Africa

NIGERIA

Trouble Over Sharia

Sectarian violence in northern Nigeria between Christian and Muslim communities reminds some observers of the run-up to the Biafran war of the late 1960s. The ostensible cause of the recent conflict, which resulted in the deaths of several hundred people, was a push by state governors in the predominantly Muslim north to institute Sharia (Islamic law). Many Nigerians regard this move as a violation of the national constitution.

On Feb. 20, a protest march organized by the Christian opposition in the northern city of Kaduna escalated into rioting. Muslim residents and businesses were attacked and retaliation predictably followed. While early estimates reported the number killed in the thousands, subsequent reports have referred to some 400 fatalities.

While Sharia is the focus of the dispute, many see it as emblematic of the north-south, Muslim-Christian divide in Nigeria—and the thin edge of the wedge in a long-standing struggle for power. After a string of at least nominally Muslim leaders from the north, current President Olusegun Obasanjo is a southerner and a Christian. The Islamic states of the north will be watched very carefully—as will the military—to see if a bona fide secession movement develops.

In the independent weekly Tempo of Lagos (March 9), author and social commentator Joe Igbokwe said in an interview, “We just had a war in Kaduna, a civil war.…Let nobody describe this as a religious upheaval. What is happening now has been designed because they [northern leaders] can no longer go to their friends in Saudi Arabia and Libya and tell them that Nigeria is an Islamic state.…They no longer have easy access to the national treasury....[and] government contracts.”

A Tempo editorial (March 9) said, “The proponents of Sharia are intent on implementing a political agenda.…We should draw a lesson from the fact that countries that toyed with a similar idea in the past are retreating from it. Right now Iran is unstoppably on the path of glasnost because the youths of that country can no longer cope with the strict Islamic codes that were introduced.”

Lagos’s independent Guardian (Feb. 28) concurred. “We recognize the right of Muslims to fulfill the tenets of Islam to the letter, but the carnage that the Sharia has brought is indefensible. Now Christians in Kaduna are demanding their own portion of the state....That is the kind of  disruption that religious intolerance invariably produces.…the federal government must rise up today to halt the descent into this clearly avoidable abyss.”

Veteran commentator Cameron Duodu argued in the liberal Mail & Guardian of Johannesburg (March 9) that President Obasanjo should have done more sooner to rein in the northern governors. He could have, for example, “threatened to withdraw federal funding from their states,” he wrote. “None of the states
…could afford to pay its civil servants, even for a week, if denied federal funding.”

Violence could have been avoided if the federal government had acted promptly, agreed Lagos’s independent newsmagazine National Concord (Feb. 28). “The federal government’s failure to come up with a categoric statement on the legality or otherwise of Sharia law adoption…caused the mayhem.”

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