How Did Sharia Get to Nigeria?

An Islamic sharia court in northern Nigeria has spared the life of a convicted rapist who had been sentenced to be stoned to death; the judges accepted an insanity plea, and the defendant will be remanded to a psychiatric hospital instead. How did strict sharia law, a staple in fundamentalist nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, take root in sub-Saharan Nigeria?

Though the Islamization of present-day Nigeria dates back a millennium, recent political changes have strengthened sharia’s foothold in the country’s predominately Muslim north. Islam arrived in the region around the 11th century, via traders from North Africa. The religion was already flourishing in West Africa at this point, particularly in the empire of Ghana; contemporary historians noted that the empire’s capital city featured at least a dozen mosques by the mid-1000s. Many local rulers converted as a means to spur greater trans-Saharan trade, which tied the region into the Muslim world of North Africa and even the Middle East.

Islam remained “the religion of court and commerce” for centuries while ordinary citizens—particularly those in rural areas—continued to practice polytheistic or animistic faiths (although Islamic practices were often blended in). This divide continued until an 1804 jihad, led by a scholar named Uthman dan Fodio, left northern Nigeria under the rule of an Islamic state known as the Sokoto Caliphate. The caliphate adopted sharia as the law of the land, and many locals converted to the Sufi branch of Islam. The British colonized the region in 1903, but they created a system of indirect rule that permitted the Muslim emirs to retain significant authority. That contrasted sharply with the French administrative approach in neighboring countries, where religious leaders were stripped of power.

After independence in 1960, and particularly after the military coup of 1966, the new nation’s leaders developed a criminal code that drew from both secular and sharia law. However, criminal cases were tried in secular courts, not religious ones, and punishments such as amputation and flogging were banned as inhumane. Family and civil matters, such as divorces, were still handled by sharia courts in the north. Still, pressure mounted for a sharia penal code, especially as more Muslim Nigerians encountered Wahabi Islam on pilgrimages to Mecca. (The British pioneered a reliable air service between the two countries in the 1950s.)

In 1999, Nigeria emerged from a long period of dictatorship, electing the born-again Christian Olusegun Obasanjo as president. Obasanjo oversaw the creation of a democratic federalist system, which gave greater autonomy to Nigeria’s 36 states. Governments in 12 northern states used this newfound authority to proclaim the extension of sharia to criminal matters, though they claim that only Muslims will be tried in sharia courts. In practice, however, non-Muslims have been forced to yield to Islamic law—drinking is now forbidden in the north, regardless of an imbiber’s religious allegiance. Human rights groups have objected to the use of beatings, amputations, and eye gougings for Muslim criminals; adultery, for example, is now punishable by stoning to death. 

Though several of Nigeria’s neighbors have predominately Muslim populations, none use sharia courts for criminal matters. In Niger, which borders Nigeria’s Muslim north, President Mamadou Tandja has publicly opposed the imposition of sharia law, arguing that it would exacerbate already prickly relations between Muslims and Christians. But a significant portion of his population may not agree; Niamey, the capital, was recently rocked by riots over a fashion show that Muslims deemed blasphemous.

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Explainer thanks Randall Pouwels of the University of Central Arkansas, Jonathan Reynolds of Northern Kentucky University, and John Kenny of the University of Ibadan.