Nigeria: Focus on Government's stand on Sharia

News and Press Release
Originally published
ABUJA, 29 March (IRIN) - Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said his government will not use the courts to halt the introduction of the Sharia Islamic penal code in northern Nigeria.
In an interview with the BBC broadcast on Wednesday, he said full-blown Sharia - seemingly at odds with the country's secular constitution - was an issue of fundamental human rights, but the government would not take a political position on the question.

"What we are going through, what we are doing here, is a revolution of some sort and we expect that it will take some time before things settle," he said.

Nigeria's independence constitution, approved by a panel of international Islamic jurists, allows states to incorporate Sharia, but only in the area of civil law. Rather than the amputations and floggings decreed by Sharia, under the current federal constitution, Islamic courts can only implement fines and prison sentences for Muslims contravening the tenants of the religion.

But at the beginning of this year, three northern states introduced the Sharia penal code. Last week, a man's hand was amputated in the northwestern state of Zamfara for stealing a cow, reigniting the Sharia controversy which threatens Nigeria's stability and unity. Muslims argue that under the country's new-found democracy, states have a right to respond to the demands of their citizens for Sharia law.

Onyema Oguchukwu, a special advisor to Obasanjo, told IRIN that the federal government's position was based on concern that if it condemned Sharia, "it would unite the whole of the north" in defence of Islam.

"Dealing with Sharia involves two aspects - the legal aspect and the political aspect," Ugochukwu said. "The legal aspect is for the Supreme Court to determine whether these new laws being made in some states contradict the constitution. One NGO has gone to court over the issue, which is as it should be. Every Nigerian has the responsibility to defend the constitution, not just to call on the president to do something.

"The president has been reluctant to go to court because once you go to court, you close the other option, the option of a political solution. A legal action could last for years, and it wouldn't be the best thing to tie the government down in court," he added.

Olisa Agbakoba, a human rights lawyer who has brought the legal challenge against the Zamfara state government over Sharia, said the constitutional issue has thrown up the question of the validity of the country's unity. "Whether Obasanjo has the skills to manoeuvre Nigeria from the edge (of this crisis) is the central question," he told IRIN.


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