Christians and Islamic Law in Nigeria

Monday, December 18, 2000

An Overview of the Situation Facing the Church in Northern Nigeria
by Obed Minchakpu

JOS, Nigeria (Compass) -- Nigeria came into the international limelight in the year 2000 as the country began a full year of democratic government following prolonged military rule. It also saw the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as several northern Nigerian states have moved to implement Islamic (sharia) law. The resulting Christian-Muslim conflicts have threatened to permanently divide Africa's most populous nation.

But the Islamic fundamentalist phenomenon did not emerge in Nigeria's religious landscape overnight.

Prior to the division of the African continent a century ago by political powers in Europe, Nigeria was a non-political entity. What is today referred to as Nigeria consisted of tribes and ethnic groups with varying religious beliefs and systems of government.

However, in 1900 the British colonial administration, which succeeded in carving out Nigeria for herself, forcefully brought all these independent "nations" together under one rule.

By 1914, Nigeria as a political entity was created through "the amalgamation" of the northern and southern parts of the country. The bringing together of these independent nationalities created problems for the British colonial administration under the leadership of Governor-General Frederick Luggard. So the British administration created different processes for the administration of justice.

In the northern part of the country, "Indirect Rule" was introduced. Under this system, the British colonial officers shared administrative responsibilities with leaders of the nationalities in that part of Nigeria.

Muslim rulers from the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups were given some responsibilities to administer their people. This was done by the colonial administrators as a concession to stem the tide of resistance to the British colonial rule by the two tribes.

A greater problem emerged, however, when the colonial administrators in northern Nigeria forcefully subjugated minority ethnic groups to the rule of these Hausa and Fulani Muslim rulers.

Prior to the colonization of Nigeria, these northern Nigerian ethnic minorities had existed as independent nations. And while the Hausa, Fulani and the Kanuri ethnic groups embraced Islam, the other minority ethnic groups had, in general, embraced Christianity and traditional religions.

The subjugation of these northern minority ethnic groups to the leadership of Muslim leaders, with differences in religious beliefs, customs and traditions, was to become a stubborn political problem that has remained unresolved in Nigeria's political history.


When the British colonial administrators took over northern Nigeria, they discovered that the Hausa, Fulani and Kanuri ethnic groups were predominantly Muslim, while the other northern ethnic minorities had religious beliefs that centered around African deities. So in 1900, the colonial administrators created sharia courts for the Muslim ethnic groups and customary courts for the minority ethnic groups.

"These courts are to administer native law and customs prevailing in the area of jurisdiction and might award any type of punishment recognized thereby except mutilation, torture, or any other which is repugnant to natural justice and humanity," the Colonial Native Courts Proclamation of 1900 stated.

The point of contention came when the British colonialists, through their introduced "Indirect Rule" system, appointed rulers from the ethnic groups of the Muslim Fulani and Hausa to rule the minority ethnic groups. This political mistake sparked off the age-long conflict between Christians from the minority ethnic groups and Muslims.

By Nigeria's independence in 1960, the British colonialists had already created a de facto ruling class out of the Hausa/Fulani Muslim group. The tribal leaders had tasted political power and would not easily relinquish it.

Muslim leader Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, carried out a judicial reform to entrench more Islamic values in the lives of northern Nigerians, Christians included.

The Sardauna established a legal system that combined Islamic law with some aspects of the English common law. The Islamic aspect of the penal code was derived from Maliki law (an Islamic school of thought). It was also based on the code then being used in the republics of Sudan and Pakistan. This brand of sharia law provided for the administration of justice on issues of personal matters: marriage, divorce, paternity, guardianship, gifts, wills and succession.

However, all criminal cases were still vested in the hands of the state.


The penal code of criminal procedure was in operation until last year, when Muslim political leaders moved to implement Islamic law over both civil and criminal aspects of daily life. The resulting declarations of sharia law in several northern Nigerian states have significantly increased Muslim-Christian tensions.

Some would say sharia has been nothing short of disastrous.

Between 1980 and 2000, over 30 major religious conflicts have been recorded between Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria. During these conflicts, thousands of Christians and Muslims have been killed, and hundreds of church buildings have been destroyed.

Christian leaders in northern Nigeria have consistently warned that by adopting and implementing sharia, Christians are being marginalized politically and religiously.

Dr. Christopher Abashiya, chairman of the Northern Nigeria Christian Elders Forum, summed up the Christian view of sharia: "Christians will not accept the imposition of a legal-judicial system that would alienate the majority of the people."

But are Christians being marginalized by sharia?


The following are reports from some of the states in Nigeria that have adopted sharia, are in the process of adopting it or where conflict has occurred.

ADAMAWA STATE: Many church buildings in this state have been burned down and many Christians have been killed during religious conflicts. Some Christian leaders have been detained without trial for daring to speak against Christian persecution, including Rev. Wilson Sabiya of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria.

On several occasions, church leaders have challenged some of the injustices against Christians in courts. But even when cases are decided in favor of Christians, the judgements are not usually obeyed by the state.

