IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. VOL.13, NO
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES AND VIOLATIONS IN
NIGERIA: THE SHARIA EXPERIENCE (1999 -2005)
PETER OGHENE. O. OTTUH*
The task of this paper is to examine how the negative functions of religion militate
against human rights and freedom in a'supposed free' democratic society In this
study we are using Sharia in Islam as a study case especially, as experienced in
some northern states of Nigeria between 1999 and 2005. The methodology adopted
in this study is the narrative and evaluative approaches. The study shows that the
operation of Sharia in Nigeria in the periods under review was characterized by
human rights abuses and violations.
In Nigeria, beginning with Zamfara State in the north, and followed by some
other northern States between 1999 and 2003 adopted the Sharia legal system.
Since the introduction and implementation of Sharia in these states of Nigeria,
several persons have been put to death either by stoning or beheading; others have
their hands amputated; others flogged; and still others have been forcefully detained
and given degrading treatments'. Sharia Law in Nigeria is increasingly becoming
synonymous with human rights abuses and violations.
It follows, that in recent times there have been reported cases of religious
violations and abuses of human rights, and lack of conformity to the due process of
rights and law in some parts of Nigeria, thus questioning the integrity and ideals of
religion. Human rights are basic principles of rule of law, and are accepted as part of
the culture of some nations. On the other hand, religion ought to be the custodian of
human freedom, rights and culture, hence both religion and human rights create
enabling atmosphere for democratic governance in any human society. The basic
idea in this paper is to identify the goals of human rights and religion in the
enhancement of democratic governance in the 21SI century Nigeria.
SHARIA: A DEFINITION
Sharia is an Arabic word that means "the path to be followed". The word
literally means the way to "a watering place.i'Ihis "path" or "way" does not only lead
to Allah (God), who is the Most High, but also the "path" shown and approved by
Allah. One of the classical definitions of Sharia, is that of Ghiyasu 'I Lughah, which is
universally accepted by all Muslims; according to him, Sharia is "The way or road in
the religion of Mohammad, which God has established for the guidance of his
*PETER OGHENE. O. OTTUH Lecturer, Dept. of Religious Management and Cultural Studies
Ambrose Alii University Ekpoma, Edo State, Nigeria
ARTS. VOLl3, NO 1
people both for the worship of God and for the duties of/ife "
Drawn from this definition, Sharia is not only a set of codified laws governing
the outward conducts of the adherents of Islam, but also it is a life principle that gives
the Muslim a world-view, a moral value and a conscience. To sum it up, Sharia is the
spirit that gives life to the religion of Islam; hence, it is referred to as the "live-force
that fashions all facets of the Muslim's life." For this reason, any Muslim dominated
community or society that fails to operate Sharia to its fullest is considered as un-
Islamic. This is because God alone is the sovereign and it is He who has the right to
ordain a path for the guidance of mankind. Muslims are enjoined for this reason, to
oblige to strive hard for the full implementation of that "path" (Sharia), and not to
oblige to other paths (laws), with the assumption that every other path is evil.
The table below shows some states in Nigeria that adopted and operated the Sharia
legal system between the periods under review.
Slate DateAdopted Muslim Population Christian
2001 30% 70%
Bomo ,2000 70% 30%
Gombe 2000 25% 75%
Jigawa 2000 ; 70% 30%
Kaduna 12000 30% 70%
Kano 1999 30% 30%
Katsina 2000 75% . 25%
Kebbi 2002 60% 40%
Niger 2000 40% 60%
Sokoto 2001 75% 25%
Zamfara 1999 70% 30%
Adamawa 2000 30% 70%
TABLE 1: States Operating Sharia in Nigeria'
HUMAN RIGHTS AND SHARIA
Human rights are rights and freedom which human beings ought to enjoy
because they are human beings. As a basic principle of rule of law, human rights and
freedom are accepted as part of the culture of some nations, e.g. Great Britain, India,
etc, while in other nations (like Nigeria, United States of American, Ghana, etc) they
are enshrined in their constitutions. When entrenched in the Constitution it shows
high level of sincerity to respect these rights.
From time immemorial, human rights are rights acquired over the time
through the striving and struggle of human beings: struggle against the exploitations
of some segments of humanity by other segments or the impositions of some
sections of humanity on other sections. Human rights are not static in any society
and are not uniform either across national boundaries. Human rights are historically
conceived and determined as "products" of human past struggles and development
of society. Afterward, men then initiated new struggles to conserve and defend such
rights. The declarations of human rights are made against organized powers at
various levels, which seek to contain, regulate, restrict or deny them, From time to
time, these powers respond by recognizing sets of rights as human rights. Sincerity
on the part of the state is another issue. The degree of sincerity in this recognition is
measured, in part, by the language of formulation, concrete conditions for their
realization and benefits.
