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