Bloodletting and a beauty pageant

Print edition : December 20, 2002

In Nigeria, hundreds die in riots provoked by a remark against the Prophet made in a newspaper article on the Miss World contest, which was subsequently shifted out of the country.

Bodies of riot victims in Kaduna on November 22.-JUDA NGWENYA/REUTERS

SECTARIAN violence rocked the city of Kaduna in northern Nigeria in the fourth week of November after an English newspaper, This Day, made a disparaging remark about Prophet Muhammad. The remark was made in the context of an international beauty pageant being staged in the country.

Many Muslim organisations and some political leaders had objected to the holding of the Miss World contest in Nigeria. Members of a militant Muslim grouping had gone on the rampage in Kaduna, targeting churches and private property, a day after the report appeared. The rioting briefly spread to Abuja, the capital. The newspaper has since tendered an unconditional apology and the author of the article has resigned.

There was also a violent reaction from the minority groups. More than 200 people lost their lives and thousands have been rendered homeless. In recent years Nigeria has been experiencing serious incidents of violence. In February 2000, more than 2,000 people were killed in Kaduna. In the past two years there has been serious trouble in cities such as Jos and Kano, all located near Kaduna.

Security for Miss World contestants in Port Harcourt.-BORIS HEGER/AP

Much of the violence stemmed from inter-ethnic rivalry. The serious economic difficulties that the country has been facing for the past many years have led to the mushrooming of fundamentalist groupings, both Christian and Muslim. Thousands of young men, uneducated and unemployed, have fallen easy prey to religious bigotry. Ethnic rivalries, which were more or less dormant during the decade and a half of military rule, have surfaced violently in the liberal atmosphere fostered by civilian rule. In the melting pot that is Nigeria, there are 373 distinctly identifiable ethnic groups. The three dominant groupings are the Hausa-Fulani, the Yorubas and the Igbos.

Even before the contestants for the beauty contest had started arriving in Abuja, there were loud protests against the holding of the pageant, especially in the northern part of the country. Government officials privately admit that the timing of the contest and choice of the venue constituted "a political blunder''.

The contest was originally scheduled for the holy month of Ramzan, but the organisers belatedly rescheduled the finale for December 7, just after the fasting period would end. But the preliminary promotional programmes were already under way. The original venue of the contest was Port Harcourt, in the Christian-dominated east of the country. The federal government, however, thought that Abuja would be a better venue. Abuja, situated in the geographical centre of the country, is close to the Muslim-dominated states in the north, which adopted the Sharia law recently.

In the run-up to the contest, the Western media focussed on the alleged excesses of the Sharia courts. They highlighted the case of Amina Lawal, who was sentenced some time ago to death by stoning for alleged adultery and the bearing of a child out of wedlock. Sharia courts do impose strict Islamic laws, which prescribe flogging, amputations and so on for crimes like theft and adultery. Prostitution, gambling and alcohol consumption are banned under Sharia.

President Olusegun Obasanjo.-DONALD STAMPFLI/AP

The federal government, however, does not recognise the supremacy of the Sharia law. Nigeria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country adhering to secularism. Those convicted by Sharia courts have the right to appeal to the federal judiciary, which invariably overturns the recommendations of the Sharia courts. There was no chance for the sentence of stoning of the woman being carried out as the case is up for hearing in a federal court. "Nobody has been stoned to death in Nigeria. It has never happened and will never happen,'' said Kabiru Ahmed, Nigeria's High Commissioner to India.

In purely civil cases, even Christians have been going to Sharia courts, as justice is quick and legal expenses are negligible, according to Nigerian officials. They feel that there is an international "conspiracy'' to defame the country. They say that some influential sectors in the West have never reconciled themselves to Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo's election as President because of his anti-imperialist track record. Nigeria has taken a tough stance on the Zimbabwe issue, going against the diktats of London. As the military ruler of Nigeria in the late 1970s, Gen. Obasanjo nationalised British Petroleum's (BP) operations in the country. Nigerian officials point out that the main coup plotter who assassinated the charismatic Murtala Mohammed, the military leader of Nigeria, had sought refuge in the British High Commissioner's residence. After the coup attempt was foiled and Obasanjo took over as military ruler, the British High Commissioner was declared persona non grata.