The fundamental human rights of the human person in Sharia Law rest on
the premise that man is a messenger of Allah (God) on earth; hence man is placed
on the centre of the universe. In Sharia, the difference between human rights in
Islam and those of famous Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United
Nations (UN) is that the former are binding on states or countries. The purpose of the
UN Human Rights Declarations rCovenant on Civil and Political Rights" and the
Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights") is enshrined in its Article 1 of its
Charter: "to provide and encourage respect for human rights"s.
In Sharia, the entire human folk are deemed to be aone unified nation and a
Muslim should think ofthe rights of all human beings. In this sense, all human rights
and freedom granted and approved by Sharia are meant for the general welfare of
the world. Human rights in Sharia are believed to have been promulgated about
1,400 years ago unlike that of the United Nations or Countries. It is also believed by
Muslims that the contents of Article 1 30 of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights (of the UN) have their roots in the aims and objectives of Islamic Sharia.
HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE NIGERIAN 1999 CONSTITUTION'
In Nigeria, the Fundamental Human Rights of her citizens are enshrined in the
Constitution. These Rights and freedoms are well spelt out and defined
chronologically in the Constitution. They include:
(a) Right To Life: Under this provision every individual is entitled to life; no one
in any form shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the
sentence of a (competent) court of law in respect of a criminal offence of
which he or she has been found guilty.
(b) Right To Dignity Of Human Person: Under this provision, All persons are
entitled to respect for the dignity of his or her person. And no one shall be
subjected to arbitrary torture, inhuman or degrading treatments such as
slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour.
(c) Right To Personal Liberty: In this subsection, the personal liberty or
liberties of every individual are guaranteed. Under this provision, no person
is deprived of his or her liberties except in the execution of the sentence or
order of a well-constituted court of law.
(d) Right To Fair Hearing: In this provision, a person is entitled to his right in
the determination of his civil rights and obligations, including questions or
determinations by or against any govemment or authority in a court of law
or a tribunal established by law to secure its independence and impartiality.
(e) Rights To Private And Family Life: Under this right, every person has a
right to found and maintain a family. Person's right to privacy, including
correspondence; telephone conversation and telegraphic communications
(f) Right To Freedom Of Thought, Conscience And Religion: This
provision guaranteed every person the right to manifest and propagate his
religion, belief, teaching, practice and observance, either alone or in
association with others, either in private or in public. The person also has
the right to change his or her religion or belief at will. For this reason no
person attending any place of education can be forcefully in any form
required to take religious instructions or to take part in or attend any
religious ceremony or observe if such instructions or observance relates to
a religion other than his own, or a religion not approved by his or her parents
(g) Rights To Freedom Of Expressions And The Press: This provision
guaranteed that, every person has the right to express his or her opinion
and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.
(h) Right To Peaceful Assembly And Association: Under this provision,
every person has the right to assemble freely and associate with other
persons freely. This provision also guaranteed every person the right to
form or belong to any political party, trade union or association of his choice
for the protection of his or her interest.
(i) Rights To Freedom Of Movement: Every citizen under this provision has
the right to move freely throughout the country, and to reside in any part of
the country of his or her choice. No citizen is refused entrance or exit into or
from the country.
(j) Rights To Freedom From Discrimination: This right provides that no
citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin,
sex, religion or political affiliation shall be subjected to any form of
discrimination. Also, that as a citizen of Nigeria, no one shall be subjected to
any disability or deprivation by reason of the circumstances of his or her
(k) Right To Own Property: This subsection provides that every person has
the right to acquire and own immovable and movable property anywhere in
Following the introduction and implementation of Sharia legal system in
some northern states of Nigeria, most of these rights have been grossly abused and
violated by Sharia operators and their agents.
INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS CHARTER
In contemporary society, human rights declarations, as products of
negotiation, have become synonymous with the United Nations (UN) aims and
objectives or charters. The UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights has become
a landmark declaration in the history and politics of global emancipation struggle. No
national ruling class or people can ignore it. No people struggling for human rights
IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. VOL.
and genuine democracy can consciously deny themselves the inspiration, vision
and wisdom embodied in every sentence of that world historical declaration.
Historically stated, on 10'" December, 1948, the General Assembly of the
United Nations (UN) adopted and declared the Universal Declaration of Human
Riqhts.' The Human Rights Declaration has since been implemented and
strengthened by scores of other declarations including those on rights of women,
children, minorities, the disadvantaged and the disabled; and the rights of people in
war and war situations. These declarations and treaties, when put together with the
Universal Declaration and the Charter of the UN, can be built into a powerful
platform for any anti capitalist, anti-imperialist, undemocratic order or structure.
