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Nigeria orders suspension of Islamic law after...

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2000-03-03 00:10
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Ecumenical News International
Daily News Service
01 March 2000


Nigeria orders suspension of Islamic law after four days of
riots
ENI-00-0075

By Obed Minchakpu
Kaduna, Nigeria, 1 March (ENI) - Nigeria's federal government
yesterday suspended the Islamic legal system - Sharia law - in
several states, following mass killings and destruction of
property worth millions of dollars in the city of Kaduna, in
northern Nigeria.

More than 400 people died in street battles and other violence
between Christians and Muslims in the city of Kaduna last week.
The main reason for the violence was the decision of the Kaduna
state government to implement Islamic law for its four million
citizens. Many mosques and at least 36 churches were destroyed,
and more than 200 000 people were forced to flee.

At an emergency meeting on 29 February in the central Nigerian
city of Abuja, the national council of state, which includes past
presidents and heads of state, as well as state governors, ruled
that Islamic law should be suspended by state governments.

Northern Nigeria, where several states have implemented or are
considering implementing Islamic law, has large Muslim
communities, and also substantial Christian populations.
According to Associated Press, northerners dominate Nigeria's
military and have wielded immense power during the 15 years of
army rule that ended last year with democratic elections.

Nigeria's Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, told a press
conference that states that had adopted Islamic law should revert
to the code of civil law that had been in operation since Nigeria
became independent in 1960.

The vice president added that the Nigerian government was
investigating the causes of the religious conflict, and warned
that those who had instigated the conflict would be dealt with
decisively.

"If we find that there are people who have fuelled this crisis,
who have subverted the state, we would of course take them on,
and hand them over to the law-enforcement agencies, and these
law-enforcement agencies will deal with them accordingly," he
said.


After the meeting, President Olesegun Obasanjo, a Christian
politician who won last year's elections, lamented the "wanton
destruction of lives and property in the name of religion", and
pointed out that both Islam and Christianity "preach love, peace,
care, and protection of one's neighbour". The federal government
would, he said, strengthen the teaching of moral and religious
values in schools.

He added that the government would establish reconciliation
committees across the country to enable Nigerians, irrespective
of their religious persuasion and tribal origins, to dialogue and
resolve their differences amicably.

Dr Sunday Mbang, national president of the Christian Association
of Nigeria (CAN) and head of the Methodist Church in Nigeria,
welcomed the federal government's suspension of Sharia law and
warned that an early resolution of the controversy was the only
way to halt what he described as "an impending disaster" for
Nigeria.

Dr Mbang said Nigeria's constitution guaranteed freedom of
religion for every Nigerian, and there was no need for any state
government to enact new religious laws or adopt any religion as a
state religion in a multi-faith country like Nigeria.

At the same time the National Council of Muslim Youth
Organisation of Nigeria (NACOMYO) condemned last week's violence,
and declared that true Muslims could not kill in the name of God:
"Those who kill in the name of the faith are not people of God,
but are true messengers of Shaidan [the Devil]".

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) put part of
the blame for last week's violence on the federal government,
saying that the authorities should have maintained law and
order.

The conflict began on 21 February as Christians held
demonstrations against the Kaduna state government's decision to
introduce the Islamic legal system.

About 30 000 Christians assembled at five different points in
the city of Kaduna for peaceful protests - at St Michael's
Anglican Church, St Joseph's Catholic Church, St Christopher's
Anglican Church, Roman Catholic Rehabilitation Centre, and Our
Lady of Apostles Catholic Church.

The protesters sang hymns and carried placards bearing slogans
such as "Sharia is a crime in Kaduna," "Sharia is lawless" and
"No to Sharia".

The Christians marched peacefully to the State House of Assembly
and the governor's residence to present protest letters. They
then walked back to their various churches to hear further
speeches. It was at this point, eyewitnesses told ENI, that they
were attacked by armed Muslim fanatics.

