A decade ago, twelve northern Nigerian states introduced Islamic criminal legislation. Many governors of these states supported the move only with reluctance. They were caught between popular demands for the introduction of the shari'a and the exigencies of their office, established by the Nigerian Constitution. Their situation may be compared to that of the colonial period emirs whose legitimacy was closely linked to the imple mentation of Islamic criminal law, but who were forced to implement British orders containing its application. In this article, I analyse the judicial practice of modern shari'a courts with regard to crimes against life, limb and property, a major concern for northern Nigerian Muslims in the past and at present. I conclude that because both the emirs and the governors have been unable to find lasting solutions to the problem of reconciling the two legal systems, they have opted for delaying tactics.
The introduction of Islamic criminal law in twelve northern states of the Nigerian federation after 1999 was widely perceived as an attempt to Islamise the Nigerian state. In this article it is argued that the “šarī'a project” started as a pre-election promise, but was immediately supported by Muslim reform groups whose aim was not the establishment of an Islamic state but rather the imposition of šarī'a compliant behaviour on Muslims. Particular emphasis was put on illicit sexual relations (zinā). However, Muslim societies of northern Nigeria have a notion of zinā which differs in important aspects from the classical doctrine, and certain forms of socially accepted extramarital sexuality still exist. Based on an analysis of a sample of šarī'a court trials for rape, sodomy, incest and zinā, it is shown that the judicial practice in šarī'a courts has helped to mitigate the effects of Islamic criminal law on the traditional societies in northern Nigeria. In particular, accusations based on suspicion and pregnancy out of wedlock as proof of zinā have been rejected by the courts, thereby confirming the privacy of the family compound and traditional conflict resolution through mediation. At the same time, male control over female sexuality has been strengthened.
After Islamic criminal law was introduced in northern Nigeria in 1999/2000, sentences of amputation and stoning to death were handed down by Sharia courts. Within a short period of time, however, spectacular judgments became rare. Given the importance of religion in northern Nigerian politics, this development must have been supported by influential Muslim scholars. This article analyses an alternative vision of Sharia implementation proposed by influential Tijaniyya Sufi shaykh Ibrahim Salih. He calls for a thorough Islamisation of northern Nigerian society, relegating the enforcement of Islamic criminal law to the almost utopian state of an ideal Muslim community. In this way he not only seeks to accommodate the application of Islamic law with the realities of the multireligious Nigerian state but also tries to conserve the unity of Muslims in the face of a perceived threat for Nigeria’s Muslims of being dominated by non-Muslims in the country.
Uniquely, in Nigeria Islamic Criminal Law was introduced in the framework of a secular federal constitution. In 2000 and 2001, twelve Northern states adopted legislation on the hadd offences and the Islamic law on homicide and bodily harm. Reliable statistics on the number of cases tried under the new laws are unavailable. Based on information from the media and human rights organisations, I present roughly 125 criminal cases tried before Nigerian Sharī'a courts between 2000 and 2004. This sample shows that Sharī'a was particularly enforced in states dominated by the Hausa. In religiously mixed states, the bid to introduce Sharī'a became part of the religious groups' competition for hegemony and access to public resources, with violent consequences. The expectations which many Muslims attached to the introduction of Sharī'a were inflated. Its impact on the security of life and property, the fight against corruption and the promotion of good governance has probably been minimal.