British journalist Claud Cockburn once said: “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.” That comment should resonate after Leo Ogor, the Minority Leader in Nigeria’s House of Representatives told Nigerians: “Nobody is expanding Sharia to anywhere. Members of the public should not panic over this at all.”
Ogor needed to issue his half-witted denial after it emerged that a constitutional amendment bill sponsored by Abdullahi Salame from Sokoto State was seeking to, as reported in the Nigerian media, “expand Sharia”. Salame’s amendment covered sections 262 and 277 of the 1999 Constitution seeking to add “criminal” to the existing provisions.
Section 262 states: “The Sharia Court of Appeal shall, in addition to such other jurisdiction as may be conferred upon it by an Act of the National Assembly, exercise such appellate and supervisory jurisdiction in civil proceedings involving questions of Islamic personal law”.
Section 277 states: “The sharia Court of Appeal of a State shall, in addition to such other jurisdiction as may be conferred upon it by the law of the State, exercise such appellate and supervisory jurisdiction in civil proceedings involving questions of Islamic personal Law which the court is competent to decide in accordance with the provisions of subsection”
The bill adding “criminal” to “civil proceedings” in the above sections passed second reading in the House without being debated because, according Speaker Yakubu Dogara, it was a “sensitive” matter. I would have thought that sensitive matters required rigorous debate, rather than being sneaked in via the back door. Instead, the bill was waved on to the Ad-Hoc Committee on Constitution Review, where it would be allegedly discussed in an adequate manner.
But Representative Ogor’s explanation of the situation only highlighted his ignorance: “The ‘jurisdiction’ of the court referred to in sections 262 and 277 of the constitution means the powers of the court in states where it already exists, not expanding Sharia to other parts of the country, no.
“The amendment sought to these sections is to add ‘criminal’ to the existing jurisdiction it has on ‘civil litigation.’ That is the jurisdiction that is being expanded, not the expansion of Sharia Law itself.”
Expanding the jurisdiction of Sharia to the criminal proceedings is the “expansion of Sharia law itself”. Nigeria already has a criminal code established by the Criminal Code Act for trying criminal cases based on English common law. Contrary to Ogor’s claims, extending the jurisdiction of Sharia law to criminal cases runs the risk of trying non-Muslims living in the so-called Sharia parts of the country in Sharia courts. Current constitutional provisions limit Sharia cases to civil matters where all parties are Muslim.
The concept of Hudud (punishment under Islamic law), which ranges from public lashing to publicly stoning to death, amputation of hands and crucifixion, contradicts current constitutional provisions.
Section 34 of the constitution states that: “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly –
(a) no person shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.”
If Sharia is extended to criminal cases it would, in principle, contravene Section 10 which states quite clearly that “neither the Government of the Federation nor of a state shall adopt any religion as State Religion.” It is impossible to argue that Islam has not become a “state religion” where it forms the basis for law and order and it would if it were the foundation for criminal cases. This challenges the secular basis of the Nigerian state and is not a simple and minor amendment as Representative Ogor ignorantly tried to imply.
Many non-Muslims did not warm to President Muhammadu Buhari when he was running for office last year because he was seen as an Islamic extremist. He said in 2001: “I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria. God willing, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the Sharia in the country. It is a legal responsibility which God has given us, within the context of one Nigeria, to continue to uphold the practice of Sharia wholeheartedly … and to educate non-Muslims that they have nothing to fear. What remains for Muslims in Nigeria is for them to redouble their efforts, educate Muslims on the need to promote the full implementation of Sharia law”.
It is troubling that this “full implementation of Sharia law”, in other words, extending it to the criminal code, is being sleepwalked into existence by ignorant legislators.
An amendment such as this requires the approval of two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and also the approval of the Houses of Assembly in two-thirds of all the states. This should hopefully mean that reason would prevail and the amendment wouldn’t get through.
However, concerned Nigerians shouldn’t sit back, “don’t panic” and expect legislators to do the right thing. The committee on constitution review is chaired by the Deputy Speaker, Yusuf Sulaimon Lasun, and comprises all the nine principal officers (Majority and Minority Leaders and their deputies, Chief Whip and deputy) of the House, with one member each from the 36 states, including the Federal Capital Territory, with special representatives for women. They should be reminded that they represent their people and be inundated with correspondence from constituents about the dangers of extending Sharia to criminal proceedings.