Nigeria's Muslim states approve dialogue on Sharia

Tuesday, April 4, 2000 | Tag Cloud Tags: ,

NIGERIA, 4 April 2000 (Newsroom) -- Northern state governors in Nigeria have approved the formation of a committee of Muslims and Christians to dialogue on aspects of the controversial Sharia, or Islamic law, which was implemented by several states earlier this year.

The decision was reached at a meeting of the country's 19 northern state governors in Kaduna on Monday. The proposed committee is expected to reach a consensus on the mode of Sharia to be adopted in the northern states. The controversy over Sharia sparked clashes between Muslims and Christians in Kaduna in late February that resulted in about 400 deaths and destruction of property, including mosques and church buildings.

According to the chairman of Monday's meeting, Sokoto state governor Alhaji Attahiru Bafarawa, the establishment of the committee follows the precedent of the late premier of the now-defunct Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahamadu Bello. During Bello's term from 1960 to 1966, Sharia was implemented based upon a consensus reached with non-Muslims.

The adoption of Sharia by northern states has been criticized by Christians and opinion leaders who insist that it is a violation of the country's constitution, which prohibits the adoption of a state religion. Although Nigeria's constitution provides for the establishment of Sharia courts in states where they are needed, it limits the scope to civil matters such as marriage and inheritance. The Sharia implemented, or in the process of implementation, by eight northern state governors covers criminal matters and provides for punishments such as amputation, public flogging, and beheading. A man convicted of stealing had his hand amputated in Zamfara state last month.

A recent agreement at the country's council of states meeting to limit Sharia to the provision of the penal code was rejected by some northern state governors. Ahmed Sani, the governor of Zamfara state spearheaded the adoption of Sharia last September.

Condemning recent calls for a sovereign national conference to sort out Nigeria's sectarian conflicts, the northern governors said on Monday that they "have resolved to uphold the whole north as one indivisible and geopolitical entity within the Federation of Nigeria" under the leadership of President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is a Christian. Last Friday, leaders of churches that comprise the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) culminated a conference in Lagos with a call for a sovereign national conference, which they said was necessary to stem the crisis in the country. "In view of defects in the major areas of land, resource allocation, and centralization in the 1999 constitution, there is need for a conference of ethnic nationalities and religions in the country in order to prevent the break up of Nigeria," the church leaders stated.

The calls for a national conference on the country’s political problems dates back to 1994 when a presidential election was annulled by the military government of President Ibrahim Babagida. While the conference is favored by some groups, particularly human rights advocates and the southwest-based pro-democracy National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), governors of five eastern states instead have called for a confederation of separate states.

Advocates of a realignment of the country’s political structure have insisted that the controversy over Sharia has brought to the fore the differences that could arise in the absence of a conference to discuss the country’s problems. President Obasanjo's government, however, has dismissed such a conference as unnecessary.

To avoid government influence on the proposed national conference, the Christian leaders from all of Nigeria's 36 states insisted that modalities for convening the debate should be left to the ethnic nationalities and other specific groups to decide. "The decision of the conference should be by consensus and take effect at the end of the tenure of the present national assembly," a CAN statement said.

CAN also called for the removal of all provisions on religion from the constitution, especially Sharia. "The secularity of Nigeria should remain sacrosanct," the group stated. CAN plans to establish a political lobby to ensure that political parties do not implement policies adverse to Christian principles, ideas, and beliefs. The group reiterated its condemnation of the sectarian violence, declaring that "those fanning the embers of religious riots must desist."

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