Latest posts
Home / Nigeria News / Human rights abuses and Sharia law in Nigeria

Human rights abuses and Sharia law in Nigeria


Shari’a, Nigeria and the West: Issues on Human Rights
At the Conference on Africa organised by Evert Vermeer Stichting Held in Amsterdam, The Netherlands,

Speech By His Excellency Malam Ibrahim Shekarau, Kano state Governor


In the name of Allah, The Compassionate, The Merciful.


I would like to start by extending my gratitude to the Center for Netherlands–Nigeria Relations for inviting me to give a speech at this very important conference on Africa.

I commend the decision of the organizers of this Conference to allow me to speak on this topic, as it would afford me an opportunity to exchange ideas, with academics from a community different from which I live and operate, on issues that border on Fundamental Human Rights, and to avail to the world our own perception of the Shari’a and the circumstances that warranted my State, Kano State in Nigeria and indeed some other states in the north of Nigeria to take a firm decision to adopt the Shari’a as our guide in all spheres of human endeavour.

In the beginning however, permit me Mr. Chairman to define the amalgamated constituent units that formed one united country that came to be known as Nigeria.


The name ‘Nigeria’ was adopted from a recommendation made by lady Lugard in 1897 in reference to a vast land to the north and south  of the two great rivers of Niger and Benue, under the tutelage of Britain through a chartered firm known as Royal Niger Company.

The territories to the south of the two rivers were the abode of great empires of Oyo and Benin, as well as the states of riverine enclave and the republican settings of the Igbo. For cultural and administrative purposes, the area was, in 1900, demarcated into Lagos–island protectorate, with the Yoruba as the major ethnic entity, and Niger coast protectorate with the Igbo being the prominent group.

In 1906, the two protectorates were merged to become the protectorate of Southern Nigeria. This is the first area to taste the pains of colonialism by virtue of its accessibility to the Atlantic Ocean. Its early contact with European Missionaries opened it to the influence of Christianity, though a section of it has a significant Muslim population. Currently, this segment contains seventeen of the thirty-six states in Nigeria; four of which have substantial Muslim population.

The portion of land north to Rivers Niger and Benue was designated northern protectorate. It comprised polities, which include the Sokoto Caliphate, the Borno Empire and other ethno–political entities along and between the rivers. Its incorporation into British dominion dates back to 1903.

The area is distinguished by its predominant Islamic culture and tradition, and by the prevalence of Hausa as the lingua-franca. It comprises nineteen states of the Nigerian Federation, more than two thirds of which is overwhelmingly Muslim. Of the remaining six, three have substantial percentage of Muslims and the other three have Muslims in the minority.

Expedience on the part of colonial government necessitated the amalgamation of the administration of the two protectorates, which later became known as regions, to form a united Nigeria in 1914. The affected administrative departments in this exercise included those related to finance, customs, telecommunications and land and survey. Aspects relating to education, judiciary and police were left to be conducted in accordance with the dictates of each regional administration.

Pre – Colonial Period

History suggests that Islam came to today’s Nigeria at different times: for Borno Empire and Hausa land, the dates go back to 11th and 14th centuries respectively. Its arrival in Yoruba land was put at 17th century, while it reached Igala land and the Ebiras in the 19th. It was not, until the 20th century when some communities in Edo State accepted Islam.

The acceptance of Islam in many such areas of central Sudan was based on certain objective circumstances. For example, in Kano, Islam found abode largely due to the role the Muslim Scholars played in the politics that crippled the power of Sontolo, Kano’s erstwhile rival to the South. The Shari’a was adopted as the legal system because of the sympathetic nature of its teachings, which bestowed on humanity some fundamental rights. Such rights include:

1. The Right to Life: Allah has made human life sacred. The Holy Qur’an says:             

“Do not kill a soul which Allah has made sacred except through due process of law”. (6:51) 

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has expounded this in clear terms when he says:

“The greatest sins are to associate something with Allah and to kill human beings.

It should be stressed, ladies and gentlemen, that this right to life extends to entire humanity, irrespective of race, religion and/or nationality.  

2. The Right to Safety of Life: In connection to this the Holy Qur’an says,

“And whosever saves a (single) life, (it) is as though he has saved the lives of all mankind.” (5:32)

The metaphoric symbolism of ‘life-saving’ in this Qur’anic verse is the universally acclaimed dictum that all human beings must recognize the prescriptive rule of preserving life. In his Tafsir (The meanings of the Holy Qur’an), Al-Muntakhab says:


“He who deprives an honored or an innocent life, not implicated in a charge of criminal homicide or of spreading corruption or mischief on earth, will have committed, as it were, massacre of all communities of innocent people. And he who preserves it and defends it, will have protected, as it were, all communities of innocent people.”

