Sharia Law In Lagos.

Yesterday, Someone requested for the office of the Sharia Council in Lagos on my twitter timeline and I was surprised with the reaction of a lot of people including Lagos Muslims asking if there is any Sharia presence in Lagos.

In 2002, Muslim activists in Lagos State took it upon themselves to set up a private arbitration tribunal — the Independent Sharia Panel(“ISP”) of Lagos State — to which Muslims are invited to submit their disputes for adjudication under Islamic law. This was not the beginning or the end of the struggle to introduce Sharia Law in Lagos.

Their argument was that over a number of years, Islamic law has effectively been eliminated as a choice of law option in what they consider as the regular courts. The divorces, inheritance cases, and other civil matters even of Muslims who would choose to go under Islamic law if they could, are handled according to Yoruba customary law or “English” law which they also argued that is based on Christian Principles.

It is a well known historical fact that Yorubaland was almost an islamic caliphate and Sharia might have been practiced to the letter in some of the conquered/ converted towns in Pre- Colonial times. This is seen in the presence of Arabic legal loan-words or infiltration of Shariah terms of expressions in the Yoruba language. There are expressions like “O da seria fun-un” meaning, he meted out to him the punishment he deserved according to Shariah, and “O to suna” meaning, ‘it is in line with the Sunnah of The Muslim Prophet’.

The Muslim activists in Lagos decided to take matters into their own hands by forming the independent panels after the Government rejected several petitions and campaigns for separate Sharia courts. They were inspired by a modern event, a Nigerian Victory for Sharia advocators all over the world. The declaration of the implementation of Sharia in Zamfara State, done with fanfare and huge celebration at Gusau (October 27,1999).

Muslims from all over Nigeria attended this epoch making occasion, All the leading ulama from all over the country were also in attendance. Speeches were delivered by the scholars and Islamic Leaders, ushering in a new era in the application of the Sharia in Nigeria(Not Zamfara Alone). Notably, One of the leaders that spoke in Gusau was The Leader of Muslims in Yoruba Land Alhaji Abdulazeez Arisekola Alao [who] said he was the happiest man on earth having been alive to witness the historic occasion.. .[He] thanked the Governor and the members of the State House of Assembly who, according to him unanimously passed the bill on Shariah into law, thereby making it possible “for Allah’s law to be operative in Zamfara State instead of man-made law forced on ‘us’ by our colonial masters.”

The Gusau launching filled Muslims in all parts of Nigeria — the southwest included — with new zeal to push Sharia implementation ahead in their own states. Inspired by this, a youth organization called NACOMYO( National Council of Muslim Youth Organizations )from all states of the Yoruba southwest, together with other groups, held a meeting at the University of Ibadan Central Mosque in February 2000 to strategize how they could advance the cause of Sharia in their own states.

On their return Home from the Ibadan meeting, the Lagos chapter of NACOMYO convened a meeting at the Lagos Central Mosque, They Invited several Muslim organizations and communities active in Lagos State, including Ansar-ud-Din, Nawair-ud-Deen, Anwar-ul-Islam,Nasrul-Lahi-l-Fatih Society of Nigeria (NASFAT), Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN), The Muslim Congress (TMC), and the Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria (MULAN). They met consistently for a year straight to look for means to introduce Shariah Law in Lagos.

They resolved that their first step would be to exploit the religious mood in Lagos then by persuading the newly elected Governor (a Muslim) and House of Assembly of Lagos State(majority Muslim) to enact a Sharia Courts Bill. They drafted this bill and approached Muslim members of the House of Assembly to introduce the bill on the floor of the house and they also lobbied the Governor.

According to the bill, It would establish Sharia courts of first instance, at least one in each LGA (20 in Lagos ) but as many as some unspecified official might deem were needed. All appeals from the lower Sharia courts would go to a new Lagos State Sharia Court of Appeal, which the draft bill would also establish. The territorial jurisdiction of each lower Sharia court would be defined in the warrant establishing it.

