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Implications of Obasanjo's late wake up to the challenges of Sharia in Nigeria

By Ken Kemnagum Okorie

Special to NigeriaCentral.com
USAfricaonline.com and USAfrica The Newspaper

In its 'Breaking News' header, USAfricaonline.com of Thursday, March 21, 2002 ran a headline 'SHARIA SHOWDOWN: Nigeria's government formally declares as illegal and discriminatory the action of 12 governors and state assemblies who instituted the Islamic Sharia law in their states.' It reported the historic statement made by Nigeria's Attorney-General and Justice Minister, Chief Godwin Kanu Agabi (SAN), regarding the real implications of the implementation of Sharia by certain states of the country: "The fact that Sharia law applies to only Moslems or to those who elect to be bound by it makes it imperative that the rights of such persons to equality with other citizens under the constitution be not infringed. A Moslem should not be subjected to a punishment more severe than would be imposed on other Nigerians for the same offence." Agabi continued that "Equality before the law means that Moslems should not be discriminated against". And in a pointed manner, he addressed the states' chief executives: "As an elected governor, I am certain that you would not tolerate such disparity in the allocation of punishment. It is not only against the Constitution but also against equity and good conscience."

The essence of the Sharia problem in Nigeria could not be stated any clearer. This analysis also underscored a principle that is fundamental to the rule of law. Whether based on religion or other belief or factor, a disparate system of sanctions that discriminates among citizens, punishing individuals differently for similar offense is untenable in civilized system of jurisprudence.

Such legal system simply derogates and indeed rejects the existence of the national Constitution. And since the Constitution holds together a national polity, such derogation or rejection is a direct statement of non-recognition of the Constitution by the Sharia implementing states and declaration that they are not bound by it.

In a NigeriaCentral.com and USAfricaonline.com article published in 2000, titled 'Is Obasanjo Up To Nigeria's Challenge', I observed: "For months, this Administration watched indifferently as various Northern States, led by Zamfara, flagrantly defied Nigeria's secular constitution and sovereignty," and that Vice President Abubakar Atiku's announcement "that the erring states will shelve Sharia and revert back to the penal code does not negate the government's failure to discharge its duties to the nation."

I also noted that president Obasanjo's (in picture, right) inaction over Sharia and his hollow, reckless comments were remarkable commentary on the retired general's performance, which raised serious questions about his understanding of his constitutional responsibilities, and, indeed called to question his fitness and capacity for the leadership texture Nigeria must have at its present crossroads. Specifically as to Sharia, I pointed to the constitution's limited but confusing provisions on Sharia at the appellate level, and noted that "the incongruency and conflicts from that provision were made more obvious when Zamfara began toying with Sharia law. The implications of this move were far reaching even for the very survival of Nigeria. For this reason, one would have expected the Attorney General and Justice Ministry to give official opinion regarding the constitutionality of Sharia, and, if that did not solve the matter, seek a determination by the Supreme Court. It did not happen. Obasanjo quietly watched Zamfara blatantly derogate the constitution of the land. And because nothing was done, Zamfara soon was only a starting point...."

In a way, I am glad Obasanjo's administration has finally recognized what's amiss. The important question that arises from Honorable Agabi's statement is, Why has it taken the administration this long to recognize this fundamental element of our nascent democracy? It is difficult to accept that Obasanjo's failure in this regard can be blamed on lack of proper legal advice.

There is reason to believe that then Attorney General Bola Ige, who was on record for speaking out, just as Justice Minister Agabi has now, must have advised the President. At the time, President Obasanjo simply but flippantly characterized the chaos as "political Sharia" which will dissolve in time. How wrong! How naive!

Recognizing that Sharia attacks the very root to Nigeria's sovereignty, why did the government not issue an official opinion through the attorney general when Sharia first reared its ugly head? Why did he not introduce appropriate legislation to assure the integrity of the national Constitituion? Better still, why did he not ask the courts to make a legal determination of such important matter?

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since early 2000 and may have affected Obasanjo's action, or rather inaction, and the timing of both. Is it that as of early 2000, the retired General felt too indebted to his Northern benefactors who primed him into the Presidency using every crooked, corrupt maneuvers thinkable? It must be remembered that Obasanjo could not even win his local electoral ward or any segment of his AD-dominated native Southwest.

Many believe that the specter of candidate Jim Nwobodo's Hausa oratory at the Jos Conventions, for example, was part of that larger scheme. The political tone of Northern Nigeria in March 2002 is a lot different. A great chasm has since developed between Obasanjo and the North. He no longer enjoys their trust or confidence.

Many, as represented by Awoniyi and Wada Nas have since drawn their line in the sand. Could this shift explain General Obasanjo's new-found sense of duty? Since, there is good reason to believe that Bola Ige must have advised the President just as competently, could his current decision to allow an open statement of the true essence of Sharia be his veiled ploy to reassure Nigeria's Christians? Could this be part of his strategy to seek to remain at Aso Rock in 2003?

This raises a very disturbing specter about this presidency. After three years in office, what sector of national life (social, economic, religious, political) can Nigerians honestly say that Obsanjo's leadership has enhanced or positively impacted their lives? Unemployment is worse, basic infrastructure remaisn hopeless, good healthcare is for dreamers, children receive no education because schools remain hopeless, political parties and structures are in disarray, basic security is unavailable anywhere, religious and ethnic strife consume more and more Nigerian lives, national distrust has grown.

An honest balance sheet of the Obasanjo administration cannot earn it the lowest level of creditworthiness even from the most liberal of institutions. Most important consideration is that General Obasanjo has failed his office. Whether by not recognizing that Sharia questions the existence of Nigeria or choosing to not act, his behavior violates his sworn oath to protect and preserve the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Attorney Okorie is a member of the Editorial Board of USAfrica The Newspaper and former Secretary general, World Igbo Congress. This USAfricaonline.com commentary is copyrighted. Archiving on any other web site or newspaper is unauthorized except with a Written Approval by USAfricaonline.com Founder. March 22, 2002.

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