Aftermath Of Nigeria's Costly Sectarian Violence

Lagos, Nigeria (PANA) - Nigerians enter a new week mourning losses of dozens of lives and millions of dollar worth of property after several days of largely avoidable sectarian violence in the northern Kaduna state of the populous multi- ethnic and secular nation.
Officially, the mayhem unleashed by bloody clashes between Christians and Moslems claimed more than 200 lives, but independent sources say the death toll is higher, with thousands of Nigerians turned refugees, while hundreds are still fleeing the trouble spot, in a crisis, that has opened a new chapter in the country's history of religious intolerance.

At issue is the introduction of the controversial Islamic Sharia legal system in Kaduna, where Moslems and Christians are said to have the same ratio.

The system, which prescribes severe and dehumanising punishments such as caning in public and amputation of limbs for offences such as drunkenness, adultery and prostitution, also sanctions segregation between men and women in public places. It was introduced in October in Zamfara, another northern state, but with a predominantly Moslem population.

Since then, the issue has provoked a fierce national controversy and stout opposition by non-Moslems, especially Christians, who despite assurances by the proponents, fear that Sharia application would infringe on their fundamental human rights enshrined in Nigeria's 1999 constitution.

But amid the Christian protests, the federal government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, would appear to have adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude on the matter, apparently given the sensitive nature of religion in the country.

Meanwhile, several other Moslem-dominated northern states have intensified efforts to follow the Zamfara example, making nonsense of the central government's lukewarm approach.

Clarifying the official position, Information minister Dapo Sarumi, who was part of a federal government sympathy delegation to Kaduna, had said after the violence, that Nigerians, the Bar Association and the Christian Associations reserved the right to challenge the Zamfara government in court over the introduction of Sharia.

He argued that the federal government should not initiate such a legal process, because it would be accused of bias.

It is likely that the Sharia controversy would soon shift from the current street debates to the court rooms, with last week's decision by a human rights group, headed by Olisa Agbakoba, a senior advocate of Nigeria, to challenge the Zamfara government in a High court over the introduction of Sharia.

But until an official legal interpretation is found to the contentious issue, there have a plethora of meanings being read to the constitutional provisions on religion and state involvement.

Proponents and opponents of Sharia, cite the supreme legal document to back their positions on the issue.

Obasanjo has joined in the fray by arguing on a televised media chat that while it could not be denied that Sharia is mentioned in the constitution as it relates to civil matters, the criminal aspects of Sharia are not backed by the constitution.

Section 10 of the constitution is, however, unambiguous that "government of the federation or a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion."

But Sharia proponents insist that the same constitution allows for the setting up of Sharia courts to settle customary matters.

The proponents argue that by extension, this implies an express constitutional recognition of the Sharia legal system.

Lagos human rights lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi, a Moslem, says the constitution is to blame for the ambiguity.

He believes the constitution is "fundamentally defective," making it "difficult" for him to either oppose or support Sharia.

"I don't blame those who are against it. The two groups find their positions justified by the constitution," Fawehinmi declared.

He argued further that "whereas the constitution claims we are in a federal system, the contents show that we are running a unitary system of government."

Amid the national controversy, traumatised Christians in northern Nigeria, under their umbrella body, the Christian Association of Nigeria, have called for Kaduna state to be split into two states - one for the Moslems and the other for the Christians.

"My candid appeal to President Obasanjo is to create a new Kaduna state and divide us from Zaria and I think there will be peace, otherwise whatever we are doing I don't think is going to solve the problem," Archbishop Peter Jatau, the association's chairman for the 19 northern states, told the federal government delegation that visited Kaduna over the Sharia violence.

While some Sharia opponents may share this view, it would be unpopular among advocates of the "One-Nigeria" theory.

They include social critic and university lecturer Yusuf Bala Usman, who has dismissed as "jokers," those clamouring for Nigeria's break-up.

"The corporate oneness of Nigeria," he says, "is given and it's impossible to be separated."

He insists that "you can start a civil war, it can last for 10 years, but it will not break up the country," in apparent reference to the fact that Nigeria has survived a 30-month civil war of 1967-70 during the unsuccessful secession bid by Igbos of eastern Nigeria.

However, Usman concedes that "we can waste a lot of time and cause a lot of destruction, but that's all we can achieve," adding that experience had shown that religious wars had always ended in futility.

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