The proposed amendment of the sharia law in the nation’s constitution is a waste of precious legislative time, writes Shola Oyeyipo
From the outset, Nigerians have been divided along three major fault lines: religion, ethnicity and politics. But issues pertaining to religion have remained very sensitive and they easily become volatile whenever there is political undertone to it. Hence, even before now, the issue of the Sharia Islamic law has remained an important talking point among the proponents and the opponents of the legal system in the country.
Therefore, the recent bill, which tends to increase the powers and jurisdiction of Sharia law in Nigeria being sponsored by House of Representatives member from Gwadabawa/Illela federal constituency of Sokoto State, Hon. Abdullahi Salame, said to have scaled through second reading “due to its sensitivity” is already dominating public discourse and stirring anxiety among adherents of other religious faiths. The bill is seeking to amend Section 262 and 277 of the 1999 Constitution of the country.
Explaining to Nigerians how the bill came about, what the lawmakers made of it and how some sections of the country feel about it, the Deputy Chairman of the House Committee on Media and Publicity, Hon. Jonathan Gaza Gbefwi, reportedly told an online news portal, The Cable that: “The bill came up on the floor and was automatically referred to the ad hoc committee on constitution review. There was no debate on it, either for or against because the House is a democratic representatives’ chamber of the Nigerian people.
“Even if five people only have an issue with any section of the constitution, the House will give it a listening ear. The ad hoc committee on constitution review has one member per state and women and other representation. The precedence is that it is in this committee that these kinds of matters are thrashed out. Any bill that has the potential to divide the country on religious or tribal lines or to reopen settled constitutional issues will most likely fail in the committee,” he said.
He stressed further that constitutional review bills are special bills that undergo many stages unlike an ordinary bills.
“These include committee stage, plenary stage for voting by two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of all the state Houses of Assembly before it comes back again to the National Assembly for voting again and finally it must receive presidential assent. We are still at a very early stage in the process and Nigerians should not worry about bills of this nature as the House has shown over the years to be the protector of Nigerians’ national unity and interest.”
Gbefwi’s assurances however tally with those of Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, while addressing concerned Nigerians, who asked about the implications of the bill during a state of the nation’s colloquium organised by Pastor Wale Adefarasin-led Coalition of Nigerian Apostolic Leaders held at Guiding Light Assembly, Parkview, Lagos last Friday.
Speaking on the bill seeking to entrench the Sharia Law in all the 36 states of the federation and which seems to be getting favourable attention from the National Assembly, Osinbajo said it was erroneous to assume that government was interested in the bill.
“First of all, it is not right at all that the federal government is interested in any Sharia bill. Every bill that is a government bill must come from the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF). This Sharia bill was presented by somebody within the National Assembly and my understanding is that it has not even passed the second reading.
“But let’s even assume that it did, you cannot change a Nigerian law without a constitutional amendment. Sharia is in the constitution since 1979 and it applies to Muslims on issues of marriage, inheritance and others. Any change, whatsoever, cannot come by the way of amendment within the National assembly; it has to be by constitutional amendment.
“Aside from both the Senate and House of Representatives, amendment of Constitution must go to two-thirds of the states; 24 states must say they want it. So, it is not possible, we should not waste our time and energy on it”, he counseled.
A Law and Its Complications
It is indeed a very complicated matter because for adherents of Islam, the religion is a comprehensive way of life. It is embedded with peculiar political, social, and economic system. After the military coup of 1966, the new nation’s leaders with a criminal code drew from both secular and sharia law. Criminal cases were tried in secular courts and so, punishments such as amputation and flogging were removed as inhumane. Family and civil matters, such as divorces, were still handled by sharia courts in the North. Yet, pressure persisted for a sharia penal code.
Therefore, in 1999, during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration when the 36 states enjoyed relatively greater autonomy, the northern states extended Sharia to criminal matters. They argued that only Muslims will be tried in sharia courts but there were instances when non-Muslims were subjected to the Islamic law. For example, drinking is forbidden in the north, irrespective of the drinker’s faith.
Most proponents of the Sharia law, particularly governors of the Muslim states would say they were “fulfilling a campaign promise and meeting the yearning and aspirations of the electorate.
The Koran is the principal source of Islamic law, the Sharia. It contains the rules by which Muslims all over the world are governed. It forms the basis for relations between man and God, between individuals, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, as well as between man and other creatures.
It also has well-spelt-out modalities to resolve conflicts among individuals and between a person and the state. So, to them, since the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Muslim faithful should be allowed to have a full complement of their religion by having the Sharia legal codes in our national system since there are Muslims all over the country.
But those antagonising the Sharia legal system are rejecting it on the grounds that the proponents are only trying to take advantage of freedom of religion to make Islam the state religion and take precedence over the constitution.
There are so many other issues agitating the minds of the people. For instance, can selective imposition of Islamic law work? Is it Legal to do so? Which takes precedence: the constitution of the state or Islamic Law? Do individual states have a right to determine what laws govern them? Who or what is driving this initiative and for what gain since the people are already practising their faith in all parts of Nigeria without any hindrances?
