When the Governor of Nigeria’s Zamfara State, Sani Yerima, announced in 1999 that his state would adopt the sharia legal system it was a political masterstroke. Yerima’s announcement instantly connected him with the deeply religious Muslim masses in the north of the country. After the callousness and mind-boggling levels of corruption engaged in by Nigeria’s military dictators and their civilian friends, Yerima’s offer of justice in accordance with the laws of God resonated powerfully among ordinary people. So powerfully in fact that several other governors in the north felt compelled to adopt sharia law in order to save their political careers.
There is a long tradition in the north of radical Islamic leaders emerging from time to time to lead the people in a struggle against injustice and the debauchery of the powerful. The greatest of these leaders, Shehu Uthman dan Fodio, went on to create the Sokoto Caliphate, a federation of Islamic city states, in the early 19th century. By opting for sharia law as soon as he became state governor, Yerima laid claim to the mantle of Shehu dan Fodio.
The outcry that followed the first brutal punishments under sharia law only provided Yerima and his supporters with an opportunity to demonstrate their steadfastness. Critics of the imposition of sharia law were outraged at the amputation of the hand of Jangebe, a peasant convicted of stealing a cow. Further outrage followed in the case of a teenage girl, Bariya Maguzu, given 100 lashes for fornication - at the time she was still breastfeeding her baby and her appeal was still pending in court. Yerima responded to the criticisms defiantly. He declared that neither domestic name-calling nor Western meddlesomeness would prevent him from carrying out the injunctions of God.
Even when the advocates of sharia are forced to retreat, they have managed to present their retreats as victories. After a massive worldwide campaign the life of Safiya Hussaini, convicted to die for adultery, was spared by an appeal court. For advocates of Nigerian sharia this further demonstrated the beauty of the sharia legal process. It showed that respect for the rule of law was healthy and sound in the sharia states.
Resistance by non-Muslims to the introduction of sharia law in Kaduna State led to a series of riots in which mobs of youths (both Muslim and non-Muslim) killed more than 20,000 people and destroyed hundreds of homes. The riots showed the danger of trying to press an extremist religious agenda in a fragile multi-religious nation like Nigeria. Yet the riots only seemed to strengthen the hands of the advocates of sharia in the context of Nigerian politics. It provided evidence of how far they were prepared to go to get their way; and it served as a warning to their opponents that they were not to be trifled with.
‘After the callousness and mind-boggling levels of corruption engaged in by Nigeria’s military dictators and their civilian friends, Yerima’s offer of justice in accordance with the laws of God resonated powerfully among ordinary people’
While the sharia group has come across as focused and determined, President Obasanjo could not have been more muddle-headed in his response to them. At first he spoke dismissively of ‘political sharia’, and predicted it would soon fizzle out. There is no doubt that the motives of the politicians who suddenly transformed themselves into religious champions were suspect. But for most Nigerian Muslims sharia wasn’t something to be contemptuously dismissed. The supporters of sharia knew this and never tired of citing Obasanjo’s statement as an example of his hostility to Islam. With thousands dead in the Kaduna riots and little sign that the sharia issue was fizzling out, Obasanjo began to make noises about dealing decisively with divisive forces. And months later his Attorney General arrived at a conclusion that many thought was obvious all along - that aspects of sharia law were inconsistent with Nigeria’s secular constitution. Having now discovered this unconstitutionality, what did the Federal Government propose to do about it? Well… nothing.
A rather more constructive response to sharia has come from some Muslim intellectuals and activists. In a number of courageous lectures, articles and press statements, Ayesha Imam, a leading campaigner for women’s rights, argues that the severe punishments being handed out to poor and uneducated women in the sharia courts are themselves contrary to Islamic law. ‘Only the poor and uneducated are being harassed under these morality laws,’ she has pointed out. ‘Of the cases prosecuted in Zamfara, none have convicted the rich and powerful. Immorality - theft, corruption, embezzlement of public funds, adultery, promiscuity - are not only found among the poor.’
Lamido Sanusi, who writes for many national newspapers, has questioned why less severe interpretations of Islamic law, of which there are several, have not been adopted. He draws attention, for example, to a precedent in Islamic law for the suspension of the sentence of amputation during a time of extreme misery, and wonders why a similar suspension should not be in force in economically devastated Nigeria. He also argues that implementing sharia law in a complex multi-religious society requires far more care and wisdom than Yerima & Co have so far displayed. Ali Ahmad, a law teacher and himself a lawyer who practises in the sharia courts, has called for an Ijtihad, for law reform within sharia. In his words: ‘Sharia first blossomed during a period of creative ferment centuries ago but stagnated when later generations came to believe that the law need not adapt to changing circumstances.’
It is these courageous Muslims, not Sani Yerima and his supporters, who are responding genuinely to the yearning of the Muslim masses for justice founded on their faith.