Another feature of the bill, drawn from the same source, is its creation of a third institution, an official state Council of Ulama, which would have a role in the appointment and discipline of judges of the Sharia Courts, in the drafting of their rules of procedure, and even in advising the judges on questions of Islamic law when requested to do so. The Council of Ulama would also have power “to codify all the relevant Islamic personal laws and where applicable their corresponding rewards for easy reference

One of their major argument was that (more than) Half of the entire population in Lagos are Muslims and Yoruba Muslims must go either under Yoruba custom in the Customary Courts or English law in the Magistrate’s and High Courts. The activists claim that the pagans and Christians of Lagos have their own courts (Yoruba custom derived from the Yoruba traditional religion, and English law derived from “Christian” values). To them the Muslims in Lagos were having a bad deal.

It is interesting to note that it is the same Muslims in Lagos that they were ‘fighting for’ that ultimately killed their proposal, They could not find one Muslim lawmaker willing to introduce this bill. According to one of the activists, Abdur-Raheem Ahmad Sayi

We couldn’t find any of the legislators that is bold enough to accept the Bill and present it for the House whether or not it will be accepted or rejected. Initially, we were disappointed in some of them . . . . We felt that by virtue of the Islamic high profile they bear, we think they should be able to do some assistance in that regard but later we came to realize that politicians are always politicians and whatever they see could be detrimental to their political ambition. They all want to leave that place for a higher place, they all have aspirations, political aspirations they have. So, all of them gave one reason or the other to dodge it.

Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu was the Biggest Politician in the state, As a Muslim himself he was not sympathetic to the idea, He did confirm that He was under immense pressure to introduce Sharia Law in the state but he ensured Christian leaders that he rebuffed all attempts. As the ‘Asiwaju’ it could also be one of the reasons they could not find a lawmaker sympathetic to their cause. Their Bill was dead on arrival.

They moved on to their next plan which was the establishment of a private tribunal, The Independent Sharia Panel (ISP) that Lagos Muslims themselves would maintain and to which Muslims who wished to do so could bring their civil matters for adjudication under Islamic law. The hoped that the ISP would gradually attract increasing numbers of young Muslim litigants and financial support from the Muslim community, which could demonstrate a growing desire among Lagos Muslims for serious Islamic adjudication of the sort the ISP would provide.

They Created two ISPs. One on the Mainland and the other on the Island, They also decided to affiliate with the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria (SCSN) which was formed by Northern Muslims in response to the great outcry that rose up after Zamfara State announced in late 1999 that it was going to implement Sharia and then did so, cutting off the first thief’s hand in March 2000. The Group that famously opposed and actually brought vaccination against polio in Kaduna, Kano, and Zamfara States to a halt in 2003 and for some years thereafter, alleging it was a Western plot to reduce the Muslim birth rate. This resulted in new outbreaks of the virus in the north when it had almost been eradicated. They formed a Lagos Chapter of the body.

Their last resort was to make their agitation political, They called on Lagos Muslims not to vote for any gubernatorial or House of Assembly aspirant in that year’s elections who was not willing to support the establishment of civil Sharia courts for Muslims. Tinubu defied their call and won again in 2003. Their Bill died a natural death until they decided to support another Muslim candidate in Babatunde Raji Fashola in 2007.

In 2009, They tried their new candidate and Muslim Governor. In July the Lagos SCSN again approached the House of Assembly with a draft bill for the establishment of Sharia courts and a written petition from Lagos Muslims supporting it this time.

In September 2009, the Lagos chapter of SCSN, already operating its ISP at two locations in the city, made plans to launch a third division. They received permission from the Police to hold the launching on a certain date. The venue was reserved and invitations went out. But when they got to the venue on the appointed day, they found it blocked by the police and the launching was not allowed to take place. The ISPs are still Operational and I am going to discuss their operations, and some problems encountered in a different post.