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 Fatwas and Democratic Rights: The Time to Intervene Is Now
 Rotimi Sankore, United Kingdom (Nigeria)
 December 5, 2002
 
The fatwa issued a fortnight ago against the ThisDay journalist Isioma Daniel by the Deputy Governor of Zamfara State in Northern Nigeria has far-reaching implications beyond the immediate threat to her life, press freedom, and the controversy surrounding Nigeria's hosting of the Miss World beauty pageant. Before going further, it is important to declare an interest in the matter. I am a journalist by training, and have campaigned for press freedom, freedom of expression and human rights in general all my adult life. I have also lived and worked in Nigeria, campaigned against military dictatorship, and in the past wrote a column and features on current affairs for ThisDay Newspaper. This 'admission' does not in anyway disqualify me from commenting on this issue, quite the contrary. I may also add, that although my professional judgement is that portions of Isioma's article were controversial, the fatwa against her is completely out of order.

What are the implications and significance of the fatwa beyond the immediate issues?

Firstly, it is important to recognise that the issuing of a fatwa by an elected politician represents a dangerous political phenomenon. That is, one of a nascent dictatorship based on a fusion of religion and the state (in a section of a secular country). This phenomenon began with the passing of death sentences by stoning against allegedly 'adulterous' women in the name of religious law. In all cases, not a single man responsible for the pregnancies or babies used as evidence against the women was indicted. The failure of the Nigerian government to intervene decisively to halt these blatant miscarriages of justice permitted the phenomenon to expand its jurisdiction to cover press freedom, freedom of expression and the arbitrary and extra-judicial imposition of death sentences on other citizens.

Secondly, by first concentrating its initial attacks on the alleged promiscuity of women, e.g. unwed mothers and beauty contestants in a largely chauvinist society, this phenomenon was able to employ a divide and conquer tactic, and also cloak the potential danger of its spiked fist with a glove of dubious morality. We have not heard that the Zamfara State government (or for that matter the Nigerian government) is opposed to the giving away of teenage girls into marriage. This in turn, highlights the inequalities in Nigerian society in general and the country’s in particular. For instance, the present Nigerian constitution written by the last military regime, and accepted by the incumbent civilian government, denies women many rights including the right to confer citizenship on their non-Nigerian husbands through marriage, a right taken for granted by Nigerian men. A senior government official once justified this on the logic-defying basis that women are "easily carried away by emotion" and may end up conferring Nigerian citizenship on foreigners in exchange for love.

Thirdly, by advocating a legal and institutional framework which aims to restrict the movement and activities of women, and deny them their economic, social and political rights, Zamfara and other states advocating similar laws will by default literally 'bury' half the problems of their states in relation to unemployment, provision of education and so forth in one stroke. The other side of this of course, is that society is denied the benefit of half of its skills, talent and productive forces. It is significant that high unemployment and deepening poverty in some states have provided armies of unemployed and desperate youth easily converted into raging mobs by cynical manipulation of some religious and political leaders.

Fourthly, the violent protests orchestrated by political and religious opportunists and the issuing of the country's first ever political fatwa could be interpreted as a testing of the waters, and a show of strength by potential demagogues to see how far they can go without being challenged by secular and democratic forces, or even other Islamic leaders.

It is necessary to point out here that the problem is not with Islam. Christian fundamentalists in the United States for instance have regularly attacked and even killed doctors running family planning clinics and women attending them. Despite carrying out these acts of violence with thinly veiled and tacit support of right wing religious and political leaders, no one in their right mind can allege that the problem is with Christianity. To further emphasise this point, women in predominantly Muslim countries such as President Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Tansu Çiller in Turkey, and Begum Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh have emerged as democratically elected leaders. In 'conservative' countries such as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban where democratic rights are suppressed, elections are not held—never mind the emergence of women leaders.

Within this context, the problem of invoking religion and narrow interpretations of religious morality to suppress democratic rights can be seen more as a device by members of ruling elites or opposition groups to build social and political support for their political agendas, rather than as a strictly religious problem. This problem is only religious to the extent that at best, it reflects the undemocratic interpretation of a religious school of thought. In order to stop such undemocratic schools of thought from gaining political ground and suppressing democratic rights, the time to intervene is now.

Individuals, whether public officials or private citizens, cannot be allowed to commit crimes with impunity in the name of religion which otherwise would not go unpunished. Calling for the arbitrary murder, execution or assassination of anyone is a crime regardless of if it is done in the name of religion.

If the Nigerian government is not to create a dangerous precedent, the Inspector General of Police must at the very minimum commence investigations into the statements and actions of the Zamfara State Deputy Governor Mamuda Aliyu Shinkafi.

Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo and all democratic and judicial institutions of the Nigerian government must also go beyond opposing the Fatwa, and reaffirm unequivocally the supremacy of all constitutional and democratic rights over any pronouncements by any person, whether public office holder or private citizen. These rights include media freedom, and the fundamental rights to opinion, free expression, association and life.

In addition, the Nigerian government must recognise and affirm that it is not the place of the government or private individuals to punish the media for errors or the content of news reports, features or opinion articles. Any redress sought must be through the judiciary, or through an independent ethics or complaints body not appointed by or dominated by the government. The media cannot play its vital role of sustaining democracy through holding the government and powerful individuals to account if the government or private citizens can arbitrarily arrogate to themselves power to punish the media.

To fully appreciate the consequence of not acting now, we must ask the question: What would have been the consequence for democracy and the unity of Nigeria if Isioma Daniel and the publisher of ThisDay Nduka Obaigbena had been murdered by zealots carrying out the exaltations of the Zamfara State Deputy Governor? What would have been the consequences for the West African Sub Region of a chain of events which could have led to widespread religious and ethnic conflict in a country of one hundred and twenty million people? Without a shadow of doubt, failure to halt 'politically' motivated rights violations at the starting blocks, often have devastating consequences for society.

Rotimi Sankore is Coordinator of CREDO for Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights, London.

From the Pambazuka Newsletter, 91, December 5, 2002, an advocacy tool for social justice in Africa.