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Focus on Africa Magazine

NIGERIA: Current Affairs
Published October-December 2000
Sharia Marches On
In August Jigawa became the sixth northern Nigerian state to introduce Islamic law. But there was little fanfare, as Barnaby Phillips reports.

The Emir of Dutse, Alhaji Nuhu Mohammed Sanusi, is a convivial and well-travelled man. Every evening he goes for a long stroll, through the maize fields which stretch away to the south of his modest residence. It gives the Emir a chance to stretch his legs, and to savour the calm in this remote part of Nigeria, which feels a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Lagos or even Kano.

The Emir rules over a deeply conservative society, in which he is revered; as we passed a couple of farmers in the fields, they quickly fell to their knees, and pledged their loyalty, their heads touching the ground. He beckoned for them to stand up, before saying to me, "We have peace here. We are farmers and we are good Muslims."

I had travelled to Dutse, the capital of the far northern state of Jigawa, to witness the launch of Sharia, or Islamic law. In the event, it was something of an anti-climax. The state authorities decided, at the last moment, not to hold a public ceremony to celebrate the occasion. They may have been concerned about the consequences of inflaming the passions which already surround the Sharia issue.

Or they may simply have been concerned about the sheer logistics of accommodating the thousands of Muslim enthusiasts who had planned to descend on Dutse from across northern Nigeria.

Because as state capitals go, they do not come much smaller than Dutse. In the Hausa language the word means 'stones' or 'rocks', and it is an appropriate name for the town. Its dusty streets are dominated by a beautiful series of rocky outcrops, which loom over the surrounding plains. In the event several hundred people did arrive in Dutse for the launch of Sharia, unaware that the celebrations had been cancelled. Youths from neighbouring states like Kano and Bauchi milled around aimlessly, occasionally breaking into chants, proclaiming their willingness to die as martyrs. They wore headbands with Islamic slogans inscribed on them. A young man strode up to me, and shouted into my microphone that he was ready to fight America.

Various traders had taken advantage of the crowd to sell their wares; old men with dirty long beards held up jam jars full of roots which they said could cure impotency. Fulani nomads, in flowing blue robes, had laid out dozens of elephant and hippopotamus bones by the roadside, which, they told curious onlookers, could perform all sorts of medical miracles.

Despite the confusion surrounding its launch, there is real enthusiasm for Sharia in Jigawa. This is an overwhelmingly rural state. The vast majority of its people are peasant farmers, amongst the very poorest in Nigeria. They live in thatched huts, and they grow maize, guinea-corn and millet.

The village of Shuwarin, some 20 km east of Dutse, is luckier than most. It has running water and electricity. But the people of Shuwarin are concerned that changes in the modern Nigeria are eroding values which they have cherished for generations.

Abdul Majeed is a local primary school teacher. In accordance with Islamic tradition, he would not let me into his compound until his wives and daughters were firmly out of sight, hidden in their huts behind closed doors. Once he had ushered them out of the way, Abdul Majeed sat down and spoke passionately of the dangers to society presented by the spread of prostitution and alcoholism.

"With Sharia it is going to be a very good, decent society, with no harlots or drunkards," he told me. "All those unwanted customs that are not in our blood, are going to go away."
Back in Dutse, it was easy for us to find people who felt the same way. Outside the Emir's office, hundreds of poor, blind and crippled people were squatting in the shade of mango trees, waiting for free handouts of grain. These charitable handouts are known as the 'zakat', and local officials explained they are part of the Sharia tradition. For many people in southern Nigeria, Sharia is synonymous with intolerance and persecution. Ironically, in Jigawa, people believe that its adoption could herald a return to a more gentle and caring society.
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