recent decades, Nigeria has been plagued by religious and political
conflict, and that violence has often undercut democratic governments
and paved the way to chaos or military dictatorships. The northern
states of the sub-Saharan country are predominantly Muslim while
the southern states are predominantly Christian, a situation that
has in many ways made it more difficult for national leaders to
In 1999, democratic
reforms ended 15 years of military dictatorship and political
leaders drafted a new constitution aimed at ending Nigeria's revolving-door
history of attempted democratic rule followed by violence and
authors also sought to provide a framework for the peaceful coexistence
of Nigeria's two main religions. The constitution allows each
state to make its own laws and says the majority Muslim states
may use religious or "Sharia" code in cases of "Islamic
Some northern states,
however, have also begun to apply Sharia to other areas of the
law, including criminal cases.
Sharia law courts are
known for handing down what their critics consider to be harsh
rulings. Limb severing and death by stoning are not uncommon sentences
in some countries where Sharia law is in place.
"Nigeria has usually
arrived at a kind of compromise, namely that they will continue
with British common law to deal with most matters involving all
Nigerian citizens and that Islamic law would be available to deal
with family matters," Richard Joseph, director of African
Studies at Northwestern University, told National Public Radio
in November 2002. "The adoption by those states of Sharia,
of Islamic law, has really introduced a new element into the equation
of the expanded application of Sharia law coupled with pre-existing
differences in belief and culture has increased violence between
the country's Christian and Muslim populations, according to some
experts. Some Christians have reacted violently to Muslims seeking
more political power, while Muslims have responded in kind.
During clashes, both
sides accuse the other of the first offense. Efforts by the federal
government to maintain order have often been futile, while episodes
of rioting and unrest have become routine.
10,000 people have been killed in religious, tribal or political
violence or overlapping versions of all three since
When the Kaduna
state announced in May 2000 that the government would utilize
the Sharia law, some 2,000 people died in rioting, according to
the Associated Press. Although the Sharia courts were only to
be used to deal with Muslims accused of breaking the law, many
non-Muslims, fearing the worst, fled or fought. Prosecutors in
Kaduna later indicted local Christian leaders for inciting the
In September 2001,
more than 2,000 people were reportedly killed in religious riots
in the majority Christian city of Jos after Christians and Muslims
clashed over the appointment of a Muslim to oversee a government
poverty alleviation program. Armed, roaming factions of Christian
and Muslim men fought in the streets during the riots, with some
burning churches and mosques.
president, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a Christian and one of the country's
former military rulers. Obasanjo was elected to a second four-year
term in April, amid accusations of election fraud.
after the election, Obasanjo spoke out against one of the most
controversial Sharia rulings, the case of Amina Lawal, who was
accused of adultery and sentenced to execution by stoning. The
Lawal case could turn into a major trial for Obasanjo's administration.
He has said that the Sharia court went too far and vowed that
if the sentence were not overturned on appeal, he would bring
the matter before a secular federal court.
"No such punishment
has ever been carried out in Nigeria, and I have said to the world
that under no circumstances will such punishment be carried out
in Nigeria, because we have a system of appeal in our courts that
will carry this to the highest court of appeal in the land, which
is the supreme court," Obasanjo told CNN in November 2002.
In the same interview,
however, Obasanjo said that any intervention in the legal affairs
of the states would cause major conflict.
practicing a federal form, a federal system of government in this
land, and we deliberately went for a federal system of government
because of our diversity," Obasanjo said. "And anybody
who wants to try to impose a unitary form of government in this
country will destroy this country overnight. That has been tried
before, and it did not work."
Aside from reticence
to impose national authority on the states, the president has
also proven reluctant to find fault with individuals who commit
acts of religious violence.
left some 200 people dead as Nigeria attempted to host the Miss
World pageant in November 2002, Obasanjo said an insensitive media
was to blame.
was offensive to some Muslims, who believed a contest focusing
on the physical beauty of women should not be allowed in a country
with a large Muslim population. Some Muslims believe women should
wear only the most conservative clothing wrist- and ankle-length
robes with veils and head scarves.
When a female columnist
for This Day newspaper defended the pageant by saying the founder
of Islam, the prophet Mohammed, would have approved of the pageant
and may have even married one of the contestants, an ensuing violent
eruption left scores of people dead in the northern city of Kaduna.
One northern state
issued a "fatwa," or official ruling, calling for the
execution of the columnist. She resigned and fled the country.
Pageant organizers moved the event to Britain.
responded by arresting one of the newspaper editors and Obasanjo
pronounced, according to National Public Radio, that freedom of
the press was a "license to be insensitive."
"Well, I will
say, irresponsible journalism in Nigeria bears responsibility
for what happened in Nigeria," Obasanjo told CNN after the
riots. "What happened in Nigeria could have happened at any
time that such sensitive and irresponsible remarks is made."
for violent clashes in Nigeria will remain, say some observers,
until fundamental questions of religion, government and speech
are resolved. The continuing frictions between the two major religions
and their geographic strongholds, they say, compounded by the
northern states' attempts to expand Sharia, make for a bleak outlook.
Citing these and a host of other problems, including economic
woes and the need for governmental reform, The Financial Times
declared in June 2003 that, for Nigeria, the "testing time
has just arrived."
By Jason Manning, Online NewsHour