Muslims and Rule of Law in Nigeria



At the opening ceremony of a Juma’at Mosque in Kumo, Gombe State , built by former Minister of Federal Capital Territory, Dr. Aliyu Modibbo, Sheikh Sani Yahaya Jingir, the Head of the Council of Ulama of the Jos faction of Jama’atu Izalatul Bid’ah Wa Iqamatus Sunnah (JIBWIS), stood up and openly congratulated the Nigerian Police for killing Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of yet another Muslim sect named boko haram.


The report which came out in Aminiya (a Hausa newspaper published by Daily Trust) of 21 August 2009 did not miss the point. It started by contrasting the unsolicited justification of the Sheikh with the guilt of the Federal Government: “At a time when Nigeria, on the one hand, was rushing to the United Nations seeking pardon for the extrajudicial killing of the leader of Boko Haram, on the other hand, the Head of the Council of Ulama of JIBWIS, Sheikh Muhammad Sani Yahaya Jingir has praised the Nigerian Police Force for the steps it took to destroy the leader of Boko Haram, Malam Muhammad Yusuf within a short time.” Essentially, the reporter was saying that the Malam was being more Catholic than the Pope. According to the report, Sheikh Jingir justified the extrajudicial killing of Yusuf because the Yusuf “was in his view a terrorist and there is no terrorism in Islam.”


The Sheikh was not alone in his justification nor in his praise for the security agents. The umbrella organization for Muslims in the country, Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), showered unqualified praises for the law enforcement agencies. In a statement signed by its leader, the Sultan, the organization commended “government and security agencies for promptly containing the situation, and wish to call upon all Muslims to give complete support to them in their investigation so that they can get to the root of the causes of the ugly outbreak of violence in the North East region and the alleged extrajudicial killing of the leaders of the group.”


The reader should note that in the above quotation, the word alleged was used to qualify the state of knowledge of JNI in the killing of the sect leaders. Now that the videos and pictures of the actual killing are in the memories of thousands of handsets in the country, and that even the government is seeking pardon for the killings, JNI has remained silent.


Also, at the onset of the crisis, a group of ulama allegedly attended a meeting with government officials in Bauchi in which majority of the ulama justified the killing of boko haram members wherever they could be found. Only an elderly Sheikh insisted that only court of competent jurisdiction can order the execution any person arrested and duly charged among members of the group. This opinion was ignored. As it turned out, the green light from the ‘men of God’ paved way for the government to go on rampage against the group. Seven were killed at a maishayi and many were killed in cold blood at their centre. The centre was later razed by bulldozers. However, when the public opinion against the killings became evident, many of the Malams refuted that there was ever such a meeting.


However, two weeks later a conference was held at Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University , Bauchi, for commentators of the Qur’an. Among the papers presented were one on the legitimacy of modern education in Islam (which I think is irrelevant) and another in Arabic, titled, “Important lessons in Khawariji movements today.” In the discussion that ensued majority of the ulama condemned boko haram as a Khawariji (rebellious movement) and justified its total extermination. Only two ulama challenged this stand. I wonder then why they were denying the occurrence of the said meeting in the first place.


Every right thinking person who is knowledgeable with modern civilization will find the above stand of the ulama very disgusting and abominable. The end, according to them, justified the means. Nobody is doubting the right of the state to apply the law on any sect, its leaders and members alike, which is found to contravene the law by possessing weapons and disturbing the peace through threats and attacks on law enforcement agents even if it does so to avenge the killing of its members. However, in so doing, the threshold of civilization, the rule of law, must be met. Here, I find the last editorial of Desert Herald (pg. 42, 25th August 2009 edition) very apt and would seek the indulgence of the reader to reproduce a portion of it at length:


“But the attitude of our religious leaders of only heaping blames on the sect’s leaders ignoring the savage and disproportionate use of force, which led to the death of hundreds of law abiding citizens, is the most bizarre act of cowardice. Religious leaders, who are supposed to be the vanguard of the society against any form of injustice, suddenly became the advocates of the government pouring all sort of venomous invectives against the sect, while keeping a blind eye on the atrocities perpetrated by the government against the many law abiding citizens caught in the crossfire between the government and the sect. It is revealed that more than eighty percent of those killed have no link with the sect and despite these gory revelations they could not slightly beret the government for its insensitivity. The clerics refuse to see anything wrong with the deployment of destructive weapons against cutlass and catapult wielding rebels. They equally refuse to see anything wrong with the massive bombardment of a densely populated residential area in which leaves and properties of law abiding citizens were destroyed….


