Nigerian Churches will Challenge Islamic Law
Debate Widens Over the Implementation of Sharia in Northern Nigeria

by Obed Minchakpu

LAGOS, Nigeria (Compass) -- Disturbed by some northern Nigeria states' widespread declaration that they are Islamic states and have adopted Islam as the state religion, Nigerian Christian churches have resolved to go to court to challenge what they see as an onslaught on their rights.

The umbrella body uniting Christian churches in the country, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), is arranging to file a case at the Supreme Court of Nigeria to demand the interpretation of relevant sections of the Nigerian Constitution that deal with the question of religion and the state.

Rev. Dr. Sunday Mbang, president of CAN and the prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria, told Compass in Lagos that CAN has commissioned constitutional lawyers to work out the possibility of compelling Nigeria's attorney-general and minister of justice, Chief Bola Ige, to interpret the status of "sharia" (Islamic legal system) in the constitution.

"We have asked the five Christian groups (that make up CAN), the Catholics, the Christian Council of Nigeria, the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, the Organization of African Instituted Churches and the Evangelical Churches, to bring five lawyers each to deliberate on the issue," Mbang said.

Bishop Mike Okonkwo, president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), said the initiative is necessary following the devastating dimension sharia has assumed, particularly with the religious riots that have followed its declaration.

According to Okonkwo, CAN leadership met with government officials and were told to go to court if they felt aggrieved over the adoption of sharia by some states.

"Challenging the constitutionality of the (sharia) law has become urgent and necessary," Okonkwo said. "If we are able to determine in court that sharia is unconstitutional, other matters will fall into place."

Mbang warned, "If they (Supreme Court judges) decide to give a judgement that is not in the interest of the unity of the country, then whatsoever happens, posterity will decide."

The decision to initiate the court challenge to sharia was made because the federal government said it couldn't be the one to interpret the constitution.

Chief Dapo Sarumi, Nigeria's Minister of African Affairs and Cooperative Development, told journalists in Abuja that it was not the duty of the executive arm of the government to interpret the law, and that CAN or any other aggrieved body in the country should go to court over sharia.

"I think that the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs should take the matter to the Supreme Court for interpretation," Sarumi said.

"I am so worried that everybody is leaving it (sharia) to government," Sarumi said. "We are not running a military administration; we are running a democratic setting. That means anybody who has his rights violated in any form, who presumes that his rights are being violated as guaranteed by the constitution, should take legal action."

The Nigerian Bar Association said any attempt by the federal government to ask the courts to address the sharia issue would create more problems not only for the government, but also for the judiciary.

Nigerian Bar Association President Onomigbo Okpoko said, "The sharia issue has been so politicized that a constitutional court proceeding initiated by the federal government ... will place the courts dangerously in a no-win position where its decision one way or the other will hardly command acceptance -- no matter how right or correct the decision may be in law."

However, a former Supreme Court judge, Anthony Aniagolu, disagrees that the federal government has no legal right to challenge sharia in court. "Constitutionally, the state's interest overrides that of the constituent units," Aniagolu said. "The Zamfara (state) experiment (adoption of sharia) is totally unconstitutional."

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.