NY times January 27, 2002 Death by Stoning By RICHARD DOWDEN ufiyatu Huseini sits on the earth floor of a tiny mud hut breast-feeding her 10-month-old daughter, Adama, and occasionally waving away flies that swarm around the child's eyes and mouth. She says she is 35, but her wizened face and broken brown teeth make her look considerably older. This ordinary woman, as poor as any in this impoverished region of northern Nigeria, recently became horribly extraordinary: last June, an Islamic court in Sokoto, the regional capital, sentenced her to death by stoning for committing adultery. The evidence is the child she now feeds. The judge mandated that the sentence be carried out as soon as Adama is weaned.
Sufiya, as the woman is known, has appealed the judgment, and a hearing is scheduled for the middle of March. But there is a good chance that the appeal will not save her. The recent introduction of the full sharia -- strict Islamic rule of law backed up by harsh punishments -- in 10 of Nigeria's 12 northern states is a highly political issue in the region, whose population is largely Islamic and whose courts are strongly influenced by the militant Islamists who have come to wield significant power.
Sufiya lives in Tungar Tudu, a village some 20 miles from Sokoto, which in the 19th century was the capital of an extensive African Islamic empire and is now a sleepy, poverty-stricken backwater. You reach the village by a dusty track that leads through arid fields of shriveled corn and millet. The 3,000 or so people who live in the mud-and-straw homes grow only enough to survive on.
Water comes from an old-fashioned well served by a bucket made from long-discarded tire tubing -- one of the only signs of modernity in the village. Last year, 40 years after Nigeria achieved independence from Britain, the federal government provided the first services to Tungar Tudu, building a primary school and a dispensary.
The only furnishings in Sufiya's hut are three plastic mats. With her are her blind father and a neighbor whose hands have been reduced to gnarled stumps by leprosy. Speaking in Hausa, the local language, Sufiya explains through an interpreter that last year she divorced her husband, which is allowable under Islamic law, because he could not support her. She returned to her father's house with her two children. But then, she says, a 60-year-old man named Yakubu Abubakar began to show interest in her. ''He used fetish charms to woo me, but he did not succeed,'' she says. As she goes on to tell the story, she grows more solemn. ''One day I was in the bush, and he ambushed me and forced me.
That happened four times. I am telling you as I am telling God. I suddenly found myself pregnant. I was embarrassed for what this would do to me and to my family.'' Not long after her pregnancy began to show, the police arrived and interrogated her. She says she has no idea who told them. Sufiya, who is illiterate, and Abubakar were then taken to the police station in Sokoto, where they confessed to having sex. At the time, Sufiya did not say that she had been raped. ''He said he loved me and he could not suppress his feelings for me,'' she says of Abubakar. ''He promised to take care of the child. My father suggested that he should marry me, and he agreed.'' Had this happened before the introduction of the full sharia law, the families would have come to an arrangement supported by the village. Abubakar would have had to care for Sufiya and her child but not necessarily marry her. But now it is out of their hands. When it came to the court hearing last June, Abubakar denied everything.
Under the most common interpretation of Islamic law, adultery can be proved only if someone confesses to it, or if the act is seen by four male witnesses.
But the mainly Muslim northern states of Nigeria have by and large adopted the Maliki tradition, the strictest interpretation of the Koran, in which pregnancy alone is sufficient evidence of adultery. Sex between two unmarried people is punished by beatings, but the penalty for adultery, if one partner is or has been married, is death. Lacking witnesses to the act, Abubakar was acquitted.
But on the evidence of Sufiya's pregnancy, Judge Muhammad Bello Sanyinlawal sentenced her to death by stoning. ''I was shattered when the judge said that,'' she says. ''I never thought there would be such a punishment.'' Immediately after the sentencing, Sufiya ran away from Tungar Tudu, but she was eventually caught and taken back to the village, where she is allowed to remain with her family until her appeal is heard. While no one in Tungar Tudu will speak out publicly for fear of retribution, the villagers appear to support her; if they did not, they would have expelled her. Instead, it is Abubakar who has left the village and gone into hiding.
Initially, Sufiya said that the law was not justly applied because she had been
raped by Abubakar. Earlier this month, however, Sufiya and her lawyers -- who
are being paid by Baobab, a national women's support group financed by the Ford
and MacArthur Foundations -- began mounting a different defense, claiming that
Adama was not fathered by Abubakar but is in fact the daughter of Sufiya's
former husband. When asked to explain the change in her story, one of Sufiya's
lawyers, Abdulkadir Imam, said that her original statement had been made under
duress and without legal representation. ''She did not understand the nature
and consequence of the offense she was charged with nor the questions she was
asked,'' he said.
