03 June 2002
In the northern Nigerian state of Katsina, a woman is awaiting the outcome of a legal appeal, which will determine whether she lives or dies. It's against a conviction for adultery by an Islamic, or Sharia, court. If the appeal fails, Amina Lawal will be stoned to death. For now, her fate is in the hands of Muslim leaders in her village of Bakori.
In her dusty hamlet on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Amina Lawal squatted inside a mud-brick house and lifted her green Burka to breast-feed her 5-month-old daughter, Wasila.
Most residents in Bakori see thirty-year-old Amina Lawal as an object of derision. She does not carry herself like a condemned woman. But a local court, applying its version of "Sharia," or Islamic law, ordered in March this year, that - as soon as Wasila is weaned - Ms. Lawal be stoned to death for giving birth out of wedlock. But she says if the judge could prove her guilt, then death by stoning is her fate. "The judge didn't want to hear the evidence," she said, speaking through an interpreter, Mohamed Katsina, in her native Hausa. "The Sharia court judge started the proceeding. He asked whether I can bring witnesses, then I asked the judge, whether Yahaya (the boyfriend) has his own witnesses. The judge himself said, 'no, which witnesses should Yahaya have? Since the child before you is the witness (proof) that you got pregnant and gave birth out of wedlock'".
Execution orders against Ms. Lawal and a woman in the nearby State of Sokoto have provoked an outcry in Nigeria and abroad. In March, an appeals court overturned the adultery conviction against the other woman, Safiya Hussein. The adoption of Sharia law by 12 northern States in Nigeria has heightened tensions between the mostly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south in a country already divided by ethnic rivalries. With more than 120 million people, Nigeria is sub-Saharan Africa's most populous nation. With about 250 ethnic groups, observers say it's perhaps the most divided country. The adoption of Sharia has caused bloody religious clashes and claimed hundreds of lives in several cities since the return to civil rule three years ago. While various versions of Sharia law are practiced in overwhelmingly Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia, Libya and Pakistan, Nigeria is the first multi-religious state to adopt Sharia in large swaths of its territory. States in the Muslim, Hausa-speaking north of Nigeria began implementing Sharia in 2000, as political freedoms grew following nearly several years of military rule. Some Nigerians say President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner who was elected in 1999 with critical votes from the Muslim north, has avoided pressure from fellow Christians to directly confront the Sharia movement. Northerners like Sani Luggard say Sharia is a defense against the lawlessness, corruption and violence that have made Nigeria notoriously unstable. And he's quick to add that "the intention of the northern state governments introducing the Sharia, is to revive the Sharia in total, and it's based on the wishes of the Muslims who form the majority". Mr. Luggard is the secretary general of the Katsina Islamic Foundation. The foundation is responsible for establishing the first Islamic University in the State.
Although Christians are not directly subject to Sharia laws, there is still the feeling that the imposition of Islamic law in the Northern States serves to enforce the political will of Muslim leaders over the substantial minority of non-Muslims living there. In fact, Christians complain that Federal and State resources are being used to support and enforce what is regarded as a religious issue. Amina Lawal's appeal is currently at a local State court. If it eventually reaches the federal Supreme Court in Abuja, which under Nigeria's legal system it can, analysts say it may spark serious political fireworks. With a sentence of death still hanging over her head, some say Amina Lawal is sadly little more than a pawn in a much larger political game.