the pretext that they had been illegally constructed and did not have the correct certificates.237   Churches in Zamfara State reported being denied airtime on the state radio; the state governor justified this by saying that Muslims in the east of Nigeria had been denied their rights too.238  The governor himself told Human Rights Watch:  “I allowed Christians to build churches to show freedom but in the south, they don’t allow mosques to be built.  They demolish them.”239  Christian leaders have also complained that Christians are not represented in the state ministry of religious affairs.

The prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol has affected Christians too. In the first one to two years following the introduction of Shari’a, hisbah forcibly entered hotels, bars and other establishments selling alcohol and destroyed the alcohol that they found there; they also intercepted trucks and other vehicles on the roads and destroyed the consignments of alcohol.  Such reports were especially common in Kano State, perhaps because it is more culturally and religiously mixed than some other northern states.240  Apart from the physical damage caused, these attacks, and the threat of further such attacks, had serious consequences for Christian businessmen and traders who depended on the sale of alcohol for a living. 

The ban on alcohol has affected not only Christians, but also other non-Muslim communities, whose traditions and customs include the consumption of alcohol.  Such traditionalist communities exist in several states, including Niger, Kebbi, and Kano.  In 2000, clashes were reported between members of some of these communities in Niger and Kebbi states after the hisbah aroused their anger by destroying alcohol and trying to prevent them from drinking.241

In Zamfara State, legislation entitled “Certain Consequential Reforms (socio-economic, moral, religious and cultural) Law” was passed in 2001.  The law, which contains a list of restrictive measures affecting many aspects of social and cultural life, has had negative consequences for both Muslims and non-Muslims.  A particular group of Muslims has fallen foul of this law, under which it became an offense to observe certain Islamic rituals on a day different from that announced by the government.  The law states: “No Muslim in the State shall observe the performance of Ramadan fasting or any of the Eids prayers on any date other than the date announced by the government under the provisions of this law” and “Any Muslim who violates the provision of subsections (iv) of this Law shall be guilty of an offence which upon conviction shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or to caning not exceeding 50 strokes or both.”242  

In December 2001, the police arrested seventy-seven followers of a Muslim group known as Jama’at el-Islah wa el-Da’wa wa ma yata’allaq bi-ru’yati el-hilal (Group for reform and propagation and matters related to the sighting of the crescent).  Members of this group believe that they must see the moon with their own eyes before beginning or ending the fast in Ramadan; their fasting days may therefore differ from those prescribed by the government.  Thirty-six people were arrested in Bukkuyum local government, twenty-four in Maru, and seventeen in Kaura Namoda.  Some of the accused in Maru and Bukkuyum reported being tortured by the police with a view to making them rescind their beliefs.  Those in Bukkuyum were detained for five days in the police station without food or water; they included eighty-six-year-old Mohammed Bahaushe, who died two days after his release.   The accused were tried by a Shari’a court in Bukkuyum.  The judge initially told the lawyer who was defending them that legal representation was not acceptable under the Islamic legal system.  The lawyer stood his ground, but the judge immediately convicted the defendants on the basis that they admitted praying on a day different from that set by the government.  They were sentenced to a fine of 5,000 naira each (approximately US $35) or six months’ imprisonment.  They paid the fines and filed an appeal at the state high court for breach of the right to practise their religion and for inhuman treatment. In Maru and Kaura Namoda local governments, the prosecution eventually dropped the case following objections by the lawyer.243 

In December 2001 and December 2002, it was reported that followers of the same group were dispersed with teargas in Gusau for praying on a different day from that prescribed by the government.

When Human Rights Watch raised these cases with the Zamfara State governor, he said: “This is not an issue of freedom of religion.  Or else they are not Muslims […] The law should be obeyed.  If people don’t like it, they can challenge it through the courts.”244

[231]  Human Rights Watch interview, Kaduna, July 26, 2003.  See also “Islamic prosecutors seek death penalty for Nigeria’s Christian converts,” Associated Press, April 24, 2002.

[232]  The most serious waves of killings took place in Kaduna State, in 2000 and 2002, and in Jos, Plateau State, in 2001.  For details, see Human Rights Watch reports “The ‘Miss World riots’: continued impunity for killings in Kaduna” (July 2002) and “Jos: a city torn apart” (December 2001).   As federal and state governments have continually failed to deal with the grievances underlying these disputes, tensions have continued, leading to further killings, especially in Plateau State, from 2002 onwards; violence in Plateau State reached a peak in the first half of  2004.  Even though the roots of these conflicts are more political and economic than religious, the religious dimension has been actively used to stoke up tensions. 

[233]  Human Rights Watch interview, Gusau, August 2, 2003.

[234]  Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, July 18, 2003.

[235]  Human Rights Watch interview, Gusau, August 2, 2003.

[236]  Ibid.

[237]  Incidents in which churches were destroyed and other examples of discrimination against Christians in Zamfara State are detailed in a paper entitled “Peace and Democracy in Nigeria,” by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Zamfara State, addressed to the National Orientation Agency, December 2001.  See also “Christian elders condemn mass demolition of churches in north,” The Guardian, August 20, 2001.  Cases of destruction of churches were reported even before the introduction of the Shari’a legislation in 2000, particularly in Kano.  See “Democracy and minority rights in Nigeria:  Religion, Shari’a and the 1999 Constitution,” by Jibrin Ibrahim, International Human Rights Law Group, 2002, and “The Talibanization of Nigeria: Shari’a law and religious freedom,” Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House (Washington, D.C.), April 2002.

[238]  Human Rights Watch interviews, Gusau, August 2, 2003.

[239]  Human Rights Watch interview with Zamfara State Governor Ahmed Sani, August 4, 2003.

[240]  Human Rights Watch interviews, Kano, July 2003.  See also “Beer row in northern Nigeria,” BBC News online, August 13, 2001, and “Governor, police meet as Shari’a enforcers torch bars, restaurants in Kano,” The Guardian, April 18, 2001.

[241]  Human Rights Watch interviews, Abuja, July 21, 2003; Kaduna, July 26, 2003; and Birnin Kebbi, December 16, 2003.  See also “Nigeria: deaths over drink,” BBC News online, November 21, 2000.

[242]  Section 2, subsections iv and v of Certain Consequential Reforms (socio-economic, moral, religious and cultural) Law 2001.

[243]  Human Rights Watch interview, Gusau, August 3, 2003.

[244]  Human Rights Watch interview with Zamfara State Governor Ahmed Sani, Gusau, August 4, 2003.

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