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Nigeria: Shari'a Manipulation

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sep 22, 2004 (040922)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

A new report from Human Rights Watch on implementation of Shari'a law in 12 northern Nigerian states stresses that "the application of Shari'a in Nigeria has revealed patterns of fundamental human rights violations which are not peculiar to Shari'a but typify the human rights situation in Nigeria as a whole." The researchers report widespread sentiment in the states concerned that the way Shari'a has been implemented has been manipulated for political purposes.

The report, which criticizes lack of due process, discrimination against women, and other abuses, does not claim to examine Shari'a as such. It stresses the multiple interpretations of the term within Islam, and the concerns for social justice that many Muslims think should be key to the concept of Shari'a.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the press release and excerpts from the summary of the Human Rights Watch report.

For earlier background on this and related issues, see,, and

Update: The preliminary program for the Oct. 10-13 conference at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on the history of the international anti-apartheid movement is now available on the conference website ( Also recently launched is a website at Michigan State University for the African Activists Archive Project, now building a database tracking the archives of organizations involved in the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. See

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Human Rights Watch Press Release
Nigeria: Under Islamic Law, Rights Still Unprotected

(London, September 21, 2004) - Islamic law courts in northern Nigeria have failed to respect due process rights, resulting in discriminatory and harsh sentences, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report. Human Rights Watch also found that northern state governors have used Islamic law - or Shari'a - as a political tool while condoning serious abuses.

The 111-page report, entitled "'Political Shari'a?': Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria," documents human rights violations since Shari'a was introduced to cover criminal law in 12 northern states. Since 2000, at least 10 people have been sentenced to death and dozens sentenced to amputation and floggings. The majority have been tried without legal representation. Many sentenced to amputation were convicted on confessions extracted under torture by the police. Judges in Shari'a courts, most of whom have not received adequate training, have failed to inform defendants of their rights.

"If the Shari'a courts had respected the due process rights enshrined in Nigeria's constitution, many of these sentences would never have been imposed," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division.

Some of the human rights violations documented in the report - such as police torture and corruption in the judiciary - are not peculiar to Shari'a. Indeed, they are at least as widespread in cases handled by the parallel common law system.

"State governments and Shari'a courts have not only failed to respect international human rights standards. They have also disregarded what many Muslims argue are key principles of Shari'a itself," said Takirambudde. "They have concentrated on the harsh aspects of Islamic law while ignoring its principles of generosity and compassion."

The report highlights discrimination against women within the Shari'a legislation introduced by the 12 states. Women have been especially affected in cases of adultery or extramarital sex, where standards of evidence differ for men and for women, and pregnancy is considered sufficient evidence to convict a woman. Judges have also failed to investigate allegations of rape made by female defendants in adultery cases. The imposition of Shari'a has corresponded to increased restrictions for women in their day-to-day life, affecting their freedom of movement and association as well as their style of dress. Women have been harassed by Shari'a enforcement groups, known as "hisbah," set up by state governments. The hisbah have also carried out abuses against suspected male offenders, particularly those suspected of drinking alcohol.

As domestic and international concern over the harsh sentences has increased, the momentum for Shari'a has waned in the past year or two. Harsh sentences have become rarer, and several death sentences have been overturned on appeal. However, the legislation providing for these punishments remains in place, and fundamental abuses continue.

In northern Nigeria, many Muslims who had initially supported Shari'a have become disillusioned with the manner in which it has been implemented. They told Human Rights Watch that this was not "real Shari'a" but "political Shari'a," but are fearful of being labeled "anti-Islamic" if they say so publicly.

"State governors have championed Shari'a simply to boost their popularity. These officials have been willing to sanction serious abuses to enhance their political standing," Takirambudde said.

However, as popular opinion has shifted, state governors have now become hesitant to carry out the death sentences and amputations that have been handed down. However, they are also not prepared to oppose such punishments. As a result, dozens of people are now facing prolonged periods of uncertainty in detention while an amputation sentence hangs over them. Some have been in prison for more than two years.

The Human Rights Watch report called on federal and state governments in Nigeria and judicial officials to amend provisions of the Shari'a state legislation that violate human rights -- particularly provisions for death sentences, amputations and floggings -- as well as provisions that discriminate against women. Nigerian officials should stop handing down and executing such punishments. Human Rights Watch also called for due process to be respected in Shari'a trials, and for legal representation to be mandatory in all trials where the offense is punishable by death or amputation.

