Islamic law raises tension in Nigeria
By Nigeria correspondent Barnaby Phillips
Religious and ethnic tensions in Nigeria are never far from the surface. But the decision of the state of Zamfara, in the far north of the country, to introduce Sharia, or Islamic law, on 27 January, has brought them very much to the forefront once again. The move by Zamfara, one of 36 states in the Nigerian federation, has been widely welcomed across the mainly Muslim north of the country; and several other states have now said they intend to follow suit. But Nigeria's Christian population, who form the majority in the south, have reacted with dismay, saying it could unsettle the country's newly installed democracy, after the hand-over from the military in May 1999. One worried man is Reverend Olu Joseph. A preacher in a small evangelical church in the Zamfara state capital, Gusau, he feels his way of life is threatened. "This declaration of Sharia is bad news for Christians," he told me. "It's going to restrict our freedoms". Members of his congregation are more forthright. "We are ready to lay down our lives for Christianity," said one man. Outside, on the streets of Gusau, life has changed with the introduction of Sharia, although perhaps not as dramatically as Reverend Joseph would have me believe.
It was in October that Zamfara's Governor, Ahmed Sani, made the announcement that caused national uproar. Zamfara, one of the poorest, and hitherto, one of the most obscure states in the Nigerian federation, was introducing Islamic Law a code that includes punishments such as flogging and amputation. Suddenly, Zamfara became the place everyone in Nigeria was talking about. Already the prostitutes have disappeared from the streets - and it is certainly becoming harder to buy a bottle of beer. Also, new women-only taxis ply the streets - the profile of a veiled woman painted on the side. The drivers of these taxis are men, but I'm told that will change soon. Gusau's school-children are now all being taught in single-sex schools. I visited Samaru Secondary School. Until a few weeks ago there were girls and boys studying here - now there are only girls lining up in the clear morning sunshine to sing the national anthem. Their heads are veiled. Through their giggles they say they prefer school now that the boys have gone - it's so much easier to learn without the distractions.
Governor Sani argues that he is only doing what the vast majority of his people want him to do. Muslims are the overwhelming majority in the state, and it is hard to find any one of them who thinks that Sharia is a bad idea. The governor says that the rights of Christians will be protected - the new Islamic courts have not yet started operating, but when they do, according to him, Christians will be under no obligation to use them. But the Governor's enemies accuse him of courting cheap popularity, at the expense of Nigeria's stability. A religious fault-line runs across the middle of this country - with Muslims forming the majority in the north, and Christians in the south - and it is a division made all the more sensitive by major ethnic differences.
Nigeria has a history of terrible sectarian violence - and in recent months the killings have been on the increase. President Olusegun Obasanjo, a devout Christian, is treating the Sharia issue with extreme care. Wary of inflaming passions further, he has ignored calls from Christians to openly condemn it - preferring to use his influence subtly from behind the scenes. While the constitutional lawyers argue about how far an individual state can go in introducing Sharia, President Obasanjo says he believes the whole issue will fizzle out. The problem is that Zamfara's move has put pressure on other northern states to follow suit. And these include major cities like Kano and Kaduna - places with big Christian populations, and volatile histories
of communal clashes.
Even in Zamfara, the current calm can be deceptive. We went to the main mosque during Friday prayers. The Imam, or priest, asked if I, a non-Muslim, could stay outside, but said he would be happy for my cameraman, Tunde, to come in and film. Tunde is a Muslim, but he is from the south of Nigeria, and speaks no words of the northern Hausa language. The prayers had just ended, and the crowd, numbering in the thousands, was preparing to leave when Tunde was approached, aggressively, by a young man demanding to know who he was. Within seconds, dozens of people had closed in on Tunde, as he struggled to explain himself. The crowd started pushing him - they grabbed his watch, then they took his camera. They were shouting that he was a spy. He was dragged round to the side of the mosque. I watched in horror. I've seen enough excited crowds in Nigeria to know how things can take on a terrible momentum of their own - if only one person had started hitting Tunde, instead of just pushing him, I dread to think how it would have ended. As it was, the Imam came out and, seeing what was happening, pleaded with the crowd to disperse. Eventually, they did so. Governor Sani says Sharia will produce a society free of violence, theft and corruption - all terribly common in Nigeria today. But he has helped unleash passions that may not be easy to control.
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