In the eyes of Islam therefore, the efforts being made by the Western World to provide medical and food aid to the sick and the undernourished in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Uganda and Liberia etc. is an obligatory duty that is automatically expected of them.

3. The Right to Basic Standard of Life: This matter of rendering assistance from one to another has appeared in Qur’an severally. One such reference is where Allah (SWT) says:

“And in their wealth there is acknowledged right for the needy and the destitute.” (5:12)

The extent of the value attached to the practice of alms–giving is attested to by the references it received in the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). At one time the Prophet of Allah says;

“Give ye something as alms, though it be a dried date; for it will supply somewhat of the want of the hungry.”

4. The Right to Freedom: Islam detests the practice of capturing free men and putting them into slavery. There are      several verses in the Qur’an    that encourage people to emancipate slaves as mark of repentance to some            acts of transgression committed. The Prophet has illustrated this when he says:

“There are three categories of people against whom I shall myself be a plaintiff on the Day of Judgment. Of these three, one is he who enslaves a free man, then sells him and eats the money.” (Bukhari & Ibn Majah).

5. The Right to Freedom of Religion: Though Islam encourages Muslims to stand fast and convert people into their religion, the Holy Qur’an has clearly shown that such effort should not take the form of compulsion when it says:      

“For there is no compulsion in religion“ (2:206) 

6. The Right to Justice: This is an invaluable bounty of Allah to humanity. The Qur’an says:

          “Do not let your hatred of people incite youto aggression.”   (5:3)

In another incidence the Qur’an states that:

“…and do not let ill–will towards any folk incite you so that you swerve from dealing justly. Be just; that is nearest to heedfulness”

7. Equality of Human Beings: Islam teaches the equality of human beings irrespective of their religion, race and/or nationality. It is for this reason that the Qur’an states:

“O mankind, we have created you from male and female. And we set you up as nations and tribes so that you may comprehend each other. Verily, the noblest amongst you before Allah are the most          heedful of you.” (49:13)

It is also narrated that one day, Abu Dharr Al–Ghifari, one of the companions of the Prophet, talked to a dark-skinned slave in deference. The Prophet registered his disapproval by cautioning him that the son of a white woman is not better than the son of a black one.  

8. The Right to Cooperate and not to Cooperate

Islam encourages humanity to partake in ventures that would uplift its welfare and to refuse to associate with agents of vices and aggression from any quarter. The Qur’an says:

“Cooperate with one another for virtue and heedfulness and do not cooperate with         one another for the purpose of vice and aggression. (5:2)

Based on these egalitarian principles provided by Islam, the Hausa society of Kano was reorganized. The Emir (Sarki) Muhammad Rumfa (1463 – 1499) was credited with setting up a structure of government along the lines prescribed by the Shari’a.

He established two categories of courts: one to be presided over by a judge (alkali) with jurisdiction over both criminal and civil offences of first instances. Its power, however, did not extend to homicide and land matters. The other was an appellate court to be presided over by the Emir himself. It entertained cases outside the power of the alkali.

Accessibility to courts, application of simple procedure and respect for time facilitated the acceptability of the Shari’a among the population. Again, the invocation of the principle of restitution in matters of homicide and other physical injury which the Shari’a considers as private or civil wrong, for which the wronged person may claim damages was in many ways similar to the provisions of the traditional law to which the people were accustomed.

This is not to suggest that traditional law was totally replaced by the Shari’a. Far from that; in fact traditional courts and Shari’a courts coexisted side by side. However, since Islam had the advantage of enjoying the patronage of the ruling class, litigants who were offered the choice of being treated as non– Muslims or as Muslims often tended to prefer the latter.

The changing social conditions in an increasingly heterogeneous society gave rise to problems, which required new regulations, and the Shari’a readily filled that vacuum. Exposure to new cultural ideals made it quite advantageous for litigants and offenders to distance themselves from traditional courts and to patronize new source of law and justice, which is provided by the Shari’a. This is particularly so where the provisions of the Shari’a recognize the genuineness of new types of claims and protect them against the demand of customs.

