|by Obi Akwani, MGV Editor
Sharia law, as practiced in Nigeria today, is more than a legal system. It has been an explosive social and political issue from the time it was first introduced two years ago.
Nigerian politics lacks the usual liberal-conservative dichotomy common in American politics. Historically, politics in the country has been a regionalists vesus centralists (nationalists) tussle. Long years of military rule (from 1966 to 1979 and 1984 to 1999) hid this fact as the military in power pursued largely centralist policies. But the return to democratic rule in 1999 re-opened the old regionalist-nationalist divide.
For the first time in Nigerian politics the Sharia has been made a frontline political issue as regionalist governors in northern states attempt to use it to gain leverage in the country and with the federal government. Its implementation has caused widespread riots, loss of life and property in several cities.
Proponents see it as a purely religious matter affecting only Muslims in the states, but opponents see it as severely violating other citizens’ rights as well. They also charge that it violates fundamental rights guaranted in the constitution. Christian owned businesses that violate the strict Sharia codes have been closed by officials or attacked by Muslim devotees.
This makes for high political stakes and is why it has been difficult for the federal government to intervene directly. Earlier in the year, Justice Minister Kanu Agabi, fired off a letter to the 12 northern Sharia-law states in which he made clear the Federal government position that aspects of sharia law, including death penalty for adultery and limb amputations for theft, were unconstitutional.
The government of president Olusegun Obasanjo continues to assure a worried Nigerian populace that it will not allow the execution of any person under Sharia for crimes that do not merit similar punishment in civil law.
Fear of international repercussions similar to what happened when Ogoni activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and others were hanged during the Abacha military regime, has caused the government to issue several reassurances that it would not let anybody be stoned to death under these circumstances. The government is counting on the supreme court of Nigeria, if necessary, to strike down those Sharia sentences which are contrary to national standards.