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The double-edged sword of Nigeria's sharia

Islamic law cuts crime, but critics say it violates human rights.

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Bands of vigilantes in frayed red uniforms, armed with homemade machetes, whips, and clubs, roam this poor and parched state on the edge of the Sahara, detaining anyone suspected of misconduct.

The list of possible offenses is long, and justice is swift and severe. In the past year, one cattle thief lost a hand, an unwed teen mother received 100 lashes, and countless other men and women endured similar public lashings for lesser transgressions.

Not surprisingly, crime has plummeted by more than half.

"People here are afraid to commit crime," says Musa Ossa, a policeman lazing around the capital's quiet marketplace. "We don't have many thieves anymore."

One year ago this overwhelmingly Muslim state in Nigeria's far north adopted sharia law, a legal code based on various Islamic texts, and sparked an Islamic revival.

The move has transformed Zamfara from a crime-ridden backwater to a safe, model state and catapulted its first democratically elected governor - who campaigned on a promise to restore Muslim morality - from unknown bureaucrat to the darling of the Islamic world.

Since that time, residents across Nigeria's Muslim north have demanded that their newly elected state governors follow suit.

So far, another 10 of Nigeria's 36 states have announced their intention to introduce sharia law - returning the region to its pre-colonial roots, when Islamic scholars, not secular judges, meted out justice.

"This is the benefit of democracy," says Isa Ibdulsalam, an academic who is advising Kano State government on the reintroduction of sharia law. "The people can come forward and demand something. Under previous regimes, people didn't have that freedom."

But the world isn't celebrating this first tangible sign of democracy at work in Nigeria, which for the past 15 years struggled under a series of military dictatorships. From the beginning, Western governments and nongovernmental organizations called sharia law a travesty of human rights.


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