Sunday, January 11, 2004

Acceptance Of Sharia Law In Nigeria

Here's yet more information to illustrate the manner in which ethnicity manages to play a role in virtually every conflict that occurs in Nigeria. What might seem at first to be purely a religious phenomenon - the increasing militancy of Nigerian muslims and the attendent calls for the imposition of Sharia - turns out to have a substantial underlying ethnic component. This isn't surprising, as the primary utility of Sharia for the Northern political class has been as an instrument for defying President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian.

To measure the degree of acceptance of Sharia law among Nigerians, RMS Media Services inserted some questions in the political section of its omnibus survey 1. The following pages present the key findings of the survey.

Nigerians’ opinion on the introduction of Sharia in Zamfara State is largely unfavourable: while 38% approve, 49% reject the implementation. About one tenth (9%) had no opinion on the issue. Quite expectedly, disapproval was unanimous across the entire South; surprisingly, however, even in the North, Zamfara’s move meets with opposition with one third (32%) rejecting it. Unfortunately, we don’t know the opinion of the people in Zamfara itself; the Sharia system prevented fieldwork in this state.


The spread of Sharia into other states is widely rejected by Nigerians. 50% are opposed, 6% remain neutral and an additional 8% had not yet formed an opinion. Thus, a bare 36% of Nigerians favour the implementation of Sharia in other states. Even among Muslims, about one in five reject the further spread of Sharia.


The entire South, i.e. Lagos, the Yoruba West and Igbo and ethnic minority East, are strongly opposed to more states joining the league of Sharia states. In the North, the scenario varies considerably from state to state.


The list of problems, which are faced acutely by the better part of Nigerians, remains remarkably consistent across all demographic breakdowns, e.g. sex, age, region etc. Thus, the introduction of Sharia law may well be interpreted as a move to detract from the severe economic and infrastructural crisis, which no government, federal or state, could hope to solve within the foreseeable future. To fire up the populace’s religious sentiments, on the other hand, can be achieved practically overnight. Complementary to this strategy, the debate surrounding Sharia points at regional and ethnic conflicts, which, suppressed by consecutive military regimes, have never been resolved and now erupt violently.

Consent to implementation of Sharia depends more on ethnicity than religious affiliation. Whereas 89% of Hausa Muslims (88% Kanuri, 79% Fulani) approve of Sharia law, less than a third (32%) of Yoruba Muslims (the one Southern ethnic group with the highest proportion of Muslims) concur. Christian (or canon) law is likewise rejected by Yoruba Christians (24% approval), strongly pointing at the Yoruba’s desire for secular rule. Slight majorities in favour of Christian law can be found only among Igbo (52%) and Ijaw (62%) Christians.

Almost simultaneously with the introduction of Sharia in Zamfara, militant groups have entered the political scene in all corners of the country; e.g. Oodua People’s Congress, Arewa People’s Congress etc. Sharia may, therefore, be an expression of social and political disintegration rather than a debate over religious dogma; it seems to aim at ethnic segregation more than at a quest for a religious lifestyle. The states, which have declared their intention to implement Sharia law (and in which majorities would facilitate such a move), are concentrated in the North-Western sector of the country.

Now, what was that again about ethnic heterogeneity being an "ad hoc" explanation for the woes of African states like Nigeria?

Putting such claims aside for the moment, this sort of ethno-religious split is one reason why an African "Swiss Confederation" model is bound to fail. If one group believes it is duty bound by Allah to impose Islamic religious law on the entire nation, while another group believes that faithfulness to the Bible demands Canon Law be the universal legal system, and yet a third group desires no legal code other than a purely secular one, what hope can there be for amity, even under a confederation? Sharia, Canon Law and the Common Law tradition cannot be reconciled, and there is little hope is for any confederation, however loose, if even the basic framework of the law cannot be agreed upon. To say that not every ethnic group in Africa has the numbers to constitute a state in its own right is not to establish that states like Nigeria ought to remain whole, even if as loose federations.