For Many, Nigeria's Moderate Form of Sharia Fails to Deliver on Promises

Islamic law, known as Sharia, was introduced to Northern Nigeria nearly a decade ago. However, few of the reforms many Nigerians hoped for have come to pass.
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

KANO, Nigeria -- As military rule ended in Nigeria a decade ago, an Islamic legal system was swept into place on a wave of popular support in the country's desperately poor and mostly Muslim northern states. It has turned out in a way few expected.

The draconian amputation sentences warned of by human rights activists and the religious oppression feared by Christians have mostly not come to pass. But neither has the utopia envisioned by backers of sharia law, who believed politicians' promises that it would end decades of corruption and pillaging by civilian and military rulers. The people are still poor and miserable, residents complain, and politicians are still rich.

How the battles over sharia play out could have effects beyond Nigeria, a nation pivotal to West Africa's stability and viewed by the United States as key to stopping the spread of religious extremism in Africa. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to discuss the issue with Nigerian leaders on a visit to the country this week.

"People want sharia. But not this kind of sharia," said Ahmad Al-Khanawy, 41, a reed-thin filmmaker, adding that the most visible signs of Islamic law are new censorship rules banning dancing and singing in movies made in Kannywood, as this city's film industry is known. Sharia-promoting politicians, he said, "want to cover their failure by making noise about fighting immorality. That is it."

Nigeria's moderate form of sharia may not have delivered a Muslim revolution, but it has fueled a growing disillusionment that analysts say has weakened public faith in democracy -- and could, if unchecked, spark religious militancy. That prospect was highlighted last month when a radical Islamist sect called Boko Haram attacked security forces in northern Nigeria, triggering violence that killed more than 700 people. The group draws its members from the ranks of frustrated youths.

"Political space is so limited . . . that the disenchanted are finding little avenues for achieving change through dialogue and peaceful expression," said Nnamdi Obasi, West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Reforms Missing Mark

So far, analysts say, extremist groups such as Boko Haram remain small and do not have links to international terrorist organizations. In Kano, northern Nigeria's largest city, many say the bigger short-term danger is that people have begun to view this form of sharia -- and the democracy that brought it -- as just another broken political promise.

Kano remains a sunbaked metropolis where electricity is fitful, child beggars swarm on street corners and goats graze in trash heaps. Many of the region's leaders have been accused of corruption, which plagues Nigeria. Against that backdrop, residents say, sharia reforms such as movie censorship and a ban on women riding motorbike taxis seem like window-dressing.

"Sharia is about justice. Where you have sharia, you have development," said Salisu Saidu, 32, standing amid the leather bags he sells in Kano's labyrinthine market. "Nothing has changed. If one relied on tap water, one would die of thirst. We don't even talk of electricity."

Islam has dominated in this region on the edge of the Sahara for centuries, in a tenuous coexistence with the Christianity that is prevalent in more prosperous southern Nigeria. When Kano and 11 other northern states that had long applied Islamic law to civil cases adopted sharia for criminal matters, clashes broke out between Christians and Muslims. Early on, several sentences of death by stoning for female adulterers -- never carried out -- and the amputation of two men's hands for theft drew international condemnation.

But this version of sharia turned out to be fairly temperate, reflecting local sensibilities and religious law's existence within a secular federal system. The harshest sentences imposed under the new system, which applies only to Muslims, garnered little public support. The efforts to ban women from motorbike taxis sparked protests, so veiled women still zip about Kano with their arms around male drivers. The federal government reined in the sharia police, known as the Hisbah, after they were accused of terrorizing people.

Still, the Hisbah remain active. This year, they thwarted a planned protest by divorced Muslim women. Alongside politicians, they regularly smash bottles of liquor seized from trucks smuggling them into Kano's Christian neighborhood, where bars operate openly despite a state ban on alcohol sales. The Hisbah's actions have rankled Christian leaders.

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