It was based on this relative order that the society of Kano flourished. The Jihad of the 19th century was an attempt to enhance that order following the threat it received from the growing preponderance of syncretism in mixing Islam with traditional beliefs.

The Jihad gave additional momentum to the influence of the Shari’a and paved way for Kano’s commercial pre-eminence so that a European explorer, Heinrich Barth who visited Kano in 1855 had cause to attest to its prosperity and welfare of its citizens in the following words:

“How great this national wealth is, will be understood by my readers when they know that with from fifty to sixty thousand kurdi (cowries) or from four to five thousand sterling year, a whole family may live in that country with ease, including every expense, even that of clothing; and we must remember that the province is one of the         most fertile spots on earth, and is able to produce not only the supply of corn necessary for its population, but can       also export; and that it possesses, besides, the finest pasture grounds. In fact if we consider that this industry is not carried here as in Europe, in immense establishments,          degrading man to the meanest condition of life, but that it gives employment and support to families              without compelling them to sacrifice their domestic habits. We must presume that Kano ought to be one of the happiest countries in the world”.


Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, the conquest of Sokoto caliphate was predicated upon the premise of checking and ultimately stopping the trading in slaves. With colonialism imposing its rule on Kano, the traditional contempt of the West against Islamic values resurfaced. In flagrant disregard of the system of law in existence, the colonial administration was quick to abolish Shari’a, prescribed punishment on criminal offences on, among others, homicide, theft and adultery, on the ground of repugnance to natural justice and good conscience.

The excuse of protecting human rights was just used as a camouflage. This could be attested to, especially if one considers the Qur’anic requirements of mandatory proofs on matters of adultery, and safe-guards on cases of theft before offenders were punished. For example, in the case of adultery, four witnesses have to be produced each of which has to testify, at the danger of losing his integrity, credibility or social recognition, of having caught the offenders on the act.

Secondly, the selective way at which the implementation of the enactment was carried out could also testify to other ulterior motives. Response of Muslims to colonial conquest took the form of uprisings.

Therefore, on homicidal offences the government allowed the Shari’a punishment to continue; partly to deceive the populace that the Shari’a was still in place, but largely as a means to empower traditional rulers in the region to invoke the diplomacy of politics to put the tension under control. In one such incidence in 1906, the Sultan directed the wiping out of the entire population at Satiru. A prominent and respected British Missionary activist, Dr. Miller had to write a letter to Lugard to lament this brutal act.

The measure taken to check the enforcement of the Shari’a, following the consolidation of colonial rule in the 1930s was also not guided by human right considerations as it was by the urgent desire to vigorously forge ahead with plans to integrate Nigerian administrative structure. This was sought to be achieved in the promulgation of 1933 native court ordinance, which extended the channels of appeal from Native Courts to High Courts on criminal matters involving homicide.

This resulted in the celebrated West African Court of Appeal (WACA) judgment on a case involving Tsofo Guba versus Gwandu Native Authority in 1947, which dealt a devastating damage to the influence of the Shari’a on homicide in northern Nigeria.

Similarly, the argument that the Shari’a will not respect the rights of minorities could not hold. Ever since the introduction of Islam in Kano, over six hundred years ago, there still exists pockets of non–Muslim population in the region and nothing is denied them.

The Shari’a is only applicable to them at their own request; otherwise the judge has to be assisted by an assessor on matters involving their affairs. When, at the inception of colonial rule, non-Muslims of Southern Nigerian origin frequented Kano, a settlement at Sabon gari was established for them in 1916, and their affairs were put under the jurisdiction of the magistrate court. Increased contact with the indigenous Muslim population led to a change of policy. Mixed courts were created in 1931 to attend to legal issues arising from their day-to-day affairs.

The courts were composed of three members; a Christian as president of the court, and a Hausa and a Yoruba as members. Where the need arose, the court employed assessors. The law applied at the court was, according to Anderson,

“a mystery, a gleaning of common law and Mohammedan law and bit of tribal custom.”

Appeals went to the Babban Alkali (native court’s chief judge) where the Shari’a was involved; otherwise they went to the Magistrate court.

The closing decade of the 20th century, witnessed the increasing impetus of globalization. This phenomenon refers to the growing interdependence and interconnectedness of the modern world. It represents the increasing ease of movement of people, goods, services and information across national borders. It also reflects on the spread of global norms and values on matters pertaining to democracy, environment and human rights.

