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How Do Nigerians View Islamic 'Sharia' Law?

Persistent ethnic tensions in Nigeria have prompted concerns about the prospects for continued democracy in Africa's most populous nation. The tensions are especially evident in the northern states that have adopted the Islamic code known as Sharia during the past two years. Deepening religious divides could affect the political landscape in Nigeria in the run-up to next year's presidential elections.

Nearly a year and a half after it was introduced in Nigeria's northern Kano state, Sharia is drawing criticism from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Christians complain that while the Islamic code is not intended for them, its implementation will nonetheless affect their lives.

Some Muslims who say they initially supported the imposition of Sharia because they saw it as a means of returning order and rebuilding moral values in society are now disappointed.

Sharia bans gambling, the consumption of alcohol, sex outside marriage, and prostitution, among other things.

Penalties for not obeying Sharia can be harsh. Stealing can result in the amputation of one's hand. Drinking alcohol is punishable by flogging. For more serious crimes, such as adultery, the typical sentence has been death by stoning.

Faiza Tahir, is a 26-year-old law student at Kano's Bayero University. She is a Muslim. She says she initially supported the implementation of Sharia, but has changed her mind.

Ms. Tahir says the poor are more often punished under Sharia, while those in positions of power and wealth flout the rules with impunity. "I think Sharia is the last thing we should have right now because we are not putting ourselves in check. The whole structure of government does not conform with the rules of Sharia. They still want to bring that Sharia and try to impose it on people, on the 'masses,' and not themselves. Still, there is looting, conning (criminal behavior). They will steal the government's money, but they will not be held accountable for it. But once you go - out of sheer necessity - and steal somebody else's cow because you do not have anything to eat, your hands will be chopped off. I do not think that conforms with the rules of Sharia. I do not think so," Ms. Tahir says.

In Kano, one can quickly notice that not all Muslims are in compliance with Sharia.

While alcoholic beverages are not publicly available in the old city, Muslims can easily go to the Sabon Gari Christian quarter to drink. On a typical Saturday night, bars in Sabon Gari are full. At one establishment, a Muslim patron tells a reporter his given name is Aruna, a Muslim name, but when he comes to the bar, he says he changes it to "John," in an effort to avoid being detected by Muslims who know him.

The woman who owns the bar is a Christian southerner who identifies herself as Mrs. Audrey. She says a large number of her regular customers are Muslims from the old city.

"I do not think anything of it because [for me] it is not a sin. Those people say it is a sin, but they are drinking. They come out to drink every day. Many, many of them. They pay me. They drink and pay. There is no trouble. They pay me and go. It is good for me. It is very, very good for me. It is my business," she says.

The Kano State government has allowed the implementation of Sharia, but it has not made an effort to close bars in Sabon Gari and ban drinking in public. Muslim leaders continue to apply pressure for alcohol sales to be banned throughout the state. Vendors in Sabon Gari say trucks carrying shipments of beer have often been attacked as they drive through the old city on their way to the Christian quarter.

Sheikh Aminudeen Abubakar belongs to the Hizbah committee, which is in charge of enforcing Sharia. He says the Muslim community of Kano will eventually expect Christians to stop selling alcohol.

"Sharia is restricted to the Muslims. But you as a non-Muslim, you could brew your own alcohol in your house. You can take it and nobody will interfere. But if you come to the public place, it will harm the majority of the inhabitants, so this is not allowed. We need the cooperation of the non-Muslims. What I am saying is, we have given them (the Christians) their own freedom and they should cooperate with us," he says.

Officials estimate more than 10,000 Nigerians have died in ethnic conflicts during the past three years, far more than recorded under the previous military governments.

With 126 million people, Nigeria has more than 250 ethnic groups.

Following deadly clashes this month between Hausas and Yorubas in Lagos, President Olusegun Obasanjo warned that continued tensions between ethnic and religious groups threaten to destabilize the government and bring chaos to Nigeria before next year's elections.

Law student Faiza Tahir says she welcomed the return to civilian rule in 1999 and would never want to see a return of military government. But she complains Mr. Obasanjo's administration has failed to find true solutions to the country's ethnic problems. She, like many other young people in Nigeria, say it is time for change.

"People are fighting and killing each other and the only resort we have is the gun. That is the only way we know how to stop things. So Obasanjo, when something happens in Kano, in Abuja, in Lagos, the only thing he knows is 'send the military. Let us declare a military emergency. Let us just stop this with a gun.' Nobody listens to anybody anymore. What we really need right now, is to try to change. Our political situation now is that the same people who ruled this country while we were given independence is the same set of people who are still ruling this country," Mr. Tahir says.

Many of those in President Obasanjo's cabinet are people who had served in previous governments.

Mr. Obasanjo has yet to announce whether he will seek reelection.

If Mr. Obasanjo stands down and another person is elected president, it would mark the first time that Nigeria has had a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another.