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Rights of Religious Minorities in Nigeria

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22Several states in Nigeria have enacted a Nigerian-adaptedversion of the Sharia criminal code, a set of legal pro-visions based on the principles and morals of Islam.The Sharia criminal code, as adapted and applied in Nige-ria, is the subject of recent controversy because its imple-mentation violates fundamental rights. Although Shariacriminal law provisions safeguard some internationally pro-tected rights in certain circumstances, such as a Muslim’s free-dom of religion, implementation of Sharia law violates otherfundamental rights such as theright of minorities to practicethe religion of their choice,the right to life, and the rightto be free from cruel, inhu-man or degrading treatmentor punishment. Religiousminorities in Sharia-declaredstates are suffering widespreaddiscrimination and harshpenalties that violate Nigeri-a’s international human rightsobligations. They have reactedto the infringement of theirright to freedom of religionwith violence. As a result, inter-religious conflicts haveclaimed thousands of livessince the introduction ofSharia in January 2000.Background Nigeria is a secular federa-tion consisting of 36 multi-reli-gious states. In this system, astrong federal government controls states possessing localautonomy. Although state governors may decide mattersconcerning their own states, all states are bound to respectthe Nigerian Constitution. Secular federalism also allowsstates to make decisions satisfying the interests of their res-idents without affecting the residents of other states. The two predominant religious communities in Nigeriaare the Muslims, located mostly in the north and accountingfor 50 percent of the population, and the Christians, locatedmostly in the south and accounting for 40 percent of the pop-ulation. Ten percent of the population practices indigenousreligions. Many people practice elements of Christianity orIslam and indigenous religions. In a country as religiouslydiverse as Nigeria, secular federalism has been effective formaintaining peaceful co-existence, discouraging religiousconflicts, and encouraging religious tolerance. The Nigerian Constitution upholds the ideals of a secu-lar state by prohibiting the adoption of an official religionunder Article 10, and guaranteeing the freedom of religionin Article 38. Historically, Sharia courts exercised limited juris-diction over personal and family matters and were availableto Muslims who elected to resolve their disputes in suchcourts.Contrary to constitutional provisions prohibiting state-mandated religions, several governors of northern Nigerianstates have unilaterally extended Sharia law to criminaloffenses, making it applicable to all individuals within thestate’s jurisdiction. According to the Nigerian Constitution,a person may not be convicted for any Sharia offense unlessthat offense and its punishment are enacted by the NationalAssembly or State House of Assembly. Where Sharia penalcodes are declared without codification by the NationalAssembly or State House of Assembly, the codes are uncon-stitutional. Despite the violent reaction by the non-Muslimminority to the introduction of Sharia in the northern stateof Zamfara, several other states in northern Nigeria followedthe Zamfara example. Imposi-tion of Sharia penal law vio-lates rights under interna-tional law and subsequentlythreatens peace and securitybecause groups whose humanrights have been violated reactwith physical violence. Statesinvoking Sharia penal law haverelied on a Nigerian constitu-tional provision, which statesthat “the Sharia Court ofAppeal may exercise suchother jurisdiction as may beconferred upon it by the law ofthe State.” At the time of thiswriting, this provision had yetto be interpreted by theSupreme Court of Nigeria.Regardless of the constitu-tionality of Sharia penal law,the imposition of severe penal-ties for certain lesser offenseshas raised concerns within theinternational communityabout the violation of fundamental rights protected by inter-national human rights instruments.Sharia Law in Nigeria Sharia, or Islamic law, is a religious set of principles basedon the Quran (Islamic holy text), the Sunna (teachings ofthe Prophet Mohammed), the Ulama (religious scholars) andthe Qiyas (case law). These principles are applicable to pub-lic and private behavior in everyday life. Sharia may be usedto guide the acts of an individual or group of individuals insociety and may be used to resolve disputes between indi-viduals or nations. The Nigerian Constitution provides for aSharia Court of Appeals at the state and federal levels, butthese courts’ jurisdictions are limited to considering only mat-ters of Islamic personal or family law. Offenses and Penalties under Sharia LawSharia criminal law sets forth a number of crimes andpenalties that are the object of much criticism from theinternational human rights community. The following areexamples of the most seriously contested offenses and theirrespective punishments under the Zamfara state’s version ofSharia law. For the offense of alcohol consumption, Article150 of the Sharia penal code mandates caning and impris-onment whether the alcohol consumption is conducted ina public or private place. This provision exclusively protectscontinued on next pageRights of Religious Minorities in Nigeria by Ismene Zarifis*Safiya Huseini was sentenced to death by stoning for allegedlycommitting adultery. She was acquitted on procedural grounds.Credit: Stephan Faris23Islam, as there is a strict ban on the consumption of alcoholby all adherents to the faith. Article 127 punishes the offenseof adultery with caning of one hundred lashes if unmar-ried, and imprisonment or death by stoning if married. Arti-cle 129 punishes the crime of rape with caning of one hun-dred lashes or imprisonment if unmarried or death bystoning if married. Similar punishments are mandated in Arti-cles 130 and 133 for the crimes of sodomy and incest. Thesepenalties, although protecting Islamic religious principles,mete out harsh penalties that violate the right to life and, inmany cases, may reach the threshold of torture or cruel, inhu-man or degrading punishment.The crimes of theft and robbery are considered two of themost serious crimes under Sharia law. Theft is punishable byamputation of the right hand for the first offense, amputa-tion of the left foot for a second offense, amputation of theleft hand for a third offense, and amputation of the right footfor a fourth offense. The


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