Human Rights Watch also urged the international community to extend its concern about Shari'a to other human rights issues in Nigeria.

"In parts of the country where there is no Shari'a, grave human rights problems persist," Takirambudde said. "In recent years, thousands of people have been killed by the Nigerian security forces or in ethnic conflicts. The international community needs to turn its attention to these problems too."

Political Shari'a?': Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria

[Excerpts. For full text and full 111-page report, see]

Since 2000, twelve states in northern Nigeria have added criminal law to the jurisdiction of Shari'a (Islamic law) courts. Shari'a has been in force for many years in northern Nigeria, where the majority of the population is Muslim, but until 2000, its scope was limited to personal status and civil law. The manner in which Shari'a has been applied to criminal law in Nigeria so far has raised a number of serious human rights concerns. It has also created much controversy in a country where religious divisions run deep, and where the federal constitution specifies that there is no state religion. Shari'a is seen by many Muslims as an entire system of guidelines and rules which encompass criminal law, personal status law, and many other aspects of religious, cultural, and social life. There are several different schools of thought and within each of these, different interpretations of the provisions of Shari'a. Human Rights Watch does not advocate for or against Shari'a per se, or any other system of religious belief or ideology; nor do we seek to judge or interpret the principles of any religion or faith. We are simply concerned about human rights violations resulting from the implementation of any legal system, in any country.

This report does not attempt to study the Shari'a system as a whole. It concentrates on Shari'a in the sphere of criminal law as applied in northern Nigeria and identifies specific aspects of the legislation and practices which have led or are likely to lead to violations of human rights. Some of these practices violate what many Muslims consider to be Shari'a's own rules and principles, as well as provisions within the Nigerian constitution. The report makes recommendations to the Nigerian federal and state governments for reforming these aspects to ensure conformity with the international and regional human rights standards and conventions which Nigeria has ratified.

The provisions for and imposition of sentences amounting to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment, in particular the death penalty, amputations and floggings, are among the main human rights concerns arising in the context of Shari'a in northern Nigeria. Since 2000, at least ten people have been sentenced to death by Shari'a courts; dozens have been sentenced to amputation; and floggings are a regular occurrence in many locations in the north. Human Rights Watch is unconditionally opposed to the use of the death penalty, in any legal system and in any country, as it constitutes the ultimate violation of the right to life and an extreme form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Human Rights Watch is also unconditionally opposed to other cruel and degrading punishments, some of which, such as amputations, constitute torture.

Of equal concern is the lack of respect for due process which has characterized many trials in Shari'a courts. The main failings documented by Human Rights Watch include defendants' lack of access to legal representation; the failure of judges to inform defendants of their rights and grant them these rights; the courts' acceptance of statements extracted under torture; and the inadequate training of Shari'a court judges which has resulted in these and other abuses. The practice of convicting defendants on the basis of confessions alone is particularly worrying in the light of well-documented torture by the police, other forms of pressure exerted on defendants by police, prosecution officials and others, and widespread corruption in the judiciary. Almost all the victims of these abuses have been vulnerable men and women from poor backgrounds who have little or no knowledge of their rights or of legal procedures, or who lack the financial means to obtain legal assistance, even when they know they are entitled to it. ... Human Rights Watch believes that had Shari'a court judges followed due process and had defendants had full legal representation, many of these death sentences and amputation sentences would never have been passed especially in view of the safeguards which exist within Shari'a against harsh and unfair sentencing.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned at provisions within Shari'a that discriminate against women, both in law and in practice, and other patterns of human rights violations against women in this context. Some of these violations do not stem directly from the legislation itself, but from the way it has been used and from a climate of intolerance which has accompanied the introduction of the new legislation.

Human Rights Watch's research into the application of Shari'a in Nigeria has revealed patterns of fundamental human rights violations which are not peculiar to Shari'a but typify the human rights situation in Nigeria as a whole. For example, systematic torture by the police, prolonged detention without trial, corruption in the judiciary, political interference in the course of justice, and impunity for those responsible for abuses occur not only in the context of Shari'a cases, but are at least as widespread in cases handled by the parallel common law system.

