The rapid implementation of strict Islamic laws in northern Nigeria as a means of gaining political advantage has intensified human rights abuses, a New York-based group said in a report made public on Tuesday.
Nigeria, a federation of somewhat autonomous states, has 36 states of which 12 predominantly Muslim states have declared Sharia law since 2000. According to Human Rights Watch, the effect has been to polarize Nigeria's population of 130 million, roughly divided by Christians and Muslims, as tribal and religious communities compete for wealth and political power.
In their report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that lack of legal representation, acceptance of testimony extracted under torture and inadequate training of Sharia court judges are all failings characterizing Nigeria's Sharia law, which has been speedily implemented for political purposes.
While such failings are not specific to Sharia courts, they often lead to disproportionate human rights violations given the severity of some of the sentences under Sharia, such as amputations, floggings and even executions by stoning.
The group reported that women face heightened discrimination as the standards of evidence for Sharia crimes such as adultery differs for men and women. In a separate report made by the Concerned Women for America, the organization reported that 23 Christian women in Nigeria have been brought before Islamic courts charged with non-compliance of the Muslim dress code, prostitution (being unmarried and older than 13 years), or refusal to marry early. At the University of Maiduguri in Borno state, female students have been forced to adhere to the Islamic dress code in order to sit for exams, some are being expelled from the university. In April 2002, Eleven female nurses were fired in Azare when they refused to change their nurse uniforms for Islamic attire, although they were recently reinstated in August 2004.
"The use of religion as a political tool has, if anything, increased in Nigeria over the last few years ... Failure to respect due process has led to serious but preventable violations of human rights," reported HRW.
The group said that while some sentences have been appealed at the state level and few punishments have been enacted, there has been no attempt by the federal government to redress the lower Sharia courts responsible for handing out the punishments
According to Reuters, analysts say this is because Nigeria's president Olusegun Obasanjo, a born again Christian from the south of the country, is eager to cut deals across ethnic and religious lines to keep his ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) in power.
Meanwhile, a surge in religious conflict has accompanied the country's return to civilian rule since 1999, when Obasanjo's election ended 15 years' rule by the military, then dominated by Muslim generals from the country's north.
Although, according to the recently released International Religious Freedom Report religious differences often mirror regional and ethnic differences. For example, persons in the North and in parts of the Middle Belt are overwhelmingly Muslim and from the large Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups that tend to dominate these areas. Many southern ethnic groups are predominantly Christian. In many areas of the Middle Belt, Muslim Fulani tend to be pastoralists, while the Muslim Hausa and most Christian ethnic groups tend to be farmers or work in urban areas. Consequently ethnic, regional, economic, and land use competition often coincide with religious differences between the competing groups, often times leading to conflicts.
Many Nigerians say that since 1999 the country has seen even greater levels of poverty, crime and violence. At least 11,000 have been killed in sectarian violence.