Nigeria then was a strong supporter of the liberation struggles in southern Africa. Obasanjo, who played an important role in the decolonisation process in southern Africa, had said that the land issue in Zimbabwe could not be separated from the independence issue. Nigerian officials said that after Nigeria successfully bid for the hosting of the Miss World pageant, the Western media made Amina Lawal the main issue and kept up the chant that the contest be boycotted. "They relentlessly went about trying to sabotage our bid,'' said a senior Nigerian official. Contestants from Norway, Denmark, Costa Rica and South Africa had withdrawn, to highlight the Amina Lawal case.

The Sharia law has proved to be a vote getter in northern Nigeria. When the Zamfara state first introduced Sharia in January 2000 in the face of widespread protests, many people in Nigeria and outside thought that it would be a passing phenomenon. But Ahmad Sani, the young Governor of the State, overnight became one of the most popular politicians in the north. One by one, all Governors of the Hausa-Fulani-dominated northern part of the country adopted the Sharia law. Sani had won the Governor election in a tightly contested race on the pledge of instituting the Sharia law.

With new elections next year, it would have been politically suicidal for the other Governors in the north not to have followed suit. However, the Muslim political elite in the north are not enthusiastic about Sharia though they have not openly opposed it. Even progressive Muslim politicians like the former governor of Kaduna, Balarabe Musa, have remained silent. Some of them concede privately that the tough Sharia laws keep their fellow citizens from crime and from being sexually promiscuous. They point to the AIDS epidemic in other African countries such as Uganda and South Africa.

However, almost all Nigerian politicians have been forthright in their condemnation of the riots. A renowned Islamic scholar condemned the actions of Muslims who attacked and killed Christians. He pointed out that the victims had nothing to do with the "blasphemous'' publication. "Those who carried out that attack at this period of Ramzan cannot be regarded as true Muslims,'' he said.

President Obasanjo, while apologising to the Muslim community for the article, said that the events in Kaduna and Abuja had dampened the government's efforts to attract foreign investments. The Nigerian government, like the governments in many other developing countries, thinks that the hosting of the contest would give it added credibility in the global marketplace. In the last decade the global beauty sweepstakes have very few takers in the West. Its allure is mainly confined to developing countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

THE venue of the contest has now been shifted to London, but the contest is still dogged by controversy. Actress and Labour Member of Parliament, Glenda Jackson has called for the scrapping of the contest. "The best thing to do after such fratricide and bloodletting is to cancel the whole competition,'' she said. The feminist writer Germaine Greer said that the prospect of holding the contest in London was "horrifying''. The novelist Kathy Lette compared the contest to "a cargo of nuclear waste shunned by all,'' while another writer, Muriel Gray, said that the participants would be "wearing swimwear dripping in blood''.

The recent incidents could have an adverse impact on Obasanjo's political future. He has already announced that he will run again for the Presidency in the election in March next year. In 1999, Obasanjo won overwhelmingly in the north, despite the fact that he is a Christian Yoruba from the south. In fact, his Yoruba brethren decisively voted against him. In the last presidential election there was no Muslim candidate from the North in the fray. The political elite had decided that it was the turn of a non-Muslim to be the Head of the State. It has been a long-standing, and some would say, legitimate grouse of many Nigerians that power has been for long monopolised by the Hausa-Fulanis from the north.

For the forthcoming elections, candidates from the North have already thrown their hats in the ring. There are indications that the support that Obasanjo received last time in the north has long since dissipated. This time the south and the east, dominated by the Yorubas and the Igbos, may plump for him, and this possibility has raised fears of a widening of the north-south divide. Former President Ibrahim Babangida has strongly criticised the Obasanjo presidency. "I believe that there has been a failure of public policy agenda coupled with a poverty of leadership. It may be debatable whether Nigerians have experienced good leadership since 1999 in terms of forging national integration among multiple ethnic nationalities in the country,'' said the former military ruler. However, many Nigerians blame Babangida as the "evil genius'' responsible for precipitating the downward slide of Nigeria, starting with his acquiescence of the International Monetary Fund's restructuring programme and his unnecessary overhauling of the bureaucracy, which involved the entry of the private sector into the civil service. He was the man who denied the late Mashood Abiola the Presidency by annulling the election he had legitimately won. Many Nigerians from the south have felt alienated from the system since then.

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