The secretary general of the Kaduna branch of the Christian
Association of Nigeria, Saidu Dogo, told ENI that Muslims had
attacked Christians who had then been forced to defend
themselves. Asked at what point the attack by Muslims took place,
he said: "At the Baptist Church [in Kaduna's Ahmadu Bello Way],
the Muslims started coming from the [Kaduna central] market,
throwing stones at us, and we had to resist them. For more than
30 minutes we resisted while they kept surging at us throwing
stones. This continued until we pushed them back."

"They [Muslim fanatics] tried to destroy St Joseph's Catholic
Cathedral and started burning houses. The house in front of the
cathedral was set ablaze. All attempts to make the Police
restrain the Muslims so that we could return to our homes after
the demonstration failed."

But Malam Ja'afaru Makarfi, secretary general of a leading
Muslim organisation, Jama'atul Nasril Islam (JNI), told ENI that
Muslims had been provoked into attacking Christians. "Until the
burning of a mosque along Ibrahim Taiwo Road, the Christian
anti-Sharia protests were all peaceful. This singular act
provoked the Muslims to revenge," he said.

Many eyewitnesses interviewed by ENI said that the
"unprecedented" mass gathering of Christians for the anti-Sharia
procession caused panic among Muslims.

The riots lasted four days. The government imposed a 24-hour
curfew, which was lifted only on Friday, 25 February. About 500
people have been arrested.

A Muslim human rights activist, Uba Sani, told ENI that during
the crisis bodies littered the streets in many parts of Kaduna.

"When I went to town, I discovered that many innocent people
lost their lives ... I was passing through Badarawa to see a
relation who was injured, and on my way, I saw more than 20 dead
bodies on the ground. On the way to Unguwar Rimi to see another
relation I saw more than 15 dead bodies on the ground. Then a
friend of mine who came from Sabon Tasha to my place to seek
refuge confirmed to me that he saw not less than 25 dead people
on the ground."

Beatrice Agana, a Kaduna Christian, tearfully told ENI that her
young son had been killed before her very eyes. When the violence
began, she had run to the school to collect him, but arrived too
late. "I was just a few metres away when I saw group of Muslim
fanatics surround some schoolchildren. Immediately I saw them, my
heart skipped a beat. Something told me that my son could be
among the children. At that point, I began to imagine all sorts
of things. As I drew closer, I heard my son give a painful cry.
He was begging them to spare his life, that he knew nothing about
the protests. But they would not listen. And in a flash, one of
them drew a dagger and slew my son. I watched him butcher my son.


"At that point I rushed to them and said that they should kill
me too. I said it was better to die with my son. I was crying and
rolling on the ground when I heard gun shots. They all ran in
different directions.

"Then I was surrounded by soldiers who rescued me and took me to
the barracks," she said.

At some churches that had been set alight, the pastors had also
been killed. Several Baptist pastors were among them. The bodies
of 20 Christians were found in one church building which had been
burnt down.

The Baptist Theological Seminary in Kawo, Kaduna, was also burnt
down, its library, classrooms and chapel completely destroyed.
Four staff, including three young people training for the
ministry, were killed. The seminary president, Dr Uche Enyioha,
told ENI that the institution had been set on fire by Islamic
zealots. The seminary students and staff had put up a spirited
defence of the school for two days, without any help from the
security forces.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kaduna, Peter Jatau told ENI
that Christian leaders had warned the government at state and
federal levels that Sharia was a time-bomb, which should not be
toyed with. It seemed, he said, that the government had refused
to heed their warning.

"We have warned [them] about what Sharia will do to this
country. It will set the nation on fire. But the government has
been so complacent about the matter," he said.

He added that Nigeria could be engulfed in a religious war.

"The time to act is now," Archbishop Jatau told ENI. "As this
riot has shown, if Sharia is not properly handled, it may be a
bigger threat than a military coup."

Dr Mbang told ENI: "The news of the sad and unnecessary conflict
in Kaduna State did not come to any impartial observer as a
surprise. Many of us expected it, relying on the past history of
the state. We expected the leadership of the state to be a little
more mature.

"How could any sensible and sincere politician living in a
complex and multi-religious country like Nigeria think that he or
she could Islamise Nigeria through the backdoor and get away with
it?"