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Court challenge puts spotlight on sharia law in Nigeria

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Nigeria is divided between the largely Christian south and mostly Muslim north
  • Court will hear a challenge against sharia law
  • Nigeria is divided between the Christian south and Muslim north
  • 22-year-old was sentenced to death over accusations of blasphemy

A Nigerian court on Thursday will hear a challenge against sharia law in the mostly Muslim northern state of Kano, in a case that is set to reignite debate on the place of religious laws in a country whose constitution is neutral on religion.

Nigeria is divided between the largely Christian south and mostly Muslim north. Kano is one of the foremost states that enforces sharia or Islamic religious law, including the death penalty against blasphemy.

In 2020, a 22-year-old singer, Yahaya Aminu Sharif, was sentenced to death while a teenager was jailed for 10 years by Kano Sharia Court over accusations of blasphemy. The ruling drew international outcry and the secular branch of the state’s high court freed the teenager but ordered a retrial for Sharif.

Sharif, who is in custody, wants the Appeal Court to declare the sharia penal code unconstitutional and set him free, court documents seen by Reuters showed. A judgment will be delivered within three months.

“A circular country such as ours has specified that the state should not be found promoting one religion above another. Clearly, the sharia law as being practised jeopardises that,” Kola Alapinni, the lawyer representing Sharif, told Reuters.

Sharif is being held in a prison outside Kano for his safety, Alapinni said, adding that the singer would not attend the appeal hearing to “avoid inflaming the situation.”

Protesters in Kano destroyed Sharif’s home last year, forcing his family to flee.

The Kano state government is opposing the appeal, arguing that sharia law does not violate the constitution, a view held by many in northern Nigeria.

“As a Muslim, I support the sharia penal code, and it is mandatory for us to support it … it will not harm anyone,” said Abdulwahab Abdallah, a local sheikh.

Religious tensions in the country of over 200 million people are common and often turn violent as some resort to mob rule.

That was the case with a female college student in northwestern Sokoto state who was last month stoned and burned to death by fellow students who accused her of insulting the Prophet Mohammad on WhatsApp.

More than 30 lawyers lined up in court to defend two men who were linked to the student’s death. In contrast, Sharif was tried without legal representation because no lawyer in Kano would take up his case, fearing public backlash, said Alapinni, a human rights lawyer from Abuja.

Some religious scholars in Nigeria said sharia should be maintained but could be limited to dealing with personal matters like marriage and divorce, inheritance and custody of children and not capital punishment.