Sharia has been practised to varying degrees for as long as Islam has been in Nigeria. But in 1999, the then-governor of Zamfara State, Ahmed Sani, called for criminal cases to be tried in Sharia courts.
Civil rights activists in Nigeria complain that Sharia hands down harsh sentences to poor Muslims, while the rich use it to their advantage.
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Ahmed Sani, the architect of Sharia in modern Nigeria, is a case in point. He married a child bride from Egypt last year and condoned his actions citing Sharia, which permits men to marry wives as young as 13.
Civil rights activist, Shehu Sani stood up to Ahmed Sani, who is no relation, “for those of us who were human rights activists and Muslims we had a duty to our conscience and to our people to stand up to Ahmed Sani. Because we were concerned that Sharia would be used against the poor and to hunt down political enemies.”
Several Sharia cases have brought condemnation from the international community. Most of them have involved poor women accused of adultery who face being stoned to death.
But some argue that it is Nigerian legal system that is at fault.
“Sharia has afforded women so many rights," says Remi Atunwa, a barrister and practising Muslim. "For example it stipulates that if a woman doesn’t want to cook, then her husband is obligated to get her a maid.”
But “people manipulate the system for political and religious reasons," she adds. "And the average person either doesn’t understand the system or doesn’t have the means [financial], required to navigate it.”
Nigeria’s 70 million Muslims already have the choice of having civil cases heard in a Sharia law court. Twelve northern states also allow the resort to Sharia in criminal cases. What Boko Haram is demanding is for Sharia to replace common and customary law in the 19 states that make up northern Nigeria.
The group also wants to see a stricter form of Sharia implemented, as in Saudi Arabia or Iran where stoning and amputations are not uncommon. The problem is that there are several million non-Muslims living in these states. And that wealthy Nigerians tend to be able to escape justice more than the rest of the population.