“What the clerics and religious leaders failed to do was done by rights organizations, which have chided the government for the excessive use of force to quell a crisis that requires a minimum use of force. In his characteristic recklessness, the Governor of Gombe State ordered the demolition of mosques and every property allegedly owned by boko haram members, which is in contravention of Islamic laws as well as orthodox laws and practices.”


Perhaps, it was this recklessness that Sheikh Jingir was praising in his sermon where he was reported praising the Gombe State governor for his “courageous effort in maintaining security by preventing boko haram members from making any impact in the state.”


The essence of this essay is to bring to light the contradiction between the view of majority of our ulama and our fundamental human rights. Unfortunately, as clerics they are occupying a position where whatever they say is taken as the divine that must not be challenged. But bringing this contradiction to light, notwithstanding the risk, is important before further damage is done to our rights as citizens. If the leading malam of JIBWIS will so celebrate the extrajudicial killing of leaders of another sect by government, I wonder what his reaction would be the day the same law enforcement agencies come to his house to execute him for one felony or another. To be candid, if separating from mainstream Islam justifies the killing of anyone, then JIBWIS members themselves would have been killed thirty years ago, for no organization has divided Muslims in this country as it did, when it formed separate mosques, abattoirs, cemeteries and condemned virtually anyone who is not its member as infidel, something unheard of in the rest of the Muslim world. What could be more Khawariji than this? However, JIBWIS benefited from the etiquettes of modern civilization, from the rule of law and constitutional provisions to freedom of association religion, expression and so on.


Are we demanding too much? No. The rule of law is not new in Islam as shown even by non-Muslim scholars; for example, by Martin Nijhoff in his book Justice without Frontiers (1997) and Francis Fukuyama in a recent article Islam , Iran and Rule of Law (2009). The problem our ulama and Muslim establishment have with it is many fold. One is political. Organizations like JNI are led by establishment people who are ready to subscribe to government interest. JIBWIS, which broke from JNI, has been playing the recognition game. It has been busy courting emirs, governors and the presidents in Nigeria and recently across the West Africa . Hardly would it start any ‘national preaching’ session in Nigeria or Niger without praises and prayers for Yar’adua and Tandja. Yar’adua in particular receives special mention at such sessions. Supporting Yar’adua in killing boko haram members extra-judicially was therefore part of the blossoming partnership.


There is another political reason however: inter-sectarian rivalry. Boko haram is salafi, deriving its inspiration from adherence to the rulings of pre-Medieval Muslim jurists on every matter of life, the same as JIBWIS. The manner in which boko haram was gaining influence must have upset their cousin-sect rival, JIBWIS. And when religious sects disagree, such disagreements are usually taken to the farthest point possible: death for the rival in the here-and-now, and jahannam in the hereafter! Religious groups generally have zero tolerance for different opinions. You dire not venture into that otherwise you will immediately be declared an infidel whose blood could be shed without any qualm.


Sadly, the political class in the Muslim North has found these groups and other young Malams trying to find their feet on the turf of life very gullible and useful in garnering political support. Their relevance did not escape the mind of Modibbo who is eying the Government House in Gombe come 2011, hence the invitation of Sheikh Jingir to the his hometown of Kumo to open the mosque. To scratch the Sheikh’s back, apart from what went behind closed doors, Modibbo called on him to “expand his preaching to cover all nooks and corners of this country in order to checkmate ‘unorthodox beliefs’ like that of boko haram and kala kato.” Mhm. Politics and religion could be a dangerous cocktail.


Boko haram members are not the only victims of our ulama. Have the ulama condemned people in power who loot our treasury day in day out, as they condemn boko haram leaders or members of rival sects? If boko haram leaders have caused the death of many innocent citizens as these Malams claim, how many Nigerians are dying daily from corruption and incompetence of government officials whether appointed, elected or selected who patronize these ulama by building mosques and centers for them, dolling them latest versions of luxury cars and millions of naira? Who kills the millions of Nigerian children that die because of malaria, typhoid and other avoidable diseases? How many Nigerians die in motor accidents, armed robbery, hunger and sectarian crisis, as a result of inept leadership? Why haven’t our ulama made this an agenda for their preaching? On the contrary what we here for these inept and corrupt leaders are showers of praise, even for actions which the government itself has admitted its ‘mistakes,’ like in the extrajudicial killings of boko haram members.