The universal Declaration of Human Rights has 30 articles excluding its
preamble. The UN Universal Human Rights Declaration is rated as an exercise in
clarity, lucidity, precision, and comprehensiveness; and an embodiment of
humanistic feelings compared to that of Nigeria's Fundamental Human Rights in the
1999 Constitution, which is verbose, vacuous and evasive.
In the old days of Islam, there was no such Universal Declarations of
Human Rights in any guise, or any international law. Whatever elements or guise of
international law that existed was regarded as a part of politics and solely depended
on the maneuvers and machination of the state-men.
THE NIGERIAN EXPERIENCE (1999 2005)
What constitutes human rights abuses and violations in Sharia is the
Ugubat (Punishments). This section of Sharia covers criminal laws such as murder,
theft, adultery, apostasy, social vices, etc. The punishments for violation of these
codes include stoning to death, flogging, amputation, etc.
In Islam, the sin of Adultery (AI Zina) and the sin of apostasy (AI Riddah)
among others attract the death penalty. The practice is rooted in the Hadith of the
Even the Prophet (Mohamrnad) stoned to death two Jewish adulterers.f ln
Nigeria, these kinds of punishments have been melted out to Sharia victims in
~~aria states'. For instance, a teenage girt called Bariya Ibrahim of Magazu in
Zamfara State was sentenced by a Sharia Court for having pre-marital sex.
case of the men who she mentioned to have been responsible for her pregnancy,
had they been convicted, they would have been guilty of adultery, and thus must be
put to death by stoning. But luck was on their side, as they were 'not found guilty of
the offence, because there were no witnesses to testify against them.
In 2002, a Sharia Court in Katsina State sentenced one Amina lawal to
death by stoning having been accused of adultery." However, on September
2002 another Islamic Court overtumed Amina's death sentence after four of the five
trial judges decided that she had not been given ample opportunity for fair-hearing
and that her crime had not been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
The punishment by amputation of hands of a thief is clearly stated and
authorized by the Holy Qur'an. The Qur'an states as follows:
As to the theft male or female, cut off his or her hands: a
punishment by way of example, from Allah, for their crime;
and Allah is exalted in Power and Wise.
It is believed in Islam that when the hand of a thief is cut off, both the hand of
the thief and the life of the victim have been protected, and on the other hand,
tranquility has been secured for the Ummah. For instance, in July 2000, a thief was
sentenced and his hand amputated in Sokoto state." Also in Zamfara state in May
2001, the hand of one Lawal Isa Buza, a convicted bicycle thief was amputated
under Sharia law.15
Amputation punishment in Sharia has been criticized as "too harsh" and
barbaric In the words of a Muslim jurist, he justifies the harsh sentence of
amputation under Sharia when he opines thus:
Theft, with the exception of doubtful cases, as, for instance,
stealing promoted by starvation, is punished by amputation
of the hand. We are willing to admit with the jurists, that
such a punishment is exceedingly harsh. It must be noted,
however, that stealing in the West is most of the time
perpetuated by force, and so frequently entails the murder
cf the victim. In such event, one wonders if it is better to
have pity on The hand of the thief rather than on the life of
the Assaulted person.
Flogging as punishment in Sharia Law is administered to convicts of crimes
that are related to drinking, fornication, disobedience, etc. The offence of drinking
(khmar) in Islam is considered to be the "mother of all evils"." In the consensus
opinion of the four Islamic schools of jurisprudence, a drunkard must be punished
flogging (hadd). The number of lashes stipulated by the jurists of thesp schools
ranges from 40 to 80. The punishment can only be administered if only two
witnesses who are just are able to testify. In contemporary Nigeria, precisely, in the
northern states where Sharia is been practiced, the punishment of flogging has
been applied. For instance, in August 2000, in Zamfara State, two young men who
were motorcycle taxi drivers were sentenced to flogging by a Sharia Court for
carrying Muslim female passengers in violation of the law of Zamfara State.
Beside these cases, Sharia convicts in their hundreds have been subjected
to public flogging for various minor offences such as petty theft, consumption of
alcohol, and engaging in commercial sex. '9The practice of Sharia in some northern
states of Nigeria is also associated with arbitrariness and discrimination. For
instance, in Bauchi State the charge of prostitution was leveled against a 13 years
old teenage girl having attained the "age" of marriage but still unmarried. The young
girl was immediately ordered to get married or be sent to [ail." In another instance, a
Sharia court judge had ordered four unmarried women to pick husbands from
among the men present in his court ." Such punishments, sentences and inhuman
IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. V0L.13
treatments have been described by Human rights activists as gross violations of
international Human Rights standard. The table below presents some cases of such
abuses and violations carried out under Sharia Law:
Kebbi Altine Mohammad sentenced to amputation
for theft. The stolen good belonged to the
presiding Judge who had the case
transferred from a regular Court to
his Sharia Court.
