The riots that drove the Miss World Pageant from Nigeria this year have focused the world’s attention on the religious conflict in that major oil-exporting country and its implications for Nigerian stability.

Religious conflict and Islamic Shariah law are not new to Nigeria. They have been part of life in the territory now known as Nigeria before it was given that name.

Most of what is now northern Nigeria was part of the Sokoto Caliphate before British colonialism created the entity known as Nigeria. The Sokoto Caliphate was founded in 1804 by the Islamic “mujaddid” (renewer) Usuman Danfodiyo. This scholar led an Islamic revolution that replaced many of the small kingdoms in the area with a large empire practicing strict Islamic Shariah law. At the time of the European colonial conquest, the Sokoto Caliphate was the largest state in tropical Africa.

British policy in Africa emphasized “indirect rule” using already existing rulers as part of colonial administration. The emirs of the caliphate were co-opted into the British system, as was Islamic law, although harsher punishments, such as stoning for adultery, were not permitted. The people of the area were largely cut off from outside influences and Western education. In a rare deviation from typical colonial practice in Africa, an African language was used as the language of administration — not to promote African culture but simply to insulate the region from outside influences.

Other peoples in the area, however, were resistant to Islamization. Many smaller societies in the Nigerian “middle belt” immediately south of the caliphate had been involved in complex relations of trade, warfare and slave raiding with the caliphate. While heavily influenced by the Islamic civilization of the caliphate they were also in conflict with it. When colonialism came, many of them eagerly converted to Christianity and today their descendants are among the most devout Christians in Nigeria.

With the independence of Nigeria these groups and many others were suddenly responsible for administering a country to which few of them felt much loyalty. One prominent Nigerian national leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, referred to Nigeria as “a mere geographical expression.” An attempt by the first military government to create a unitary state was explosive, and Nigeria was only held together in the Biafra war as a federal system of several states. Each locality demanded the right to its own state and the ability to manage its own affairs without interference from the central government. The demand for more states has been one of the most important political issues in Nigeria since the end of the Biafra war.

For many in the north this demand for local autonomy meant Shariah law. One of the changes that had been instituted at independence was that Islamic law would apply only to personal matters, civil and commercial law. Criminal law was reformed, and unified across the whole country. Thus, ironically, independence did more than British colonial rule had done to introduce British law to northern Nigeria.

This supposedly modern system was very alien to the villagers of northern Nigeria and has never been very popular with them. Whatever the relative merits of the British and Islamic legal systems, the Nigerian state became increasingly corrupt. The supposedly British legal system in Nigeria never involved trial by jury, and it was never understood, much less appreciated and supported, by ordinary peasants in the villages. These people quickly learned that justice could not be sought in police stations and law courts, but in their chiefs’ huts, where they could settle differences with their neighbors in traditional ways.

Democratization gave these peasants an opportunity to legitimize their traditional system. An underdog gubernatorial candidate in the obscure state of Zamfara promised villagers that he would implement Islamic law. His promise was carried out by passing much of the Shariah code as state law in accordance with the constitution of Nigeria. His supporters claim that Shariah law as passed in Zamfara (and now other states as well) will pass legal muster at any judicial court in Nigeria. No one has yet dared to challenge them.

Christians in the Nigerian middle belt have not welcomed the enactment of Shariah law. Even some Muslims have objected to the way it has been implemented. Conflict over Shariah law has led to a number of violent clashes and much loss of life and property in the region. It has also led to the creation of state sanctioned vigilante groups to enforce shariah law. Other bodies of vigilantes have appeared in southern Nigeria as well, where they compete with the federal police, with or without the sanction of the state government. Whether the federal government will be forced to recognize such groups as state police forces remains to be seen, but they have been evolving into de facto state police in many areas.

One ironic effect of the passage of Shariah law has been the weakening of Islamist movements. Such groups often attracted support by threatening to lead Islamic revolutions to impose Shariah law. Since more traditionally oriented Muslim leaders have been able to put Islamic law into practice democratically, extremist groups have attracted less support, though they are still a force to be reckoned with.

Whether the latest riots in Kaduna were a planned attack by such groups, or a spontaneous outburst of anger at certain insensitive articles in the Nigerian media (which has long remained the freest in Africa), remains to be seen. What cannot be doubted is that the Nigerian government must either apprehend and punish the perpetrators, or prepare for worse violence in the future. To allow those behind such outbreaks to go unpunished or, worse, to punish the wrong people (as has allegedly happened after other riots) is only to encourage further violence in the future.

Whether the Nigerian federation is finally drifting apart or not, we do not yet know. Nigeria’s political fault lines are far more than merely religious and ethnic. It is certain, however, that the fate of this major oil-producing nation will have grave repercussions for not only West Africa but for the whole continent and beyond.

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