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The Shar’iah Question in Northern Nigeria and the Failure of Political Islam

28/03/2012

For some years Islamists in Northern Nigeria had been lobbying for the implementation of shar’iah law. By the end of the 1990s a propitious set of circumstances brought their demand to reality. Military rule came to an end in Nigeria, but with the advent of civilian rule and the concomitant ending of 15 years of martial law there was fear amongst Nigerian citizens that criminality would rise. Shar’iah law, in this context, held the promise of curbing crime. Given the domination of the Nigerian armed forces by northerners, the ending of military rule also witnessed the diminution of political power of northern political elites within the Federal Republic of Nigeria. As such, these now feared that their traditional political fiefdoms in the north were threatened by southerners. Northern political elites then elected to support shari’ah law in their respective states to serve as a bulwark against southern influence.

Consequently, as a result of Islamist lobbying, fear of rising crime levels amongst the general populace and the political concerns of northern elites, 12 states in northern Nigeria implemented the shar’iah between 1999 and 2003. Despite the promise of shar’iah it soon proved to be a dismal failure. It led to the formation of local groups (Yan Hisba) and the implement the shar’iah regulation. Instead these were nothing more than vigilante groups settling old scores in neighbourhoods under the cover of implementing the shari’ah. Defendants in shar’iah courts had to contend with poorly trained judges who accepted confessions extracted under torture. In addition, defendants did not have access to legal representation. Moreover, almost all those convicted in shar’iah courts were poor and female – the most vulnerable groups in society. As in Nigerian secular courts, the rich could literally get away with murder. Even at the most basic level, that of curbing immorality, shar’ia has been a failure. Males in a shar’ia state now simply visit prostitutes in non-shar’ia states or acquire Christian identity cards in order to drink alcohol. As a result, the many Muslims in northern Nigeria have become disillusioned with shari’ah.

The failure of shar’iah in northern Nigeria to provide justice and curb crime and immorality must be seen as a major failure of political Islam and the entire Islamist project. Shar’iah lies at the core of the Islamist project to ensure that Islam is implemented as a comprehensive way of life.
Recognising that the failure of shari’ah constitutes a major failure for the Islamist political project, Boko Haram has made the “reinvigoration and comprehensive implementation of shar’iah” the centrepiece of its demands.