Amid an international outcry against death sentences handed down to two Nigerian Muslim women convicted of adultery under Islamic law, Nigeria's Justice Minister Kanu Agabi has declared the Islamic legal systems operating in a dozen northern states discriminatory and unconstitutional.
"A court which imposes discriminatory punishments is deliberately flouting the Constitution," said a letter from Agabi to 12 governors. "The stability, unity, and integrity of the nation are threatened by such action."
But Muslim governors are unmoved, saying the statement has no legal force in their individual states. "Nobody has the right or power to stop us from doing it," said Ahmed Sani, governor of Zamfara state. "As far as Zamfara state is concerned, Shari'ah is a foregone conclusion. There is no question of dialogue anymore."
Both Muslim women were convicted largely on the evidence that they were pregnant and unmarried. Men accused of adultery can only be convicted on the testimony of four witnesses.
Safiya Husseini, 35, saw her conviction reversed March 25 on appeal. The Shari'ah court judge in Sokoto City acquitted her because the alleged offense occurred before the implementation of Islamic law. Local and international human rights and Christian groups had championed her case for six months. Husseini had faced a sentence of death by stoning.
The other defendant, Amina Lawal Kurami, remains in jeopardy. A Shari'ah court in Katsina state ruled on March 22 that she could breastfeed her baby for eight months before she would be executed. She has yet to appeal the conviction.
Aside from these high-profile cases, several Christians are serving prison terms for breaking Shari'ah laws. Observers say that poor Muslims, such as Husseini and Kurami, are especially vulnerable. Simmering tensions between Muslims and Christians have boiled over since several Muslim governors introduced Islamic law three years ago. Thousands have died in conflicts between Muslims and Christians, and properties valued at millions of U.S. dollars have been destroyed.
Nigeria's religious conflicts also have a strong ethnic dimension. Some observers say Muslim leaders are attempting to undermine the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, a reformist Christian. Obasanjo came to power three years ago, following a succession of military dictators controlled by Muslims of the northern Hausa tribe. Obasanjo is from the southern Yoruba tribe.
"The implementation of Shari'ah in northern Nigeria has political undertones," says Benjamin Kwashi, Anglican bishop of Jos. "It has brought a situation whereby Muslim leaders violate the constitution to pursue a selfish political and religious agenda."
The federal government so far has not hinted at what it will do next. Abdulkhadir Kure, governor of Niger state, wrote to the justice minister that there would be no concessions. He added that "the honorable cause to take, if you feel strongly about the constitutionality of our action, is to lay the issue before the [supreme] court."
Nigerian Christian leaders hope Agabi does just that. Fred Agbaje, a constitutional lawyer, told Christianity Today that local Islamic law violates portions of the constitution that prohibit "the adoption of any religion by any of the states of the federation."
Muslims, however, do not see it that way. Lateef Adegbite, secretary-general of Nigeria's Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, says Agabi is interfering with the prerogatives of states. The national government "has no right to coerce the states," Adegbite told Christianity Today. "It is an intimidation—a very, very disturbing development."
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Previous Christianity Today coverage of religious tensions in Nigeria include:
Archbishop Proposes to Die in Place of Woman Sentenced to StoningOkogie's offer is a protest against Nigeria's Islamic Shari'ah law. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Chronic Violence Claims 2,000 LivesThe adoption of Islamic law in northern Nigeria has ignited conflict between Christians and Muslims. (Jan. 7, 2002)
Hundreds of Christians Take Shelter in Barracks After Riots in NigeriaSome report that violence since mid-October has left more than 200 dead. (Nov. 1, 2001)
Religious Riots in Nigeria Leave Hundreds DeadLeaders condemn the use of religion as a tool for violence. (Oct. 2, 2001)
Orphaned and WidowedChristian families devastated since Shari'ah law adopted. (August 29, 2001)
Christians and Muslims at Odds Over Nigerian ConstitutionCalls made to limit Shari'ah law in Northern states. (July 12, 2001)
Nigeria Officials Press Northern Governors to Scale Back Islamic LawChurches harassed by Islamic youths purporting to enforce the law. (June 14, 2001)
Five Anglicans in Court After Rescuing Teenagers From Arranged MarriagesPriests claim Christian sisters are being forced into Islam. (June 5, 2001)
The Shari'ah ThreatMuslim Fundamentalist law troubles Christians and some Muslims. (Feb. 2, 2001)
'Focused, Determined, Deliberate' DestructionEcumenical leader calls on Nigeria to deal with religious violence between Muslims and Christians. (Oct. 30, 2000)
Nigerian Muslims and Christians Form a Religious CouncilGombe, a north Nigerian state, creates a council of faiths to deal with fears over Islamic law. (Sept. 19, 2000)
Churches Challenge Islamic LawChristians plan to take Shari'ah to court. (Aug. 15, 2000)
Is Nigeria Moving Toward War?Deadly riots lead to suspension of Islamic law. (March 31, 2000)
Nigeria On the Brink of Religious WarNorthern states adopt Islamic law, increasing Christian-Muslim tensions. (Dec. 16, 1999)
Nigeria's Churches Considering Legal Challenge to Islamic LawsThird state moving toward implementing Koranic laws (Dec. 17, 1999)
Can Christianity and Islam Coexist and Prosper?Is peace with Islam possible? (Oct. 25, 1999)
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