Nigeria: Stoning Suspended

On Sept. 25, Amina Lawal became the second woman in Nigeria to survive a sentence of death by stoning. Lawal had been sentenced in March 2002 by an Islamic Shariah court in northern Nigeria. Her crime was bearing a child outside marriage, which was classified as adultery despite the fact that Lawal had been divorced two years previously. The sentence was overturned by the Katsina State Shariah Court of Appeal; Lawal’s predecessor, Safiya Husaini Tundun, had also been freed by a Shariah appeals court 18 months previously.

Lawal’s case had become a focal point for activists who oppose the harsh penalties meted out by Shariah law. Local and international human-rights groups, nongovernmental organizations, and women’s groups took up her cause, putting pressure on the Nigerian government to intervene.

For Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the verdict surely came as a relief. He had promised to intervene if the stoning sentence were upheld, but his involvement could have sparked political unrest in a country in which Islamic fundamentalism is increasingly gaining hold. Since 1999, 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states have introduced Shariah law, deepening tensions between the country’s Muslim and Christian populations.

The verdict was greeted with jubilation. “A roar of approval swept through the small, sweltering courtroom when a five-member panel of judges ruled four to one to overturn Lawal’s conviction in a case that had heaped worldwide opprobrium on Nigeria,” wrote The New Vision (Sept. 30).

Four of the five judges rejected the previous verdict on the grounds that Lawal was not given ample opportunity to defend herself in her trial and first appeal, and that she had received a verdict from only one khadi [judge] rather than the three judges prescribed by Katsina State Shariah law.

The response from Muslim-oriented papers was muted. The Daily Trust had no editorial, but reported at length on the dissenting judge’s minority report. He “argued in support of the position of the two lower courts that the mere fact of pregnancy and subsequent delivery of a baby provided sufficient ground for death by stoning,” the paper wrote (Sept. 26).

In Vanguard (Sept. 28), John Nwokocha wrote, “The victory is not for Amina alone. It is being celebrated by human-rights groups and related bodies that fought for it.”

But The Financial Gazette’s Mavis Makuni was less optimistic. For her, the case showed that “in spite of our readiness to blame Western domination, oppression, and racism for our woes, we Africans do a very good job of discriminating against our womenfolk” (Sept. 25).

As many commentators noted, the verdict in Lawal’s case may have limited impact in a country where Shariah law remains a powerful force. On the day of Lawal’s acquittal, a man was sentenced to death by stoning for sodomy in northern Bauchi state.