We find it difficult to even establish the basic necessity for balance in our views. For example, how many lives were lost in the last Jos crisis that arose essentially from the rigging of local government elections? Sheikh Jingir was reportedly warned that violence would ensue if the elections were rigged. But what we all failed to see was the contradiction our Muslim raison d’etre for the crisis. If the elections were rigged against us in Jos, why would it shock us since local government elections in Muslim dominated states like Bauchi, Kano , Gombe, etc were equally rigged? If we could tolerate those, why not tolerate that of the PDP state government in Plateau? How we tolerate the ‘malpractice’ that brought Yar’adua to power, and detest the same malpractice if practiced by a Christian? The killings were therefore needless, absolutely, regardless of who started them. What is required of these ulama is to join other citizens in fighting corruption, rigging elections and other monstrous ills perpetrated by our political elite. They should be in the forefront of illegitimating any government that came through rigging. Simple. “Whoever cheats will come with the commodity he earned through cheating on the Day of Judgment,” said God in the Qur’an. Whoever. Whoever.


The second reason, apart from their romance with power, is how many ulama lack of adequate comprehension of the dynamics of modern governments. To say, for example, that Sayyidina Ali has legalized the killing of Khawarijites so boko haram members could also be killed by our governments based on their creed shows how lacking is our perception of the role of Islam in the modern age. Is Yar’adua running a government similar to that of Sayyidina Ali? Are we living in the 7th Century? I am surprised even to hear an enlightened malam giving a fatwa recommending, still, the further killing of boko haram members if they do not rejoin mainstream Islam today in a country that is secular, of course based on 7th Century rulings. He labeled the death of members of the sect as the death of dogs. This is deplorable, shocking and disgusting. There is a serious problem here.


If our ulama will condemn people based on their beliefs, where are our constitutional guarantees to freedom of religion, conscience, expression, association, etc? It is time that we stop seeing Muslims as living in the 7th Century and giving rulings on what affects them today based on what jurists of that time said. There is no way those rulings could be final. Every generation is allowed the freedom of interpreting scriptural provisions in a way that will suit its conditions. This is the major flaw of salafi thought, which is giving sanctity to what pre-Medieval jurists say. It does not surprise me to observe that Muslim societies have become some of the best specimens of tyranny, dictatorship and corruption on earth today. They least recognize the constitutional freedom of the individual in conformity to the wish of their rulers.


We have a long way to go, it seems. The respect we accord our ulama must be moderated with what humanity yearns for today – liberty – whose most tenets can be traced to the Qur’an. The convoluted understanding of today by many of them combined with sectarian political interest is impeding our progress towards peace and development. Those of us who are privileged to read both Islam and so-called western education must start asking questions, raising the voice of correction before we reach a point of no return. We should count ourselves lucky to be living in an age of constitutional rule in which we enjoy the personal freedoms that were never dreamt of by our grandparents, who lived as late as early 20th century. Government will only be willing if, following the rulings of our ulama, we surrender such freedoms in exchange for oppression and tyranny.


The rule of law must be adhered to in all its ramifications. Life must remain sacrosanct. In the 2005 survey of worldwide governance indicators which “attempts to measure the extent to which agents have confidence in and abide by the rules of society”, Nigeria is categorized among nations in the bottom quartile. The country awaits our contribution in this area. And the best way of doing it is not by praising agents for extrajudicial killings, or appealing to them to furthermore kill fellow Nigerians simply because we differ with them in our understanding of Islam. Once the Muslim elite will live up to this task, the peace we long for will soon be within our reach. That day we will stop seeing members of different sects or religions as enemies but people like us who have the same rights as we do and who would stand before God to defend their actions individually. That day, the spilling of innocent blood will end as we happily live in an atmosphere of tolerance, equality and understanding.


I was encouraged to write this article by the overwhelming and surprising support I received from readers of my article We are Boko Haram, many of whom are at the pinnacle of scholarship in various fields. I think more remains to be discussed and hope that my readers will remain open enough to tolerate my sometimes unusual opinions.