Muslims are mounting pressure to have sharia adopted, but State Governor Haruna Bonnie, a Christian, has declined to do so. Muslims constitute about 30 percent of the state's population of 2.1 million.

BAUCHI STATE: Bauchi has adopted Islamic law, but has yet to implement it because Christians, who form the majority of the state's population of 2.8 million, have resisted the move. The state's chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Rev. Dauda Marafa, says it is not feasible to have sharia here.

Christian persecution has at times been intense in this northern Nigerian state. Christians have been denied basic rights and their religious liberty has been flouted. For example in September 1995, eighty-five Sayawa Christians were held in detention without trial for months. Other Christian-Muslim conflicts continue to flare up.

BORNO STATE: Borno remains a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. Between 1982 and 2000, over 100 churches were destroyed and dozens of Christians were killed.

Christians have, for more than 10 years, struggled to be allowed to provide for the teaching of Christian religious knowledge to their children. But the government has denied them this privilege. Instead, Islamic religious knowledge is being taught to the children.

The state, with a population of 2.5 million, adopted sharia in August 2000, and its implementation has begun.

Rev. Filibus Gwama says Christians in the state are against sharia. "Sharia is known to be discriminatory against non-Muslims, particularly Christians. Non-Muslims are second-class citizens, hence our objection to it," he told Compass.

GOMBE STATE: This state, created just four years ago, has recently witnessed fierce religious conflicts, although Christians constitute 75 percent of the state's population of 4.5 million.

Three years ago, Muslim bandits attacked Christian villages and killed 16 persons. A year later, another attack was carried out by the same Muslim bandits. The result was that 36 persons were killed and 42 were injured, and 433 Christian-owned houses were destroyed. Last year, 25 persons were killed in sharia-related violence.

JIGAWA STATE: Jigawa adopted sharia in August 2000, and Christians claim they are being marginalized. Some congregations have been denied land for building churches, and the lives of Christians are daily being regulated by sharia tenets.

The state has a population of 2.9 million of which about 30 percent are Christian.

KADUNA STATE: Kaduna has become the nerve center of Islamic militancy. This state in central Nigeria was the capital of northern Nigeria for eight years (1960-67) before additional states were carved out.

Because of this historic and strategic government presence and its industrial base, the Muslims of northern Nigeria have worked hard to control the state, despite the fact that Christians constitute well over 70 percent of the state's population of 3.9 million.

Evangelism has been banned in Kaduna, and Christian leaders have been jailed. Muslim fanatics have kidnapped Christian preachers, and Christian girls have been kidnapped and forced to marry Muslim men.

The towns of Kaduna, Kafanchan, Zaria, Zangon Kataf and Kachia have witnessed unprecedented religious conflict between Muslims and Christians.

The Kaduna state government adopted sharia in January 2000, a move which sparked religious conflict that has claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed property worth millions of dollars.

According to police reports, last year's conflicts claimed 609 lives, while one thousand houses and 123 churches were destroyed.

But church leaders say 875 Christians alone were killed in the conflicts and that 800 church buildings were destroyed. Twenty pastors were also killed.

As a result of the sharia-related conflicts, the state government has adopted a policy that allows for implementation of Islamic law in Muslim-dominated local councils and for customary law in Christian-dominated councils.

KANO STATE: Kano seems to be the gateway for Islam in Nigeria. Through this state, Muslims in Nigeria receive support from Arab and Islamic countries of the world.

For example, Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi visited Nigeria in 1997 and said, "We have chosen the historic city of Kano because it is one of the historic Muslim homes in Africa."

Christians in Kano have continued to suffer unjustly for their faith. Christians have been jailed for evangelism, churches have been burned and Christians killed when conflicts occur. In 1994, a Christian was beheaded, and the extremists paraded the streets with the head. No arrests were made.

Kano adopted sharia in October 1999 and began its implementation a year later. The state has a population of 5.8 million.

KATSINA STATE: Christians in Katsina, like other parts of northern Nigeria, have been facing difficulties because of their faith. They have been denied land for building churches and for burials. House fellowships have been banned, and Christian schools are forced to teach Islam. Katsina state adopted sharia in April 2000 and began implementation in August. Sharia courts have been established.

Governor Umar Musa Yar'Adua, while launching sharia last year, said Islamic law has been adopted because it is the "collective will of the Muslims in the state." Forty percent of Katsina's 3.8 million people are Christians.

KEBBI STATE: Kebbi adopted and began the implementation of sharia in December last year. Conventional courts have already been converted into sharia courts.

Christians have expressed concerned because they experienced persecution during the pre-sharia years. The intensity of persecution will be much greater under sharia.

Kebbi has a population of two million persons. Christians constitute about 40 percent.

KWARA STATE: Kwara is located just below the Niger River, Nigeria's largest river. It is a gateway to the southwestern part of Nigeria and could be considered an Islamic outpost.

Several religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims have been recorded in this state. Notable among the devastating conflicts are those recorded in November 1998, when 20 Christian students from the University of Ilorin were attacked and injured.

