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Shari’a debates in Nigeria go back a long way. We can do no more than mention the main points here. A good place to start is the three administrative regions into which Nigeria was divided during the colonial period. The Eastern Region, dominated by the Igbos, has been almost entirely Christianised. The Western Region, dominated by the Yorubas until its subdivision, was and continues to be religiously mixed.  The Northern Region, geographically by far the largest and containing about half of Nigeria’s total population, was and is predominantly Muslim. The history of shari’a debates in Nigeria is a history of debates within and among these three regions, and later the states into which the regions were divided, about the place of Islamic law in the country as a whole and in its federated sub-units.

In the two smaller southern regions there were no formal application of Islamic law during the colonial period, even where the proportion of Muslims was high.[1] We see southern Muslims agitating for the establishment of shari’a courts in the late 1940s;[2] and these demands intensified considerably in the post-independence era [3] — always, however, to no effect. Still unable to push their proposals through their state Houses of Assembly after Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999, the Muslims of several southern states have now achieved something like their desired end by different means: they have established “independent shari’a panels” – informal khadi’s courts, which decide cases according to Islamic law.[4]  The shari’a debates in Nigeria’s southern parts have tended to be drowned out by the debates about shari’a in the north. The southern debates, and the current southern phenomenon of “independent shari’a panels”, deserve much more study than they have so far received.

The north was an entirely different matter. One of the results of British indirect rule in Northern Nigeria was that “up till [1960] this was the only place outside the Arabian peninsula in which the Islamic law, both substantive and procedural, was applied in criminal litigation – sometimes even in regard to capital offences.”[5]

Northern Muslims have continually sought to preserve, as important parts of their communal and individual identities, their law, and its wide application; they have also sought due recognition for it in the country’s constitutional order.  On the other hand northern Christians have seen Islamic law and the courts that apply it as instruments of Muslim oppression and devices to Islamise the country.

In the constitutional negotiations that led up to Nigerian independence in 1960, pressure was brought on the north’s Muslims to accept changes in the region’s legal and judicial systems.[6] The significant changes that were ultimately agreed upon included the abrogation of Islamic criminal law, the abolishment of the former Moslem Court of Appeal, etc. These changes seem to have been accepted by the north’s Muslims and to have worked quite well, until Nigeria’s new constitution came into force in 1979.

For technical reasons having to do with the division of Nigeria’s regions into smaller states,[7] it was thought desirable to set up a new Federal Sharia Court of Appeal. This idea was approved by the Constitution Drafting Committee that sat in 1975-76 to draft a new constitution for the country.[8] The draft constitution, including provisions for a Federal Sharia Court of Appeal, was published in September 1976. It touched off Nigeria’s first great nation wide public debate about shari’a.[9] The outcome – embodied in the 1979 Constitution – was the elimination of the provisions for a Federal Sharia Court of Appeal from the new constitution.

The 1980s and 1990s have been called “Nigeria’s decades of blood”, because of the frequent outbreaks of violence between Christians and Muslims in the north during those years.[10] There was much Christian-Muslim contention over what role Islamic law should play in the life of the nation.[11] All the bloodshed and all the talk were inconclusive; the position stayed as it had been enshrined in the 1979 Constitution.

And then, almost immediately after the country was once again returned to civilian rule in 1999, the stalemate was broken.[12]  Claiming the power to do so under the reinstated 1979 constitution, the newly-elected Houses of Assembly of twelve predominantly Muslim states in Northern Nigeria enacted legislation that reinstated Islamic criminal law; established new inferior Shari’a Courts to apply the full range of Islamic law, civil and criminal; and directed all appeals from the inferior Shari’a Courts, in both civil and criminal matters, to the reorganised state Shari’a Courts of Appeal. Taken together, these three interlocking measures restored the application of Islamic law to Muslims, a completeness, that it has not had for a century. Other measures enacted in various of the “shari’a states” include establishment of state Councils of Ulama; imposition of zakat (alms) taxes on Muslims; prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol; segregation of women in the schools and in public transportation, etc.

The implementation of these measures – including the imposition of sentences of amputation and of stoning to death under the new Shari’a Penal Codes in several well-known cases – stirred up a vociferous outcry in Nigeria and all over the world. What has not been forthcoming has been impartial scholarship, devoted to the documentation and analysis of these remarkable phenomena and their impact on the people of Nigeria, Christians and Muslims alike.

[1] See J. N. D. Anderson 1955, p. 222.

[2] J. N. D. Anderson 1955, pp. 222-23.

[3] A. B. Mahmud 1988, pp. 3-5; D. Byang 1988; M. H. Kukah 1993, pp. 135-36; T. G. O. Gbadamosi 2001, pp. 118-121.

[4] See e.g. Daily Trust, 18 January 2003 p. 1, “Sharia in Lagos at Last”.

[5] J. N. D. Anderson, 1976, p. 27.

[6] S. S. Richardson 2001, p. 209.

[7] The former regions were subdivided in 1967, 1976, 1987, 1991, and 1996, so that there are now a total of 36 states plus the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja.

[8] See Report of the Constitution Drafting Committee, Lagos: Government Printer, 1976 (2 vols).

[9] E.g., D. D. Laitin 1982; P. B. Clarke 1982, 1988; Y. B. Usman 1987; A. B. Mahmud 1988; A. H. Yadudu 1991; J. Hunwick 1992; M. H. Kukah 1993, pp. 118-129.

[10] See J. H. Boer 2003.

[11] See A. H. Yadudu 1991; M. H. Kukah, 1993, chapters 5-7; S. O. Olesanmi 1997; T. Falola 1998; P. Ostien 2005.

[12] I. O. Oloyede 2000; M. Oduyoye 2000; C. C. O. Nzeh 2002; A. B. Nouhou 2002; M. Brunner 2002; O. U. Kalu, 2003; J. Harnischfeger 2003; F. Kogelmann 2005; P. Ostien 2000, 2002, 2005; M. A. B. Gaiya 2000; F. Ludwig 2001, 2003; U. Danfulani, F. Ludwig and P. Ostien 2002; J. N. Ezeilo, M. T. Ladan and A. Afolabi-Akiyode (eds.) 2003; M. Last 2000.



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