In January 2001 14-year old Bariya Magazu was sentenced to 180 lashes with a cane for "fornication" after being raped by three men; she received 100 lashes after the sentence was reduced on appeal. In May the government of Zamfara state amputated the hand of Lawal Isa Buzu, a convicted bicycle thief. Later that year the Gwadabawa Upper Sharia Court in Sokoto State condemned Safiya Husseini to death by stoning for having a child out of wedlock. After worldwide protests and threats of international boycotts, Husseini was ultimately acquitted; Nigerian appeals courts later upheld stoning sentences passed against several other women, although to date none have been carried out. Volunteer vigilante groups have taken to patrolling many of Nigeria's northern states, carrying out punishments against those violators of the Sharia - adulterers, gamblers, and woman wearing pants, among others.
There have been Moslems in Nigeria for over 1,000 years, spread throughout the region by trans-Saharan traders. In 1804 the visionary scholar Uthman dan Fodio took Islam to the masses with a six-year jihad to revive and purify Islam and eliminate syncretist, animist beliefs. As leader of the Sokoto Caliphate, he gained control of much of northern Nigeria, uniting the Hausa and Fulani peoples under Islamic law. Later the Sokoto Caliphate would fall to the British. Still, they left much of the responsibility for local rule in the hands of Emirs who enforced the Sharia… and, after they left, Amadhu Bello, Premier of the Nigeria's northern region, would begin a program of "Islamization" that ended only with his assassination in 1966. Today approximately 50% of Nigeria's 130 million people are Moslems … and twelve of Nigeria's northern states have implemented their own versions of the Sharia.
Originally, Islam was a unifying force in this region. Africa's most populous country, Nigeria is home to more than 250 distinct ethnic groups, and there is a long history of intertribal squabbling, warfare, and occasional genocide. Under Islam many of these tribes were able to put aside their differences and unite under a common banner. Today Islam has become yet another dividing force, as Nigeria's Christians (40%) and animists (10%) fear the "Talibanization" of Nigeria. These groups have always feared and mistrusted each other: as more and more states in northern Nigeria implement the Sharia, this ill feeling has become open hatred and rioting. In Ilorin, Kwara State, fourteen churches were burnt to the ground by suspected Islamic fundamentalists. Attempts to introduce Sharia in Kaduna sparked protests and riots from non-Muslims in February 2000, leading to an estimated 3,000 deaths. At times religion has served to spark long-simmering ethnic conflicts. In 1967-70 tensions between Hausas and Ibos led to the disastrous Biafran war and the deaths of millions of Nigerians; today differences between the Moslem Hausas and Christian Ibos still exist, with religious conflicts adding to ethnic differences. These events came to a head at the 2002 Miss World Pageant, which was moved from Nigeria to London after riots claimed over 100 lives and several clerics issued a fatwa (death sentence) against a journalist who claimed Muhammed would have approved of the pageant.
Nigeria's constitution prohibits some of the more severe and spectacular punishments meted out under Sharia. While President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, has repeatedly called for moderation, his power is limited: Nigeria's constitution also grants individual states considerable leeway in determining their own affairs. It is also unclear how much Obasanjo could do to enforce the Nigerian constitution anyway. Nigeria has long been plagued by governmental inefficiency and corruption: many of their high ranking officials have been directly or indirectly implicated in the now-infamous "Nigerian banking" email scams which regularly arrive in your Inbox. Those who favor Sharia-ruled states note that crime has dropped dramatically under Islamic law. They also point out that there are good reasons to enforce anti-fornication laws in a region where AIDS is still spreading rapidly, and that punishments like amputation and stoning are the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, many of Nigeria's Moslems are upset not because Sharia is so strict but because it is not strict enough. The corruption which plagues Nigeria's secular courts has also made its way to the Islamic courts; there are complaints that poor criminals are punished harshly, while the wealthy are able to drink alcohol and own satellite dishes with impunity. Many poor Moslems look to Osama Bin Laden as a hero and see the Taliban as role models to be followed in setting up a true Islamic State in Nigeria. With employment, undereducation and poverty rampant throughout the region, it is likely that they will remain a force to be reckoned with for some time.