Abdul-Fatah ’Kola Makinde
Shari’a is defined as a way of life of the Muslims. It serves as a guide for all their affairs including legal matters. Its history in any part of the world has to do with the advent of Islam in the area. Some records reveal that Yorubaland, otherwise known as South-West of Nigeria witnessed the practice of Shari’a in a number of places before the advent of colonial rule. The abolition of it in this area by the colonial rulers brought about agitations and demands by the Muslims for its re-introduction during and after the colonial periods. The Zamfara State launching of Shari’a in 1999 re-opened agitation for Shari’a not only in the North but also in the South-West where there are a significant number of Muslims. There were demands by some groups of Muslims in some Yoruba States that their governments should pass legislation to establish Shari’a Courts and Shari’a Courts of Appeal to adjudicate on civil matters relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance etc. Failure to achieve this objective led them to look for an alternative in the establishment of Independent Shari’a Panels in some states.
This study probes into the difficulties in making the governments of these states legislate laws to establish Shari’a Courts and Shari’a Courts of Appeal despite the incessant demands by the Muslims. It finds out the perspective of the Christians on Shari’a debates in this area as well as the position of the governments on the demands of the Muslims. The research examines the raison d’etre for the establishment of Independent Shari’a Panels in Oyo, Lagos, Ogun and Osun States. It looks at the activities of these Panels covering litigation, procedure, judgments with execution and compliance. It also finds out the level of Muslims’ patronage of the Panels and what the feelings of the litigants on their judgments look like.
The research employs the expert narrative interview method. Muslim leaders responsible for the establishment of the Independent Shari’a Panels and some of the panelists in these states were interviewed. Some Christian leaders, litigants and government officials were also interviewed using purposive random sampling. The study also makes use of participant observation by attending some of the sections of the Panels to witness their proceedings. In addition, the research explores secondary data for analysis. Three Nigerian newspapers – Guardian, Punch and Nigerian Tribune were reviewed from October, 1999 to December, 2006 to get information. Existing literature comprising books, articles and journals were also made use of.
The preliminary findings of the study revealed that the Muslims in this area do not relent in their demands from government to legislate laws for the establishment of Shari’a Courts and Shari’a Courts of Appeal. They consider it as their constitutional right which the government should not deny them. It was just towards the end of the year 2006 that Osun State Muslims submitted a memorandum to the House of Assembly requesting for consideration of the establishment of Shari’a Courts and Shari’a Courts of Appeal along side the Bill for the establishment of Customary Court of Appeal which the House wanted to consider and pass into law. Their demand was not for a ‘full blown’ Shari’a, but for them to have these Shari’a Courts, where matters relating to civil issues like marriage, divorce, inheritance etc. would be adjudicated upon.
The findings show, that it was as a result of the unfavourable disposition of the state governments to the demands of the Muslims to have Shari’a Courts that made them to resolve to have an alternative means by establishing Independent Shari’a Panels in these states. The Panels are operated at private or independent level without the involvement of the government. They adjudicate on civil matters relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance, contract, custody and maintenance of children, Imamship, trade disputes and other personal matters where parties concerned are Muslims. Judgments are not enforced on the litigants but are passed in advisory manner basing them on the premise that Muslims are expected to abide by the laws of Allah and His Apostle.
The research discovered that the issue of Shari’a attracts debates in this area. The perspective of the Christians to Shari’a is that it is the law of the Muslims, which must be handled privately. They consider government’s legislation of Shari’a Courts and Shari’a Courts of Appeal into law as absurdity and religious bigotry. To them, government is not expected to take sides with any religion and legislation of Shari’a matters into law by it shows it has taken side with the Muslims and in effect government resources and facilities are used for promoting a religion. They vowed to demand for Christian Courts should the government yield to the request of the Muslims. Some even perceive Shari’a as a violation of human rights, on the claim that it does not allow choice of religions and freedom to do whatever one wants. They however have nothing against establishment of an Independent Shari’a Panel, since it is a private matter independent of the government. They likened it to their tribunal or committee on Canon Law within churches as the case may be.
The study revealed that the governments of the states saw the Shari’a issue as controversial and were wary in granting the request of the Muslims. The findings showed that Osun State House of Assembly received the memorandum of the Muslims of the state requesting for legislation of law for the establishment of Shari’a Courts and Shari’a Courts of Appeal. The perception with which the government viewed the issue of Shari’a was that it could generate serious controversy that may cause crisis among Christians and Muslims in the state; hence the wariness of the government came into play.
The research establishes that while the Muslims in the area of study see the Shari’a issue, particularly legislation of law establishing Shari’a Courts and Shari’a Courts of Appeal as their constitutional right, the Christians argue that the legislation of such law is absurd and partial. Government’s wariness was based on the fear that the issue may generate crisis. As solutions to the problem, religious tolerance, mutual respect and understanding were recommended for peaceful and harmonious co-existence. The governments were also urged to promote inter-religious dialogue by initiating Christians and Muslims meetings where enlightenment and education on controversial issues will be carried out.