Religious rift deepens in Nigeria


Sharia: Clashes between Christians and Muslims have left hundreds dead, and the rise of Islamic law threatens to exacerbate the split.

February 25, 2000|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GUSAU, Nigeria -- The Zuma Hotel used to be the trendiest spot in the dusty, wind-swept capital of Nigeria's northern Zamfara state. Patrons sipped beer and cocktails at the bar, danced to the latest music in the hotel's disco and socialized into the wee hours.

That was until October, when the state outlawed drinking, partying and so-called lewd behavior as it introduced Sharia law -- the Islamic penal code based on the Koran.

In December, the Zuma was raided and shut down.

"I wasn't given any notice that they would close me down," said owner Vincent Umeadi. "But people became afraid and stopped coming here."

Since then, cinemas and video parlors have been closed. Boys and girls have been sent to separate schools. Muslim women must cover themselves from head to toe, refrain from riding motorcycles -- a popular form of transportation -- and travel in designated taxis that bear the image of a veiled female. Collection of the Islamic tithe, "zakat," is being enforced. Alcohol, bars, discos, prostitution and gambling have been banned.

The initiative has caused alarm in a country deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines. In neighboring Kaduna state, a proposal to introduce Sharia law led to rioting this month between Christians and Muslims in which witnesses said at least 20 people died. Buildings were torched, and at least 100 rioters were arrested.

In Zamfara, state authorities have assured Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the state's 2 million people, that Sharia will apply only to Muslims. But for Christians, it seems impossible to impose separate standards for them and for Muslims in public life. They fear that the urge to impose the Islamic code will be so strong that, whether or not the government declares it, they soon will be living under full Sharia law.

Zamfara state law includes such Sharia punishments as having a hand chopped off for theft, stoning adulterers and caning anyone who drinks alcohol in public. In the first such punishment carried out, a Muslim man was caned Feb. 10 for drinking alcohol in public.

Another state has imposed Sharia law, and Kaduna is among at least four that have expressed interest in it, presenting Nigeria's fledgling civilian administration with the challenge of preventing the country's hodgepodge of religions, languages and more than 200 ethnic groups from fragmenting. Muslims and Christians each make up about 45 percent of Nigeria's 108 million people.

Northerners backed by the military ruled Nigeria for most of its 40 years since independence. In May, Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner and a Christian, won presidential elections that heralded a return to civilian democracy.

Ethnic clashes and revolts have strained Nigeria's unity since Obasanjo took office nine months ago. At least 200 people have died since July in the country's oil-producing southern delta region, as minority groups there battle for a share of the black gold. Hausas and Yorubas have clashed several times.

On a recent visit to the United States, Obasanjo called Zamfara's action unconstitutional, but he has since avoided the topic.

By introducing Sharia, Zamfara and the other states interested in following suit appear to be trying to assert their independence, critics say. They also worry that promotion of Islam in Nigeria's northern states might nurture extremist, anti-Western sentiments.

Zamfara's governor, Alhaji Ahmad Sani, acknowledges that he has sought guidance from Sudan and Saudi Arabia but says the fears are baseless. "Some of them fear because they don't know what Sharia is all about," he said.

Zamfara began implementing Sharia law in the fall but formally introduced it Jan. 27, when Sani signed bills establishing Sharia courts and a Sharia penal code.

The governor argues that Sharia law has been recognized for centuries throughout Nigeria's Muslim north, particularly in civil matters such as marriage and inheritance, and that by guaranteeing freedom of religion, the constitution allowed Zamfara to enforce Islamic law.

Sani says his aim is to create a society of high morality, social order, peace and progress. "We Muslims believe that there is only one solution to human problems, and that is going back to divine rules and regulations," the governor said. "Once you have divine rules governing your life, there will be peace and stability."

Christians complain that they have been hurt by the governor's efforts to purify the state.

Peter Dambo, chairman of the Zamfara chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria, contends that Christians will not be able to participate in state administration. "Christians become inferior to Muslims," he said.

Sam Emeka Anosike, president of the Zamfara branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, says Christians will have no protection from Sharia law. "If it's the law of the land, whoever offends that law will be brought to book," he said. "Sharia is for everybody."

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