Second, it is impossible to conduct the affairs of a society solely on Islam law without affecting people of the other faith like the Christians. The deadlock, therefore, is that while Nigeria is a secular state, secular constitution requires the separation of state and religion. But while quite a number of other religions agree with separation of state and religion, Islam, as a comprehensive way of life, does not accept the separation of state and religion and the Sharia law must be implemented.
Sharia and a Historical Timeline
In the 13th century, Arab traders brought Islam to Northern Nigeria. Later in the 15th Century Europeans brought Christianity to Southern Nigeria. Sometime in 1800s, the English law replaced both Islamic and traditional African laws.
The story took a new turn on May 29, 1999 when former Zamfara State Governor, Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima, took office and swore to defend the secular constitution. Later, on October 22, 1999, he declared Zamfara a theocratic state governed under the Sharia law. On January 1, 2000, the Sharia law took effect in the state, 26 days later, on January 27, 2000, Sharia courts were set up to enforce the law in the state.
On February 21, 2000, Christian demonstrations against Sharia ended in a-three-day violence in Kaduna State. There had been several protests in which demonstrators were not attacked.
In retaliation, on February 28, 2000, Igbo Christians in Aba, Abia State, attacked Muslim minorities. The attacks quickly spread to other South-east cities such as Umuahia, Owerri, Uyo and Onitsha. There have been several riots over the implementation of the Sharia Law, basically involving non-Muslim minorities in the states which implemented the system. One of such riots later killed over 100 people in October 2001 in Kano State
Following the escalating crisis, on February 29, 2000, the Nigerian government had banned Sharia. On March 1, 2000, then President Olusegun Obasanjo addressed the nation about Sharia. He had said “Sharia will die a natural death”.
Yet, determined to promote the Sharia law were Zamfara, Kaduna, Kano and Sokoto States as at March 13, 2000. Other states that eventually adopted the legal code along with the four above were Niger, Katsina, Bauchi, Borno, Jigawa, Kebbi State, Gombe and Kebbi, totaling 13.
When It Came into Force
An important fact is that most antagonists of the Sharia Law see it as cruel, old fashioned and outright against women.The cases of two northern ladies – Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal, who were sentenced to death by stoning under sharia law in 2002, brought northern Nigeria in negative light.
Lawal, a single mother in Katsina State, was accused of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning by a state Sharia court for conceiving a child out of wedlock.
Interestingly, the father was released without conviction for lack of evidence. The conviction provoked global outrage and condemnations from southern Nigeria. Many national and international NGOs frantically prevailed on the federal government to overturn her conviction. And in 2004, the conviction was overturned by the Sharia Court of Appeal, and Lawal returned to private life.
Recently, in 2014, a man, Mubarak Bala was forced to stay in a psychiatric institution in Kano for 18 days. He was alleged to have been forcibly drugged after stating that he was an atheist. In 2002, the first execution of a man under Sharia took place in Katsina State. It was also globally condemned.
The Chief Imam, Ogo Oluwa Central Mosque, Arepo via Ijoko, Ogun State, Alhaji Al-Imam Bankole, said implementing the Sharia Law across Nigeria is not detrimental to Christians or any other religious sect for that matter.
In his views, since it boils down to a Nigerian issue and efforts must be made to enable people with conflicting views see that the legal system means no harm to them.
”It is good (the Sharia bill) but Nigeria belongs to both Muslims and Christians. There must be mutual understanding. We should respect other’s views. The Quran says our religions should not disturb others. Jesus and Prophet Mohammed were not antagonists. Islam is peace for everybody. So, as far as I am concerned, there is no cause for alarm or anxiety over the issue.”
But Nigerian inventor and scientist, Dr. Philip Emeagwali, in one interview granted in the early days of Sharia, sees no reason whatsoever for attempting to entrench it in the nation’s social fibre.
“It is discriminatory and unconstitutional to have a different set of laws for different sexes, ethnic and religious groups. Under Sharia, women and non-Muslims cannot testify in cases involving Muslims. The relatives of a Muslim murder victim can demand the life of the murderer but the relatives of a non-Muslim cannot make a similar demand.
“The Sharia law is divinely ordained and unchangeable. This takes Nigeria back to the 7th century, when Prophet Mohammed founded Islam. Since Muslim women must always wear full-length dresses and have their faces covered, they cannot participate in the Olympic Games.
”The human life is sacred and it is inhumane and barbaric to amputate the arm of your neighbor for stealing your chicken. The state passed an unconstitutional law which is automatically null and void.
“The Bible teaches: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s’, which in other words, urges the separation of state and religion. On the other hand, Islam is total religion that does not have provisions for the separation of state and religion.”
The Sharia Law debate may be another exercise in futility. Any attempt that tends to give Sharia undue place in the constitution will be resisted, the very reason it is already generating ill-feelings in the legislature, where it emanated in the first place. Therefore, it is one debate that should not have come up in the first place.