 The attempt by Kano and some other states in northern Nigeria to extend the application of the Shari’a to criminal spheres is wrongly interpreted to go against this new global order. Islam possesses internal mechanism that would make it adapt to changing situations. Moreover, the punishment that it provides for criminal offences and which the West and many Human Rights groups term as harsh and degrading to humanity could be seen from the viewpoint of deterrence.

For example, the proof required to convict the offence of adultery is, to say the least, unattainable. Similarly, the conditions to be satisfied to administer the punishment of amputation in the case of theft are indeed difficult to prove. After all, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has demonstrated the degree of precautionary measures that one would take before a penalty could be invoked.

In a tradition reported by Imam Bukhari (one of the earliest and most credible collectors of the traditions of the Prophet), it is narrated that a man named Mirz bin Malik once approached the Prophet, and at four instances, confessed committing adultery. On each of the four occasions, the Prophet turned his face away to the opposite direction, indicating his un-readiness to register Mirz’s confessions.

 Upon the insistence of Mirz, the Prophet, in an effort to devise a leeway to allow Mirz to escape the punishment, cautioned that he did not actually commit adultery; he was only involved in romance, consequent upon which he satisfied himself. However, Mirz insisted that he actually committed adultery. There upon, the Prophet inquired from the companions around whether Mirz was mentally sound. It was only on receiving the answer in the affirmative that the Prophet passed the verdict of rajm (stoning to death) on Mirz.                            

The general perception of the period of colonialism to the present day in Kano is that Western concept of Human Right is deficient in ethical content; it emphasises individual freedom and liberty at the detriment of communal security, prosperity and values. Its application in Nigeria is abused to the extent that it leads to moral degeneration and even social chaos. An example from Kano could illustrate this better: Inheritance of landed property in Kano used to cut across the barrier of gender.

 With the advent of colonialism, especially in the early 1920s, some of the female folk took advantage of the liberty provided for in the new social order to turn such inherited houses into near brothels. This development necessitated Emir Usman (1919 – 1926) to issue a fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) prohibiting female heirs from inheriting landed property; instead their portion of such properties was monetized and paid in cash.

However, when it became clear that the level of societal degeneration was only escalating rather than receding, and extended family tie was gradually weakening with the female gender worst hit by this, reconsideration of the earlier fatwa was made by Emir Muhammadu Sunusi (1953 – 1963). Hence, a reversal was made to the earlier arrangement.

Similarly, the creation of Sabon gari as a settlement for non–Muslims of Southern origin and its exemption from the jurisdiction of the Shari’a turned it into an enclave of unrestricted freedom, consequent upon which it became an abode of all social vices to this day. A famous Kano popular singer, Hamza Caji, used to lament the situation especially in the 1940s when it escalated. The song reads as follows:

“Sabon gari za mu koma: Inda yaro za ya zagi babba”


We are going to settle at Sabon gari; where disrespect and indecency is the order of the day.

Post – colonial era has done little to reorganize the ever-increasing social decadence. What obtains today is indecency in culture, arbitrariness and corruption in leadership, wide spread crimes in social relations, breach of trust in contractual dealings and apathy in communal affairs.

The resolve of Kano to revert to the Shari’a in all aspects of human endeavour therefore is predicated upon the conviction that it is the only instrument that would stand as a bulwark against social inequity and moral degeneration. We recognise the Shari’a as a code of conduct that inculcates enterprise, civility, morality, peaceful co-existence, fulfillment of obligation, selflessness, and abhors all acts of wickedness and selfishness.

Thus our passion for the Shari’a is rooted in the prospect that when successfully implemented, it will render the courts quiet, rather than busy condemning poor souls. As a compendium of morally edifying values, it would be used to restore a sense of community through promoting virtues of neighbourliness, cooperation, fairness, moderation and contentment in Allah.


Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me conclude my address by pointing out that that the issue of Shari’a has been very central to the lives of people in Hausa land for at least five hundred years. Its adoption as the legal corpus is informed by its egalitarian appeal and its ethical contents. Colonialism compromised it on the basis of non–conformity with international standards. The result was structural dislocation of the Hausa Muslim Society consequent upon which the entire environment got infected by social vices. Human right agitations could not provide solutions to this problem due to their preoccupation with individual freedom and liberty even when this runs counter to community norms and/or societal legitimate institutions.

Herein lay the reasons why Kano State in Nigeria found it expedient to recognise Shari’a as its only option for societal rejuvenation, and an instrument for social justice.

Thank you for listening and God bless.

Ads by AdGenta