Indeed, Human Rights Watch's concerns about the state of Nigeria's justice system are not limited to those areas where Shari'a is in force. In the south and other parts of the country where Shari'a is not in application, grave human rights problems persist. Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on those concerns in other reports, and is continuing to monitor and raise these issues with the Nigerian authorities. The information and views in this report are based on several months of research by Human Rights Watch in 2003, including in five northern states (Kaduna, Kano, Kebbi, Niger, Zamfara), and discussions in these and other parts of Nigeria with a wide range of people, including defendants tried by Shari'a courts, lawyers, court officials, federal and state government officials, members of the hisbah (Shari'a enforcement groups), human rights organizations, women's organizations, and other members of civil society, Muslim and Christian religious leaders, academics, and many other men and women directly or indirectly affected by the application of Shari'a. Most of those interviewed were northerners and Muslims, from different backgrounds and with a range of views on the question of Shari'a and the manner in which it is being applied. We also sought the views of a number of non-Muslims and people from other parts of Nigeria. In view of the high level of international attention which has already surrounded the cases of Safiya Husseini and Amina Lawal, two women sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, Human Rights Watch has chosen to concentrate in this report on some of the lesser-known cases where the violations of the rights of defendants have been equally serious but have received less public attention. ...

With the exception of state government officials and some conservative Muslim leaders, the majority of people interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed their dissatisfaction with the manner in which Shari'a was being applied in Nigeria. Many had initially supported its introduction and continued to profess their commitment to Shari'a, but explained that they were disillusioned with the way in which it had become politicized in the hands of state government officials. The result, in their words, was that the Shari'a in application was not "proper Shari'a," but "political Shari'a." They doubted the sincerity of state governors in introducing Shari'a and complained about politicians' failure to implement the economic and social aspects, pointing to the continuing poverty across northern Nigeria and the absence of visible improvements in their daily lives.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on what constitutes "proper Shari'a," but our own research confirmed the view that Shari'a has been manipulated for political purposes, and that this politicization of religion has led to further human rights violations beyond those already contained in some of the legislation. As explained in this report, there is little doubt that most of the governors who introduced Shari'a into their states did so primarily for political reasons, in order to secure votes and increase their popularity. They have been prepared to overlook and even sanction human rights violations for the sake of their own political ambitions. They have disregarded the more compassionate and generous aspects of the philosophy which many Muslims believe underlie Shari'a, both in the criminal justice sphere and in the economic sphere.

Since around 2002, the application of Shari'a appears to have lost steam in northern Nigeria. Shari'a legislation is still in place in twelve states and Shari'a courts are continuing to function and hand down sentences; but the political will to be seen to be enforcing it in a strict manner has waned.


It would appear that the combination of external pressure and domestic disillusion with the manner in which Shari'a has been implemented has had the effect of dampening the politicians' zeal: they have realized that their strategy of using Shari'a as a quick way to boost their popularity is no longer politically viable, particularly because it has made them unpopular among constituencies upon whom they had relied for support.

Human Rights Watch believes that the time is right for the Nigerian federal and state governments to re- evaluate the application of Shari'a, now that it has been in operation for several years. Whatever the political considerations some of which are described in this report federal as well as state government officials have a responsibility to ensure that the application of Shari'a does not lead to human rights violations. In practice, this would mean amending aspects of the Shari'a legislation and removing those provisions which constitute inherent violations of fundamental rights, including discrimination against women. But it also means implementing less controversial measures, such as ensuring that all defendants are fully informed of their rights, particularly the right to legal counsel, and that judges are properly trained before taking on criminal cases, particularly those cases involving death sentences or corporal punishments. ...

This report also contains recommendations to the international community. The volatile politics surrounding Shari'a have attracted significant attention both inside and outside Nigeria. In particular, the cases of Safiya Husseini and Amina Lawal, two women sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, captured the public imagination at the international level and were the subject of massive publicity. Some of this media coverage has been ill-informed, selective, and sensationalist. Human Rights Watch believes that action on the part of foreign governments, international organizations, foreign media and others can be instrumental in leading to human rights reforms in Nigeria, if it is based on an accurate assessment of the situation. The disproportionate amount of international attention on Shari'a has led to the erroneous perception that this is the only, and the worst, human rights problem in Nigeria. Yet there are numerous other human rights violations in Nigeria which are at least as serious and deserve urgent attention on the part of the international community. Thousands of people have been killed in inter-communal conflicts or in massacres by the Nigerian army; extrajudicial killings and torture by the police are routine across Nigeria; and more than two thirds of the prison population have not even been tried. Human Rights Watch urges readers of this report to extend their concern about Shari'a to some of these other problems, which have been documented in detail by Nigerian and international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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