The following month (December 1998), one of the churches in Ilorin, the Cathedral Church of God, was demolished by Muslim fanatics. This sparked further clashes between adherents of the two faiths.

In 1999, Muslim leaders at Ilorin demanded that churches in the city be relocated, which led again to conflicts between Christians and Muslims. Eighteen churches were burned.

Rev. Dr. Kola Solanke, the chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) Kwara state chapter, told Compass in Ilorin, "Christians are becoming restless and agitated over the increasing threats to their places of worship." The insistence by Muslims that sharia be adopted in the state has placed Christians on edge, even though the state government has yet to make its position known.

Kwara state has a population of 1.5 million, with Christians constituting over 80 percent of the figure.

NASARAWA STATE: Nasarawa is located in central Nigeria. It is a next door neighbor to Nigeria's federal capital city of Abuja. Christians here have, over the years, faced intense persecution.

The first military leader created the impression that the state was created for the Hausa/Fulani ethnic group in diaspora. This attitude towards the majority ethnic groups in the state, mainly Christians, has caused tremendous friction between Christians and Muslims.

Christians have suffered discrimination in public appointments, even when Christians are more educated, more qualified and constitute 90 percent of the state's 1.2 million population.

Muslims have been agitating for the adoption of sharia in the state, which has led to literal fights in the State House of Assembly. The state government is yet to make an open statement over the issue.

NIGER STATE: Niger is another state adjacent to Abuja, Nigeria's federal capital. It has a population of 2.4 million, with Christians numbering 60 percent. However, Muslim military officers who had the privilege of governing the country ensured that Islam was entrenched in the state.

Prominent among these military officers are General Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar. The former took Nigeria into the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the later signed into law the constitution that contains controversial sharia clauses.

Niger state adopted sharia in January 2000, but suspended it when conflicts resulted. However, shortly after the suspension, sharia was again introduced and a series of crises occurred in Minna, the state capital.

SOKOTO STATE: Sokoto became an Islamic state through the adoption of sharia in May last year. Christians have continued to experience difficulties. Churches have been burned, some Christians have been jailed and several have been killed. The state has a population of 2.3 million, with a significant Christian presence.

ZAMFARA STATE: State Governor Alhaji Ahmed Sani, a Muslim, was the one who sparked last year's spirit of Islamic revivalism in Nigeria. He declared Zamfara an Islamic state in November 1999 and began the implementation of sharia on January 27, 2000.

Since this declaration, the floodgate opened for other states in northern Nigeria to follow Zamfara's example. According to Governor Sani, "A Muslim leader must guide his people based on the sharia. So, I have every right to introduce sharia in my state as a weapon for administration."

Christians have bitter tales of persecution. Many have been incarcerated on flimsy charges, churches have been demolished, and many Christians have been attacked without provocation.

"We have suffered in this state," said Rev. Peter Dembo, the CAN state chairman. Zamfara became the first state where a sharia victim had a limb amputated.

The state has a population of 2 million, of which 30 percent is Christian.


In spite of provisions for the establishment of sharia courts in Nigeria's Constitution, there is no article that permits a state government to adopt sharia as law. In fact, the constitution makes it clear that no arm of the government can adopt any religion as a state religion. Section 11 of the constitution states: "The government of the federation or of a state or a local government shall not adopt any religion as state or local government religion."

But the same document provides for the establishment of sharia courts by a state. And these sections (264- 279) have opened the floodgate to adopt Islam as the state religion.
The Nigerian government appears to be helpless.

"Our constitution guarantees to every citizen freedom of conscience and religion, recognizing that we are not only citizens of one country, but also children of one God," President Olusegun Obasanjo said. Yet the Minister of Justice, Bola Ige, says the federal government finds it extremely difficult to challenge the adoption of sharia.


In view of the current religious tension in the country, church leaders have warned that there is a limit to which Christians would endure persecution.

Archbishop Olubunmi Okogie of Lagos Catholic Church said a dual legal system will not work and that "Nigeria is not an Islamic country."

Rev. Dr. Sunday Mbang, CAN national president, said, "We as a people of this country belonging to the Christian faith have decided that Christianity is our religion and cannot overnight be forcefully made to change our faith. We shall continue to stand firm and demand respect for our religious liberty."

Bishop Mike Okonkwo, president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria said, "Anything whatsoever that would obstruct an atmosphere of worship and freedom in Nigeria as enshrined in the constitution will be resisted with all the power vested on us by the Almighty Jehovah."


The adoption of Islamic law by states in northern Nigeria is a culmination of political and religious maneuvering by successive, mainly Muslim, governments over the four decades of Nigeria's independence. And the road ahead is perilous.

Muslims in many of the northern states are intent on the full implementation of sharia. And if the rhetoric of many Christian leaders represents the views of Nigeria's Christians, the church will refuse to be subjugated.

The only foreseeable result is increasing tension and the fragmentation of a country as conflicts spread. Ironically, divine intervention seems the only answer to this religious war.

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.