Sharia law is a legal code based on the Koran and its teachings. In Nigeria, it is practiced in only 12 northern states, and is best known in conjunction with the 2002 Amina Lawal case. Amina Lawal was a mother sentenced to death by stoning because she became pregnant outside of wedlock. It resulted in domestic and international outrage and her sentence was eventually overturned.
SHARIA IN THE HEADLINES AGAIN
Eight years later, Nigeria's sharia law system is, again, grabbing international headlines. This time, because a Sharia court issued a permanent ban on a group's online activities discussing the very practice of sharia law in Nigeria. Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a small human rights group, opted to use online social platforms to promote discussion on sharia and its impact amongst Nigerians. The group sponsored discourse on the issue by focusing on the first Nigerian to ever experience Sharia law first hand after its introduction in 1999 - Buba Bello Jangebe. This permanent ban, issued by the court, followed an original temporary ban that came about because a pro-Sharia group argued that the CRC's online discussion would mock Sharia law.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO FREE SPEECH?
Section 39(1) of Nigeria's Constitution guarantees every citizen's freedom of expression. Specifically, it states,
"Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference."At no point did the Constitution delineate that this right only belonged to citizens living in non-Sharia states, yet, this ruling suggests that it is above the Constitutional guarantee of free speech. Furthermore, the Koran itself encourages free speech as is evidenced in the following passage (culled from the first page of paper on Freedom of Expression published by the University of Southern California),
"Call you (all humanity) unto your Lord’s path with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the most kindly (and convincing) manner." (16:25)
Nevertheless, there is a process by which the CRC can attempt to appeal this decision. Appeals are possible within the Sharia court system as there are appeals courts. According to the Section 240 of the Constitution, a decision from a state Sharia Court of Appeal can go before a federal Court of Appeal for consideration.
Being that Sharia law does not apply to those not living in Sharia states, other Nigerians are free to have a debate on the practice. It is disappointing that a Sharia Court would shut down debate out of concern that the practice of Sharia law would be ridiculed. Especially as it appears the decision was made without evidence that such was the case or would be the case.
SHARIA LAW NOT AS POPULAR AS BEFORE
The Sharia system, once supported and welcomed by many in the north, is no longer as popular. This is mainly because Sharia was initially sold as a means to curb the corruption that the Nigerian system obviously failed to tackle. However, since its introduction, Sharia has seemingly been applied mainly to the poor and disadvantaged. The rich and corrupt manage to avoid having their sins brought before the courts. This perception of injustice discredits the system. Therefore, an online discussion about Sharia would have done little to affect Sharia's already damaged reputation amongst the very people that are subject to its laws. And, instead of dampening the discussion on Sharia law and preventing people from making a mockery of it, the court's judgment has put Sharia in the spotlight. The results might not be pleasant.
THERE MIGHT BE A LOOPHOLE
Besides, the Court's decision apparently left a loophole that can be exploited effectively. The language of the Sharia Court's decision is as follows -
"An order is hereby given restraining the respondents either by themselves or their agents from opening a chat forum on Facebook, Twitter, or any blog for the purpose of the debate on the amputation of Malam Buba Bello Jangebe."A literal interpretation of this decision suggests that the ban only applies to CRC and only applies to a discussion of Jangebe's punishment by amputation. Therefore CRC could technically begin a discussion of another Sharia law victim. Or, a different group or individual not affiliated with the CRC could create another forum for discussion of the practice. The reality is that given the nature of the nternet, there is little this court or any other body can do to prevent people from having almost any discussion they want to have.
THE SAD IRONY
Apart from the fact that this decision will serve to further the CRC's intention to discuss sharia law by giving the group and their issue more exposure, and the fact that this decision increases the probability that many will react by indeed mocking Sharia law, there is another sad irony at play.
The perception that Sharia law is less than fair is not unique to the practice. The general opinion amongst many Nigerians is that the rich use their wealth to stall and prevent punishment while the less fortunate have no options but to suffer, sometimes unjustly, at the hands of the law. Nigeria unfortunately has a punishment problem that is clearly illustrated in the growing examples of former officials and state governors that are unable to attest for the sharp increases in their bank balance sheets while necessary projects under their care went unfunded. Hence, the concerns that Sharia is oft applied solely to the non-rich and the non-connected is not a problem for those in the Sharia states alone. It is a Nigerian problem and one that further discredits the systems necessary to address such problems, discredits the potential of democracy and the promises made by leaders of a better future for all of the nation's citizens.
It remains to be seen whether the CRC will ignore the Sharia Court's decision and actively encourage debate on Sharia law. The framework for such discussion is already available since the court did not require that the group's twitter, blog and Facebook account be removed. And now that this case has gained international attention, it is only a matter of time before people start taking advantage of the CRC's forums or other similar platforms to discuss Sharia law. Consequently, the CRC does not need to do anything else to further discussion. The 'damage' has been done. What is clear is that a small group has ignited a spark that will likely cause many to engage in a discussion that some do not want to happen. The resulting discourse, however, could do an entire nation a lot of good.