Islamic Law in Nigeria – Council on Foreign Relations

Hauwa Ibrahim, a human rights lawyer, discussed the constitutionality of Shariah in Nigeria and her experiences defending Nigerian women in Shariah courts in the country at the Council of Foreign Relations 23 February 2006. Particularly interesting is the passage about illiterate Sharia judges.

In our first appeal, which is of a Shari’a court, we lost all the 15–(inaudible word)–arguments.  And the summary of that is that the judge did not make reference to any single–(inaudible word)–argument, the judges.  And my understanding at the end of the day is that it is either we didn’t communicate at all, or they didn’t understand what we are saying.  And as you know, most of the judges in the Shari’a courts are illiterate.  They cannot read or write.  They can recite the Koran.  So that is another huge drawback.  So the likelihood was that they did not understand what our argument was.

COLEMAN:  Can I just ask–that’s quite a remarkable statement, that they’re mostly illiterate.  On what basis, then, are they judges in the court?  Is it as religious leaders solely?

IBRAHIM:  Okay.  We should back up a little bit.  The Shari’a law was introduced in 1999.  The new criminal law was introduced into Shari’a.  What we used to have was always a civil–it was a civil law matter under the Shari’a.  And when it was introduced, offenses such as stoning to death, amputation, crucifixion, flogging when you take alcohol was part of what was introduced into the law.  And we had, before the introduction, we had what we called the area court in the north, and in the south we had the customary courts.  And (up to ?) today, under Section 277 of Nigerian Constitution, which gave jurisdiction so the Shari’a court of appeal has limited jurisdiction to civil matters–(inaudible)–no criminal matters.  So also those (ones ?) in the training in the cases on the lower level were not going into anything that has to do with criminal law at all.

So what happened in 1999, after the introduction of this new law, only Shari’a court in the north became–area court in the north became Sharia’ courts.  Now, what that means is that all the judges of this area court transmitted themselves from area court into criminal court with criminal jurisdiction.  And now we think about training.  Did they have the adequate training to do that?

Remember also that the laws have always been in English, they are still in English; and the language of the court is Hausa, the language of the victim is Hausa, so these are the challenges we find when we went to court.  And I started these cases immediately after the introduction, which is 1999.

And our first challenge was to look at the law in English and to give it our own Hausa interpretation, and the Hausa–(inaudible)–which is a completely different way of saying things than in Hausa.  So this was a huge challenge.

But of course, also the judges didn’t understand the Hausa we are speaking, because I would be coming with my Hausa from–(inaudible), and  and the words I will say, like salute (ph) may not be salute (ph) in the–(inaudible).   And salute (ph) is like, “Hi.  Hello.”  It may not be the same word in the–(inaudible).

So we had the problem of the training of the judges, which was completely absent at the point.  I think what they did was to hurry them into Ahmadu Bello University.  And Ahmadu Bello University has a department for Islamic studies, and they gave them a run-down training for six to eight weeks and then they sent them back to the courts.  And a lot of them were supposed to have written in exams and passed, but our understanding is about 80 to 90 percent of them didn’t make the exam, but yet they came back.

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