For the last millennium, the area that became Nigeria in 1906 has been plagued by tensions between the Islamic north and the Christian and animist south. When the British took over what is now northern Nigeria at the end of the 19th century, they retained Islamic law but gradually removed the harsher punishments. In 1960, a new Western-style penal code, which included some references to Islamic law, was introduced in the north.
That remained the system until last year, when one after another, the newly elected state governments of the north reintroduced the full sharia, some enthusiastically, others under pressure from militant Islamists. By the end of this year, it is very likely that between one-third and one-half of Nigeria's 120 million people (census information is notoriously suspect here) will find themselves living under a judicial system with which Mullah Muhammad Omar, the ousted Taliban leader, would find little to quibble.
Paradoxically, none of this would have been possible if not for the end of military rule two years ago. Since the election of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, 10 of Nigeria's northern states have taken advantage of a loosening of federal control and the advent of democratic freedoms to reintroduce the full sharia. Another state is expected to introduce it, and Niger has amended the 1960 law to provide for sharia criminal law.
While there is little evidence of Taliban-style Islamic militancy on the streets of Sokoto, in other northern states churches have been burned and Christian women have been attacked for not covering their heads. Separate buses and taxis have been allocated for women, and the streets are now patrolled by quasi-official Islamic enforcers, the Hisbah, who do not always distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims, in theory, are exempt from sharia law.
In recent months, several people in northern Nigeria have been lashed in public for petty theft, drinking alcohol or sexual offenses that did not involve adultery. In July, a young man in Sokoto had his right hand amputated for stealing a goat. (The amputation was carried out under anesthesia by a qualified surgeon, and the man was given 50,000 Naira -- $450 -- by the state government ''to start a new life.'') There have been two other amputations and numerous lashings elsewhere in the northern states. In one well-publicized case, a 17-year-old girl in Zamfara State was given 100 lashes in public with a leather whip for having premarital sex. In Katsina State, a man has been sentenced to have his right eye removed in retribution for blinding another man in an assault.
Moderate Muslims in the region, along with international human rights monitors, worry that strict sharia law will become more widespread as politicians compete to exploit public enthusiasm for law and order. The prospect of swift and harsh punishment appeals to many in the north, where the police are seen as ineffective and corrupt. And the citizens of northern Nigeria, most of whom are illiterate peasants who have never enjoyed political or civil rights, tend to believe what they are told by the ruling elite -- Sufiya and her father, for instance, agree that stoning is the correct punishment for adultery.
All of this makes northern Nigeria fertile ground for political opportunists.
Ahmed Sani, the governor of Zamfara State, in northwestern Nigeria, openly admits that under the military regime he used his position with the central bank to amass a fortune. After 1999, he leveraged his wealth to buy his way, quite literally, to the governorship. (Votes in Nigeria's new democracy are cheap, and it is accepted practice that candidates pay off local chiefs, who then deliver their people.) After his election, Sani then turned to Islam to cement his base among locals and to position himself for the next election. He now uses his newly acquired Islamic credentials to build support among the faithful and to demonize his opponents.
Many Muslim leaders oppose the wholesale adoption of strict sharia, fearing
that it will ultimately be rejected by a population in which support is wider
than it is deep. They would prefer that it be voted upon in a referendum by the
people and not imposed by a legislature or governor. But the moderate leaders
find it next to impossible to stand up to politicians like Sani without
appearing to be un-Islamic.
Aliyu Abubakar Sanyinna, the attorney general of Sokoto State, relaxes in a grandiose armchair under gently turning fans in his home. He dispenses a mixture of theology and governance that chills with its casual certainties and its disregard for political and human implications. With his two young daughters playing at his feet, he speculates on how a stoning might be carried out: ''They will dig a pit and put the convicted person in it so that he or she cannot escape. Or he or she will be tied to a tree or a pillar. There will be special people trained for this, as many as possible, but the number will be determined by the court.'' How big should the stones be?
''Not big ones, moderate-size ones -- like this.'' He holds up a fist. He says that he would be happy to cast the first stone if asked to by the court.
He describes adultery as the second most serious crime under Islamic law, the first being insulting Allah. ''Adultery is more serious than murder,'' he says.
