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Nigeria / Sharia - 2002-08-07

In Nigeria, Muslim leaders are calling for the implementation of the Islamic legal code, or Sharia, in the southern part of the country. They say it will guarantee the right to a fair hearing for Muslims. But critics say the predominantly Christian population of the south will not support the introduction of Sharia, and it could trigger a national crisis and disrupt the country's transition to democracy.

Muslim leader Tunji Onisarutu says Sharia in the South would apply only to disputes among Muslims, so there's no reason for southern Christians to be concerned. He says the implementation of Sharia is the only guarantee that Muslims in the South will not continue to be denied justice. Mr. Onisarutu is the leader and spokesperson for a non-governmental organization called the Committee of Heads of Muslim Groups in the South, or CHMGS. He made his comments at a recent meeting of the group in Lagos.

Agreeing with him is lawyer Paul Ohonbamu -- a coordinator of the Civil Liberties Organization in Benin City. He supports the call for the implementation of Sharia in the South. "Actually since they are Muslims, their aspiration is that their social interaction and their well being should be based on Sharia, just like their Muslim brothers and sisters in the north". He says "if muslims think that the whole essence of justice will be jeopardized in our existing southern courts, their call is justified."

But human rights activist Shehu Sani disagrees. Mr. Sani is the leader of the Civil Rights Congress in Kaduna. He wonders why southern Muslims should be pressing for Sharia - which has been adopted in nearly two dozen northern states over the past two and half years. Mr. Sani says the northern adoption of Sharia's criminal codes -- which call for amputations and stoning for such crimes as stealing and adultery - has been a failure. "It has not worked because it is not meant to work. It is an instrument used by the politicians to be able to stabilize themselves to neutralize resistance, to shield themselves from criticisms and to score some political points against the Federal Government." Some say the introduction of Sharia in southern Nigeria is not a good idea because the Muslim population there is so small.

That's the opinion of Father Andrew Ovienloba in Benin City. He is a priest and the director of the Justice, Development and Peace Commission, which is sponsored by the Catholic Church. "For me really it is a step towards the disintegration of Nigeria. This is because southern Nigeria is 99.1% Christian. If they introduce sharia to the south, that means bringing rancor".

Experts say it is not likely that southern politicians will support the Sharia because there are already two legal systems in the South -- the criminal and penal codes. The penal code has been adapted to cover disputes involving Muslims in the south, but it does not involve severe corporal punishments like amputations and stoning for theft and adultery. Other methods - like time in prison - are used instead. So critics of Sharia say southern Muslims cannot rightly say they might be denied justice. The critics say in an election year, Muslim leaders should be more concerned with praying for peace in a country where turbulent elections have often led to coups.