By the time Muslim
leaders in Nigeria adopted Sharia law as part of their state-run
legal system, the precedent for using the system had already been
set. In the area that would become northern Nigeria, the Islamic
code had been practiced for centuries, until the region came under
British rule in the early 1900s.
As a colonial power, the British allowed the use
of Sharia in Nigeria, but did not permit the enforcement of amputations
or executions as punishments.
gained independence from Britain, Nigerian leaders suppressed
the use of Sharia penalties, fearing they would inflame tensions
between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south
a tenuous relationship that has remained on a hair trigger for
decades. For the most part, Nigerian military leaders relied on
establishing secular courts that utilized British common law as
Nigerian attorney Muzzammil Sani Hanga told the
PBS program Frontline in 2001 that corruption and crime contributed
strongly to the re-emergence of the Sharia penal code in certain
"Armed robbery was always increasing in this
country, the disparity between the rich and poor is always there,"
he said. "I believe the clamor for the implementation of
Sharia is like an open show of defiance against the government,
which is perceived by the Muslims as the sole agent of corruption
in this country."
Although Christians are not subject to Sharia
law, its use in the predominantly Muslim northern states has created
an atmosphere of unease and intimidation between religious groups,
causing tensions that have often led to violence.
Nigerian leaders have also drawn a distinction
between those who may use Sharia for political gains and those
who want to observe the Islamic law solely for religious reasons.
"The genuine Sharia, Islamic Sharia, is part
of the religion and is part of the way of life of a Muslim and
part of the way of life of Nigerians. We have existed in that
way from the time that Islamic religion arrived in our land,"
Obasanjo told the news service allAfrica.com in 2001.
"It is what I call political Sharia that
is new and that will come and go, because if you want to use Sharia
to achieve political ends it will not hold. It may stick for a
while, but it will not hold," he said.
Sharia implementation continues to raise difficult
questions in Nigeria and around the Muslim world on how to separate
the secular and religious systems.
"Nigeria is the largest concentration of
Muslims on the African continent," scholar on African studies
Dr. Ali Mazrui told a conference sponsored by the Nigeria Muslim
Forum in 2001. "The population of Nigeria, as we indicated,
encompasses more Muslims than the population of any Arab country,
including Egypt. But can the Sharia be implemented at the state
level without compromising secularism at the federal level?"