A point of religious pride

SUN JOURNAL

Nigeria: The adoption of Islamic Shariah law in 12 northern states undermines traditional authorities but pleases many of the poor, while harsh punishments alarm moderates and outsiders.

July 11, 2002|By Stephan Faris | Stephan Faris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KATSINA, Nigeria - The sign says you've arrived at the Luna Castle Hotel and Nite Club, but the discotheque is long gone. It closed in August 2000 when this northern Nigerian state introduced a hard-line Islamic criminal code.

Bars were shut down, hotels burnt to the ground. Prostitutes and gamblers fled across the border to the Niger Republic.

Lately, though, Muslim customers have been trickling back, says the Castle hotel proprietor, Hilary Okonkwo. There's a little dancing - musicians have turned a dry fountain into a stage in the hotel courtyard - and young men shoot pool nearby. Prices for beer, though reflecting the extra cost of smuggling, are clearly displayed.

The early zeal has dampened, but it has not died.

His hotel is raided every couple of months, Okonkwo says, and his clients are dragged off to the Islamic Shariah courts, where they face fines, imprisonment or lashings.

Elsewhere in the state, a woman convicted of adultery has been sentenced to being stoned to death, and her lawyers are accused of being anti-Islamic or corrupted by Western influences because they are trying to defend her.

"They say I should fear Allah," says Aliyu Musa Yauri, an attorney based in Abuja who is defending the woman.

In Nigeria's predominantly Muslim northern desert states, where young boys in Osama T-shirts are a common sight, Shariah remains a point of religious pride - and of controversy.

Since the first state in the region introduced the Islamic criminal code in January 2000, thousands have died in riots between Christians and Muslims, equally represented among Nigeria's 120 million people.

The brutality shows little sign of abating. Fighting in the hilltop city of Jos flared last fall, just before the Sept. 11 attacks, and erupted again when the bombing of Afghanistan began.

In the north's largest city, Kano, combatants waving the American flag and posters of Osama bin Laden fought each other, burning churches and mosques. Hundreds died in the clashes.

In other parts of the country, Shariah has been severely criticized. The southern-dominated national press has opposed it, and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has often spoken out against it.

But Shariah's proponents argue that the law is applied only to Muslims, and Christians are unaffected - except by the general prohibition on drinking. And the movement enjoys a great deal of support among poor Muslims.

To date, 12 of Nigeria's 36 states, all in the north, have introduced the Islamic criminal code. Most of the governors who signed the measures into law were unenthusiastic but didn't want to appear un-Islamic.

Many people in the north see controversies over Shariah law as arising because outsiders are interfering with them. Human rights organizations have lobbied on behalf of some of the accused, which has angered some local authorities.

In the first year of the new code, for example, a pregnant 17-year-old girl from Zamfara state, Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, was sentenced to 100 lashes for having premarital sex.

When she appealed her case, it drew outside attention from activists who opposed the punishment. As pressure rose, the authorities canceled the appeal and carried out the sentence.

But the friction is not entirely between Western ideas and Islam. On a village level, the new laws are setting off a bubbling of quieter conflicts. Strict Islamic rules are running up against long-held customs and undermining traditional rulers.

Had Amina Lawal, for example, been judged by her community's customs rather than by the new laws, she would not be facing death by stoning.

The 30-year-old from Kurami, a mud-walled village with no electricity or running water, fled her second marriage early last year because she had begun bleeding after a failed pregnancy, and her husband refused to let her go home for care.

After taking refuge with her family, Lawal began seeing Yahaya Muhammed, a young man who works in the financial department of the local government. A few months later, she was pregnant and it showed.

Eight days before the baby was born, Lawal's scandalized older brother dragged the couple to the village chief, the gray-bearded Magaji Kurami, who ruled that Muhammed would take responsibility for the child. Muhammed agreed and gave Lawal money to buy firewood for the birth. Lawal says he also consented to marry her.

But the next time she saw him was in court. Muhammed failed to show up when Lawal gave birth to Wasila, a baby girl. The local Sharia Committee, a group of religious vigilantes to which Muhammed belongs, had already taken the case to the Islamic courts.

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