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Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who was Nigeria’s democratically elected president between 1999 and 2007, has explained how his handling of the sharia law, introduced in some states of the North at that time, averted a disaster for Nigeria.
The Islamic law was first introduced by a former Zamfara State governor, Sani Yerima, who is now a senator.
Providing an insight into his handling of this in a book entitled ‘Making Africa Work’, co-authored by him and three others, the former president revealed that his second toughest challenge as president was the sharia controversy.
The co-authors of the book, unveiled in Victoria Island, Lagos, on August 2, are: Greg Mills, Director of Brenthurst Foundation; Jeffrey Herbst, President of NEWSEUM and Dickie Davis, a retired major general. But Obasanjo revealed that one of his biggest challenges as President was the sharia controversy.
According to Obasanjo, “The second big challenge under my presidential watch was the issue of Sharia law.
“As a country shared almost 50:50 between Muslims and Christians, Sharia has always been part of the legal and judicial system in the north, but only at the customary, or so-called magisterial level. Even then, the Nigerian Constitution has provision for establishing a Sharia Court of Appeal if the need ever arises. Sharia was, therefore, never an issue because it dealt with personal issues such as marriage, inheritance, and minor and civil issues, such as debt, boundary disputes and land matters.
“Only very occasionally did it deal with criminal issues which, when necessary, were forwarded to the High Court for confirmation.
“The initiator of the Sharia controversy, the then Zamfara State governor, Sani Yerima, raised the issue, however, for self-serving and self-preservation reasons, not for genuine or authentic religious conviction.”
Obasanjo explained that when Yerima stood for the governorship of his state under the platform of the then All Peoples’ Party, APP, the man who later became the National Security Adviser, NSA, General Aliyu Mohammed, sponsored a candidate under the banner of the then ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
“The PDP candidate lost the election but it would appear that the NSA, intending to find fault against the governor, started surreptitiously to collect evidence of misconduct and corruption against the governor.
“Meanwhile, I made several attempts to reconcile them, but to no avail. I even took both of them on an official visit to China, an opportunity to bring them together. When it appeared that the NSA persisted, Governor Yerima decided to make himself untouchable,” he wrote.
He continued: “He (Mr. Yerima) invited the Imams, Muslim leaders and priests in his state, and informed them that he was turning Zamfara into a full sharia state. He promulgated a law declaring Zamfara as a sharia state. And, true enough, he became untouchable.
“Wanting not to be seen as acting in isolation, he instigated imams in other Islamic states in the north to agitate for a full sharia law declaration. In all, 12 states out of the 19 in the north promulgated full sharia law,” Obasanjo explained.
He claimed that Muslims in the country were, however, all watching closely to see what he would do, as a wrong statement or action could be seen as incendiary, “because an ‘infidel’, an anti-Muslim president would be seen as trampling on the holy religion of Islam”.
He further revealed that Christian clergymen and leaders both within and outside Nigeria were at the same time calling on him to stamp out the new phenomenon of wholesale sharia in states where there was a Muslim majority but with substantial contingents of Christians too.
The ex-president said the religious leaders pointed out that Nigeria is a secular and multi-religious society, and not a Muslim state.
“Throughout this controversy, the only statement I made was to the effect that if the sharia that the governor of Zamfara was touting was genuine, it would survive and thrive. If not, it would fizzle out,” he said.
He alleged further that to justify his action and to prove his ‘sharianess’ to people he had recruited to his political sharia, Yerima cut off the hand of a thief – a traditional Islamic punishment.
“After that,” Obasanjo wrote, “the sharia fervour started to fizzle out.
“Muslims, who had expected me to kick against sharia, thereby giving them ammunition to cause mayhem, and Christians, who felt angry and disappointed that I did not roll out military tanks to crush the proponents of sharia, both felt winners and losers at the same time. But Nigeria was surely the unmistakable winner.
“Eventually, Yerima weaned himself off the Muslim clergy and sharia crumbled in his state,” he explained.
“A few months later, Yerima visited me in my official residence and, greeting my young female cousin, hugged her familiarly in my presence. I jokingly remarked to Yerima that this action was not sharia-compliant. Yerima retorted, ‘Didn’t you say sharia would fizzle out and has it not fizzled out?’
“At that point, the matter had turned into a joke,” he said.
The former president explained further that if mishandled, the sharia debacle would have become a serious disaster for Nigeria.
“I received more letters on sharia affairs from within and outside Nigeria on the sharia affair than on all other issues put together in my eight-year presidency,” Obasanjo stated.