Where next for Nigeria ?

Nearly three years ago Amina Lawal who lives in Northern Nigeria fell pregnant as a result of being raped by someone who she had considered at the time as a friend. Nine months later she later gave birth to a daughter conceived during her rape.

Because Amina’s husband had abandoned her before the rape took place, Sharia law, introduced in most of the Northern states of Nigeria in 1999 after significant popular pressure, held that Amina’s daughter had been born “out of wedlock”.

The punishment for having a child out of wedlock under Sharia law is to be buried up to your neck in sand and for stones to be thrown at your head until you die.

Luckily before the punishment could be carried out a great deal of international pressure brought by concerned individuals and organisations, including a petition with six million signatures, was brought to bear on the Nigerian Government and the Nigerian Court of Appeal overturned Amina’s conviction yesterday.

Her lawyer said “Today we are celebrating the victory of law over the rule of man.”

Personally I’m extremely pleased about this verdict and everyone involved in the campaign should congratulate themselves for helping to save the life of an innocent woman and in preventing a two-year old girl from being orphaned. The trouble is that I can’t fully agree with Amina’s lawyer’s statement. I suspect it may have been nearer the truth, but potentially provocative in Nigeria, to say that the victory was of one legal tradition over another.

Nigeria inherited English common law from Britain during the colonial era but the predominantly Muslim Northern States voted four years ago to be governed by Sharia law. Now it’s perfectly possible for the constituant parts of any state to be governed by different legal systems. The United Kingdom manages perfectly well with English and Scots law even though the two evolved from entirely seperate and in some cases mutually exclusive basic legal concepts. Similarly the United States has inherited English legal concepts but because it is a Federal Republic the laws relating to certain fields are different in each of the States that make up the Republic.

Nigeria is also a Federal Republic but I see potentially massive problems in the future originating in the arrangement whereby one part of the country is subject to a legal system so much at odds with that in the other half and a Court of Appeal which has to act as an arbiter between the two halves of a country which, to put it mildly, view the other side with a great deal of suspicion.

It’s not clear to me on what basis the Nigerian Court of Appeal overturned the original Sharia law decision but I wonder if the decision, possibly bowing to international pressure, was as much political as legal in origin. If so this will inflame supporters of Sharia law and will fuel seccessionism in the Northern States, already a powerful and growing trend. Even if it was not a political decision the legal technicalities on which the decision was based will not be foremost in the minds of the many people in Nigeria who will seek to exploit the decision one way or another.

I have travelled many times to Nigeria and admire the enormous strength of character displayed by Nigerians of all social classes I have come into contact with from taxi-drivers to Government Ministers, whether it is their family or the Federal Republic they are battling to hold together. Sadly Nigeria is going to need strength of character in bucketloads to cope with the political fallout from yesterday’s judgment and those Court of Appeal judgments which will follow.

The difficulty here is not the clash of legal systems per se but problems which stem from the clash between one system which, despite it’s origins in dark-age Britain, has proved itself flexible enough to cope with profound changes in social behaviour over more than a thousand years and another with it’s origins in a similarly harsh but geographically different tribal group at roughly the same time but which has failed to evolve from these distant roots.

I don’t know of any country, especially one as recently contructed as Nigeria, which has successfully combined such different legal traditions without eventually breaking apart. The splitting up of Africa’s most populous state is not in anyone’s interest but it’s certainly something which is now on the political agenda whether we like it or not.

Note – to forestall possible criticism in the comments box I am aware I haven’t linked this post to an original story but my excuse is that I’m still suffering from computer tantrums which prevent this. Also, I’m aware that the usual spelling of Judgement is with an e but for some reason when used in it’s legal context it doesn’t have one.

Update and correction – I have just found out that yesterdays judgment was in the Sharia Appeals Court rather than as previously stated the Nigerian Court of Appeal. As such the Judgment of the higher court will have been arrived at according to Sharia procedural rules rather than common law rules as I had presumed. It is however still next to impossible to state with any conviction how much the decision was based on political and international pressure without at the very least seeing a copy of the Judgment.