A man flogged 100 lashes for fornication
Not by Sharia court but
outside marriage. panel.
STATE EVENT I REMARK
Several men ~re acquitted by a Sharia
Judge because their relatives .~re influential.
hand was amputated for bicycle
case of impartiality.
No attempt for appeal.
Amans hand was amputated for theft.
A 14-year·old Bariya Magazu was sentenced Appeal made but acquaintance
to 100 lashes for fornication and another 80 certain.
lashes for bearinq false witness. . . .'
Zamfara 2 motorcyde taxi drivers ~re sentenced to Punishment carried out imrnediately
2000 40 lashes each for carrying Muslim female and publicly.
April Katsina Sirajo Asharalle was arrested and detained
Performance of music and dancing
2001 by Sharia agents for performing music in public places are bannet:l under
I ..-:_ ._ publiclv. Sharia.
eb. ,Gombe 10 persons vvere killed by Sharia faithfuls and The Muslim murderers ~re not
241hH' 2 churches were burnt. arrested or prosecuted by court of
M3y ZamfaffirThe·Government bans fancy hairstyles under Women as prime targets.
March! Katsina Amina Lawal a 31-years·::;!d mother of three The sentence was appealed and
was sentenced to death by stoning by a overruted by another upper Sharia
iSharia court for adutte . Court.
TABLE 2: Table Showing Victims of Sharia Harsh Punishments in Nigeria22
In Sharia law, problem arises when we try to make it relevant to our
contemporary pluralistic and civilized society with all its complexities and
destabilizing differences. The question is, how can we make ancient ideas and
ideals concretely effective in our contemporary context? This would require a
concretizing mediation of ancient insights through contemporary political and social
orders. Hence, ancient ideals (like Sharia law and other ecclesiastical laws,
traditions and customs) of human transcendence and human society must be
elaborated and concretized in terms of the contemporary political, economic,
cultural and social orders. The ultimate question is not only to ask what is profound
IRORO: JOURNAL OF ARTS. V0L.13, NO
insight into the nature of human dignity and community, but also the way to
concretize that dignity, values and community today in the most effective fashion.
Without this approach, which is synonymous with prudential personalism" ancient
insights, ideologies and idealism (like Sharia) suffer the fate of impotent idealism
and social criticisms.
In the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it should be noted that
corporal punishments, torture, death penalty, and other cruel, inhuman treatments
are forbidden. It should also be noted that in parts of Nigeria where there is no
Sharia, grave human rights abuses and violation also persist. As the custodians of
all citizens, religions, social, economic and political activities, the study
recommends that both the Federal and state Governments should put in place
comprehensive enlightenment programmes to regulate Sharia activities in the
northern States of Nigeria. They should also ensure the free exercise of citizens'
fundamental human rights and freedoms in all parts of the country including the
freedom of religion.
ENDNOTES AND REFERENCES
1. P. Takirambudde, http://how.orgIEng/ish/doesl2004/09121/nigeria 9364.
2. R. Doi, Sharia: TheIslamicLaw(London: Ta-Ha Publishers),
3. Chinasa I. Lughah, Quoted in T.P. Hughes, Dictionary of Islam (Pakistan:
Premier Book House, 1960),285.
4 P.O.O. Ottuh, "Sharia Law and Human Values in Nigeria: A Critical
Dissertation, AmbroseAIIi University, Ekpoma, 2005, 34
6. Chapter IV,sections 33 47, Nigerian 1999 Constitution
10 Afrol News, New Article, Nigeria, 11 January, 2000, 9
11. AfrolNews, 9
12. http://www.pbs.orglnewshour/extralfeatureslJuly o3lSharia 9 29 html,
13 Afrol News,9
15. Doi,256 257
17 Http://www.steinigung.org.lartikelishrnigeria.htm. (2008)
18. cited in Doi, 260.
19. Doi, 263. cfQur'an2:219;4:43.
20. http://www.steinigung.org.lartikelishrnigeria.htm. (2008)
21 http://www.steinigung.org.lartikelishrnigeria.htm. (2008)
23 According to prudential personalism, the realistic response to the need of
self realization which is moral, is to find self fulfillment in a community of
persons with universal and high values as the standards which is presented
in the life and teachings of Jesus or in the case of Muslims, Allah