Islam's Power Grab in Niger State, Nigeria

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The imposition of sharia oppresses the Christians that make up half of the population.

by Obed Minchakpu

MAIKUNKELE, Nigeria, November 15 (Compass) – For Ishaya Kpotun Shaba of Niger state in north-central Nigeria, the past four years have been a jumble of tears and pain. He has not set his eyes on his daughter, Saratu, since she was abducted in December 2001 at age 19 by extremists bent on converting and marrying her to a Muslim.

When Shaba reported the kidnapping to the Maikunkele town police, officials showed no interest in rescuing his daughter. Instead, to Shaba’s shock and disbelief, he was summoned to appear before an Islamic court in Minna on January 9, 2002. The Upper Area Court judge informed him in the summons that his daughter had requested that he allow her to “embrace the religion of her choice.”

Shaba showed up at court but never saw his daughter. Instead, the judge called him into his chambers and told him that his daughter was now a Muslim, and that therefore he was summoned to an Islamic court.

“I protested this and told him that I was a Christian and should not have been summoned to appear before the Islamic court,” Shaba told Compass. He demanded that the court release his daughter – “wherever she may be” – but the judge refused.

Later, he heard that his daughter was forced to marry a Muslim man in Minna, the state capital.

“Isa Gwamna, a friend of mine who works with the Niger state government, told me that the marriage was conducted on the orders of the Islamic court,” Shaba said. “He witnessed the marriage, which was held in one of the government’s offices.”

Gwamna told Shaba that his daughter cried throughout the marriage ceremony, refusing to recite the Quranic passages she was asked to read; she also refused to declare a dowry amount.

“This clearly shows that not only was our daughter forcefully abducted, kept in seclusion, and forced into marrying a man she does not love, but also she was forced to marry a man who is not of her religion,” Shaba said. “My friend said that when my daughter refused to say how much should be paid as her dowry, she was forced to receive 5,000 naira [$381].”

Four years later, neither the court nor the police have advised Shaba of her whereabouts; they no longer know where she is, he said.

So far this year, nine cases of forceful conversions of Christian girls below the age of 14 were reported to the office of the state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), according to the Rev. Samuel Ayuba Shaba, CAN state secretary. Many other cases go unreported.

For many years, Rev. Shaba said, the palace of the Muslim leader of Bida town, the Etsu Nupe, has been used as a base for hiding abducted Christian girls. Once there, they are forcefully converted to Islam and married off to Muslim men.

Cruelties Large and Small

In Niger state, where Christians slightly outnumber Muslims, such a tactic is just one means extremists use in a quest for a dominant Islamic population, according to experts on religious movements. Increasingly, the extremists also target Christian widows as part of this effort.

Sharia (Islamic law) was implemented in Niger state in 2001. A first-time visitor to Minna does not need to be told that Islam now dominates the city. In every street, signposts bearing Quranic inscriptions have been planted in intervals of 100 meters. “Allahu-Akbar” (God is great) reads one of the signposts; “La’illa a-illala Muhammad rasu lillah” (There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger) reads another.

For the Christians who make up just over 50 percent of the 2.4 million population, life is full of seemingly unending cruelties. Besides forced marriages, Rev. Shaba and attorney Bob James say Islamic officials in the state deny Christians basic rights by imposing sharia, forcing conversions, seizing property, and discriminating against Christians in the public sector.

Rev. Shaba, 49, pastor of Harvesters for Christ Ministries in Minna, said sharia has made persecution a lifestyle. It is no longer news to hear of arbitrary arraignment of Christians in Niger state.

“Initially we were told that sharia was meant to serve only Muslims,” Rev. Shabas said, “but we are now living witnesses to the fact that it was meant to harass Christians and to combat Christianity.”

Muslim leaders in the state are deliberately trying to eliminate Christianity, he said. “It is a systematic and deliberate approach to oppress, deny, and frustrate Christianity.”

James, an attorney for the Justice Mission in Minna, noted that parts of sharia directly violate the Nigerian constitution. “The constitution says that one cannot use the machinery of government to promote any religion,” James said.

Cutting off the hands of those guilty of theft is clearly a doctrine of Islam, he said. A government that adopts the practice is promoting a religion, he said, and adopting Islam as a state religion contravenes the constitution.