''Society is injured by her act. The danger is that it will teach other people to do the same thing.'' It is a curious statement, coming from an official in a country -- including the Muslim north -- where it is common for married men to boast of their numerous girlfriends.
Sanyinna attributes a recent fall in crime to the introduction of the sharia and justifies the harshness of the punishments as an extension of God's law. He adds that southern Christians frequently kill thieves by burning tires around their necks (though he acknowledges that it is not sanctioned by the government). Also, Sanyinna notes, the federal government in Abuja has agreed to relinquish power to the states and therefore should not interfere with this case.
eneath a copy of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights taped to his office wall, Mansur Ibrahim Sa'id, dean of the law faculty at Dan Fodio University in Sokoto, says that he, too, would take part in the stoning if asked to by the court. ''What can I do?'' he asks. ''If the state calls on someone to do his duty and carry out a law that has been properly passed, he must do it. If she is stoned to death, she is content. God has said that is the way she should go because she has broken his law. And those stoning her will be happy because they are carrying out God's will.'' Sa'id was a member of the committee that drafted Sokoto's new legal code. Like Sanyinna, he makes the case against Sufiya with something less than academic detachment. Adultery, he says, is ''an abomination abhorred by God and society'' because of the example it gives and because it creates bastards who will be rejected by society. He says that Sufiya's pregnancy constitutes perfect proof of her guilt.
Asked whether stipulations in the United Nations Charter against cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment conflict with amputations and stonings, Sa'id replies: ''You have to decide what amounts to cruelty and take into account the religious background. What yardstick are you using? You have to know if the people who use this law see it as cruel and inhuman.'' And how does the theft of a goat compare with the notorious theft of millions of dollars of public funds by senior military officers and officials in previous regimes? Sa'id says that the officials were guilty of embezzlement, a lesser crime than theft. Under sharia, he says, embezzlement does not merit severe punishments like amputation.
There are Islamic scholars in Nigeria who oppose the verdict in Sufiya's case.
Mohammed Ladan, a lecturer in law at Ahmadu Bello University at Zaria, called it a misapplication of the sharia because the authority of the court was weak and the incident lacked the four witnesses required by Koranic law. Beyond that, there are serious questions about whether the federal government will allow the execution to go ahead.
If Sufiya's appeal is rejected in the regional court of appeal, which is also a sharia court, it will end up in Nigeria's supreme court, whose judges will face a tough political choice. If they turn down the appeal, they will certainly upset the monitors who shape international opinion of Nigeria's federal government, and their decision will be disconcerting to those in the south who are troubled by the extent of sharia rule in the north, where many southerners now live. But if they uphold the appeal, they will appear to be overruling Islamic law, thereby offending the growing numbers of galvanized Muslim northerners.
Nigeria's constitution forbids the establishment of any religion at the national or state level. But those in favor of sharia argue that a precedent has been set by the acceptance of civil aspects of sharia law in the north for a century. Last month, Nigeria's justice minister, Bola Ige, said that the sentence of stoning was ''harsh and crude'' and promised that ''this type of thing will not happen in Nigeria in 2002.'' (He was assassinated in late December; the murder is not believed to be associated with this case.)
President Obasanjo has said nothing about the case so far and has barely
commented upon the reintroduction of sharia. In one instance, when asked about
sharia, the president said simply that he hoped that the problem would go away.
That could be wishful thinking. ''For a political leader to advocate its abolition would be political suicide,'' says Prof. Ruud Peters of the University of Amsterdam, who just completed a study on the implementation of sharia in Nigeria. He points out that in Pakistan and Libya, which have each made sharia the national law, amputations and stonings are never imposed, even though they are carried on the statute books. In northern Nigeria, he says, sharia law has been drafted differently, and sloppily, for each state. He urges the drafting of laws that would not only make the law consistent from state to state but would also emphasize restrictions and limitations that make the application of severe Koranic punishments more difficult.
Waiting in her father's hut for the day when she will be either spared or stoned, Sufiya is oblivious to these subtleties and to the growing international significance of her case. She plainly states that it is not sharia law she is fighting; she simply wants to receive justice. ''As a Muslim,'' she says, ''I know the laws of God are being implemented.'' She looks down for a moment at Adama nursing at her breast, then finishes her thought.
''But the law must be fair.''
Richard Dowden covers Africa for The Independent and The Economist.