Even as the world’s attention is focused on ongoing revolutions in the Arab World, and the possible role that Islamic movements may play in transitions from authoritarian regimes, debates rage on how to curb Sharia law in Western European capitals and the American Mid-West, places where the imposition of such laws is far from a realistic possibility.
But in Nigeria, the country with Africa’s greatest number of Muslims and home to more Muslims than any single Arab country, including Egypt, Sharia is already a reality. Nigeria has become one of the largest constituencies of Islamic Law: over 70 million Nigerians are now partly governed according to Sharia in 13 of Nigeria’s 36 states.
Under 60 years of British colonial control, a policy of indirect rule allowed considerable autonomy to Islamic institutions in the northern Emirates of Nigeria. Islamic Law was administered within colonial limitations the British deemed appropriate. After independence in 1960, the importance of Sharia began to decline in northern Nigeria, as Muslims assumed powerful positions in the Federal Government of Nigeria.
The military coup of January 1966, which killed Nigeria’s prime minister, a Muslim from the north, was a serious blow to Nigeria. Northerners sought revenge in deadly riots, setting the stage for an escalating politicization of sectarianism and the outbreak of the three-year civil war in 1967. Opposing the secessionist east to the rest of Nigeria, the war was often wrongly depicted as a confrontation between Christians and Muslims.
Due to the expanding role of the federal government, Muslim political strength continued to increase while the cultural and legal influence of Islam weakened. By the late 1970s, Federal Government institutions overshadowed the old Emirates’ systems of authority and the Qadhis’ courts, and Islam’s role in jurisprudence diminished further.
In the 1990s, Nigerian Muslims from the northern states began to react both to the reduced influence of their region in national politics and the waning influence of Islam. The perception of declining national power reactivated the northern Muslims’ sense of cultural identity, and not least pride in their religion. The ‘Shariacracy’ movement was part of this development, with a revival of the legal role of Islam at the state level, as one state after the other adopted Sharia.
The Sharia implemented in Nigerian states has been uneven in both theory and practice. It has sometimes applied rules of evidence that are not only stringent but sometimes unjust according to its own principles. A Sharia court in the State of Katsina condemned the unmarried pregnant Amina Lawal to death for adultery without meting out a similar sentence to the offending man – while Sharia normally would require stronger evidence for a death sentence to be pronounced. This case resulted in an outpouring of protests from across the Muslim world and from Western critics, and the Katsina State Court of Appeal finally overturned the sentence.
Ongoing tensions around the application of the Sharia are paired with periodic communal clashes, often over local resource issues, and continuing national rivalry between Christians and Muslims for political influence. Politics also can fan sectarian tensions. The intense political campaigns the before Nigeria’s general elections in April 2011 raised political and ethno-religious tensions in the country. As in previous elections, voting patterns reflected divisions between Christians and Muslims, and were magnified by some politicians’ efforts to cultivate religious sentiment to bolster their support.
Beyond the fact that it has the largest population of Muslims in Africa, Nigeria is the world’s seventh most populous country, and holds the 11th largest global oil reserves. It is also the key actor in West Africa’s economy and politics. How Nigeria manages its religious and ethnic diversity will be felt far beyond its own borders. The country is still struggling to find a balance between its religious communities’ identities and the concepts of both modern rights and the modern state. Its critical strategic importance for international affairs calls for us not to ignore the risks of terrible communal violence and threats to local and regional stability that manipulation of divisions rather than promotion of unity could bring.
This piece is part of the series “Religion & the Public Space”
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