Niger is one of 12 states (along with Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Jigawa, Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara, Yobe, Borno, Bauchi, and Gombe) implementing sharia in northern Nigeria. Islamic officials have claimed that the Nigerian constitution allows them to enact laws that would bring about good governance, which they have employed as a check against rampant moral laxity and corruption, as well as to restore political stability.

But James responded, “The same constitution says any laws enacted by any state are subject to the constitutional principles on which the Nigerian government is based.” Any other course, he said, will result only in anarchy.

“If there are fundamental human rights that have been agreed upon, the right of a state to make laws is subject to those fundamental rights,” he said. “You cannot violate them.”

So far this year, James’ office has filed 10 lawsuits on behalf of Christians who have been arbitrarily jailed by Islamic courts. Since 2001, his office has handled 30 such cases.

“If not for the maturity that Christians in this state have exhibited,” he said, “all the atrocities would be enough to stir up an uprising.”

Christians Need Not Apply

Christians working in the public sector have been wrongfully denied promotions or even sacked because of their faith, sources said.

Most affected are Christian women, who are forced to wear hijab (Islamic head covering). Christian women who dare to show up at work without the head covering are beaten by Islamic Police (Hisba) recruited by the state government.

Before the introduction of sharia, Christians in the state frequently were appointed as commissioners, permanent secretaries, directors, and principals of schools, Rev. Shaba said.

“But today, Christians have only one commissioner to the 10 commissioners who are Muslims,” he said. “The same applies to positions of permanent secretaries – we have only one.”

Christians are denied positions, Rev. Shaba said, even when they are the educated and have relevant experience.

“Muslims who are not educated are the ones getting appointed into positions of power,” he said. “There are even situations where Christians are retired from public service to pave the way for Muslims to be appointed into these offices.”

Suppressing the Truth

Increasingly, Rev. Shaba said, Christians find it difficult to obtain land for churches.

State authorities are finding pretexts to force even existing churches to relocate out of their towns. Rev. Shaba said this problem is “very common” in New Bussa, Sabon Wuse, Bida, Kontagora, and Dokko.

Efforts to force all churches from town, Rev. Shaba said, are designed to create the impression that there are no Christians in the state and to shield Muslims from the gospel.

Suppression of the gospel also shows up in the schools. In a state where Christian schoolchildren are required to wear uniforms distinct from their Muslim counterparts – presumably so that they will be easily distinguished in the event of religious violence – it is perhaps no surprise that students receive no instruction on Christianity.

Islam, on the other hand, is taught in the state’s 142 public schools.

The same government that refuses to permit teaching on Christianity has built six Islamic schools across the state, Rev. Shaba said. The state-built Islamic schools are the College of Arts and Islamic Studies, in Tudun Fulani; the College of Arts and Islamic Legal Studies, in Minna; and four campuses of the Women’s Islamic College, in Dikko, Kacha, Babana-Wawa, and Borgu.

How We Got Here

Attorney James and other Christian leaders in Niger state filed a lawsuit against the enactment of sharia in 2001. But while the case was being heard, he said, the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo pressured them into withdrawing the case.

Obasanjo, a Christian, was working toward re-election at that time, James said, and felt the legal tussle could mar his political chances. Additionally, Obasanjo believed that a legal war pitching Muslims against Christians would polarize the nation’s judiciary.

The legal battle that would have decided the constitutionality of implementing sharia thus ground to a halt.

Religious liberty is enshrined in the nation’s constitution, and Nigeria is a country of many diverse religions, Rev. Shaba said. “That makes it a more urgent task for the federal government to stop the implementation of the Islamic law.”

That is not likely in a country where religious tensions have already cost thousands of lives and displaced more than 60,000 people. And for Ishaya Kpotun Shaba, sharia has already cost him his daughter.

A retired civil servant who worked for the Niger state government for 26 years, Shaba is stunned at how he has been treated.

“I know of Christians whose daughters have also been forcefully married to Muslim men,” he said. “I know of Christians who have been jailed for no just cause. We can do nothing, except to take our burdens before Jesus, the Christ. This is what it means to a Christian in Niger state.”

Copyright 2005 Compass Direct