Frontline World

NIGERIA - The Road North, January 2003

Synopsis of "The Road North"

A Chronicle of the Pageant's Troubles

Interview With Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka

Five Diverse Voices

Learn More about Nigeria

Sharia Law, Human Rights, the Role of Women




The Story
Miss World Contestants, Building burns during riots, Mosque

Watch Video In Nigeria, a Muslim woman, Amina Lawal, awaits death by stoning for adultery. Her plight is suddenly spotlighted when the 2002 Miss World beauty pageant, an annual event watched by some 2 billion people around the globe, gets under way in Nigeria. The pageant is being held there because Miss Nigeria had won the contest the previous year, a victory of considerable pride to many Nigerians.

But from the beginning, controversy surrounds the event. Some contestants threaten to boycott the pageant to protest Amina Lawal's death sentence, and Muslims in Nigeria denounce it as "a parade of nudity."

As 92 beauty queens descend upon Nigeria, FRONTLINE/World reporter and producer Alexis Bloom and co-producer and cinematographer Cassandra Herrman set out to find and interview Amina Lawal. They head north on the road to Kaduna. Suddenly, traffic grinds to a halt. Their driver is confused and afraid. No one knows what is happening. But word spreads quickly: There is fighting in Kaduna. Fires are burning. It is not safe to enter the city. Placing leaves under their windshield wiper -- a sign of peace -- they join a procession of vehicles creeping north.

That night, watching television news in their hotel, Bloom and Herrman learn what has happened. A local fashion writer, a Christian woman, had written in her newspaper column that "the Prophet Muhammed would surely have picked one of the Miss World contestants as his wife." To Muslims, this was blasphemy. Rioting had broken out in Kaduna between Muslims and Christians. Churches, mosques, shops and homes were burned. At least 200 people died.

Hearing that the Miss World pageant is about to be cancelled, Bloom and Herrman rush back to the capital, Abuja, where the pageant was to be held. At the Hilton Hotel, they find the contest in disarray. No one is allowed to speak with the contestants. Organizer Julia Morley blames everything on the press. In the middle of the night, the contestants flee to London on a charter plane.

The next day, a local organizer of the pageant, Stella Din, is devastated and embarrassed, telling Bloom that the rioting and the collapse of the event have "sent strong signals out to the international community that Nigeria is not a country to be taken seriously." Nigeria's newly democratic, pro-Western government had hoped that hosting Miss World would be an opportunity to showcase the country as it emerged from decades of military rule. Says Din, "We have blown our chances."

A Christian from southern Nigeria, Din also expresses outrage that Muslims in the North plan to execute Amina Lawal. "Where I come from -- I mean, any civilized nation -- you don't stone a woman ... let alone a woman who has a little baby."

Amina Lawal's case is splitting the country. While the North holds fast to its intent to carry out her sentence, the government in the South insists that she will never be stoned. Bloom and Herrman restart their journey to the North to find Lawal and to explore the Islamic regions of the country where sharia, the Islamic code of law based on the Koran, has been embraced.

Nigeria, a country of 120 million people, is one of the world's largest exporters of oil and the fifth-largest supplier to the United States. "But money from Nigeria's black gold doesn't trickle down here," observes Bloom as she passes through the alienated and impoverished North. Entering Kaduna, she witnesses the grim aftermath of the rioting. A local Muslim woman, Amina Ladan-Baki, who is a banker and a women's rights activist, tells Bloom that poverty is the root cause of the violence and blames politicians for exploiting religious differences.

Pressing further north, Bloom and Herrman enter the ancient city of Kano, where Islam arrived more than 700 years ago. "Sharia has long been a way of life here," comments Bloom, "a code of conduct that encourages social welfare." But sharia as the foundation of the legal system returned -- with its harsh penalties -- just three years ago, after Nigeria's military dictatorship fell. Thousands of supporters celebrated in the streets. "People saw the sharia as coming in to save the situation," says legal scholar Naiya Sada, explaining that the old secular legal system had become hopelessly corrupt and inefficient in practice. "The hope is that 'this ideal will come and solve my problems.' People believed so much that something will happen. Whether it is happening now or not, this is a different thing entirely."

Bloom asks Sada how he can justify stoning a woman to death. "Once you can prove adultery under Islamic law, the punishment has to follow, stoning to death," Sada replies. "Nobody can change that punishment."

But Mairo Bello, who advises women on their rights, tells Bloom that sharia law is being applied unfairly to women. "As a Muslim, what I'm saying is that if it's good for the goose, let it be good for the gander. So if you punish the female, get the man that is responsible for that pregnancy and punish him too."

Sharia law has now spread to one-third of Nigeria. In the state of Katsina, where Amina Lawal was born, Bloom and Herrman see the courtroom where Lawal's appeal was rejected, a decision that brought shouts of praise from male spectators.

Bloom interviews the man in charge of Lawal's case, Attorney-General Ibrahim Shema. He defends Lawal's sentencing. "Remember, we are talking about a Muslim woman, who has accepted by her religious belief that she will not be involved (in adultery). There's a belief-based system here. The woman has accepted that."

As they continue their quest for Lawal, Bloom and Herrman decide to film the streets of Katsina. They are promptly hauled off to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and ordered to stop. When they finally reach Amina Lawal's village, elders of the village send them away, but not before they find out that Amina has fled and taken refuge in the capital.

Back in the urban metropolis, where they can tune in to hip-hop on the radio, Bloom and Herrman watch the Miss World contest on television as it plays out in London without a hitch. Miss Nigeria passes her crown to the 2002 winner, Miss Turkey.

In a safe house, they finally meet Amina Lawal and her child. She receives them graciously but seems worn down and worried. She suffers from stomach ulcers. Her faith in Islam remains strong. "I leave everything to God. He is the Creator. He gives life and he carries out judgments. May Allah let me die a Muslim, declaring my faith in him," Lawal says.

Lawal's lawyer, Hauwa Ibrahim, is a woman also from a poor family in the North. She represents several women sentenced to death for adultery. Ibrahim tells Bloom, "We are afraid that when it comes to the issue of death the moment you stone the first woman, there may be no stopping of it. And I cannot live with that."

If Lawal's additional appeals are denied, she will be killed as soon as she weans her baby. She tells Bloom that her greatest concern is what will happen to her child.

As Bloom prepares to leave, Lawal suddenly smiles radiantly and imparts her own blessing: "May Allah give you your own child."


Produced and Reported By
Alexis Bloom
Cassandra Herrman

Cassandra Herrman

Steve Audette
Amy Young

Additional Materials

Special Thanks
UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

back to top