The Nigerian government says intelligence agents have found that Kano state in northern Nigeria was seeking foreign support to train 100 jihadists among vigilante enforcers of Islamic law.
The state sought to train the militants in "intelligence" and the "practice of jihad " with the help of foreign Islamic governments, said Nigerian Information and National Orientation Minister Frank Nweke Jr. The government had previously accused the state of seeking militant aid from Iran and Libya, which Kano officials have denied.
In its broadest sense jihad means "struggle," referring to the Muslim struggle for righteousness, though that can include armed struggle, and Nigerian officials employed the term in that narrower sense.
In a press statement on February 9 in Abuja, Nweke Jr. announced a ban on the vigilantes, called Hisbah, that enforce Islamic law (sharia) in several northern states. Nweke Jr. said that the Hisbah volunteers usurp the federal government's law enforcement role.
"The establishment of Hisbah is in violation of the provisions of Section 214, subsection 1 of the 1999 Constitution, which recognized the Nigeria Police Force as the only agency so entrusted with the policing of the federation," Nweke Jr. said. "The federal government wishes to state emphatically that it will not tolerate the establishment of unconstitutional and illegal security outfits by governments, groups or individuals in any part of the country under any guise."
Nigerian Inspector General of Police Sunday Ehindero said in a separate press statement that the existence of Hisbah agencies in Kano and other northern states undermines Nigeria's national security. Noting that Hisbah groups are already creating religious tension in the country, Ehindero vowed to clamp down on them if they continue their activities. Police detained Kano state's Hisbah leader and deputy last week.
Hisbah groups are most visible in Kano and Zamfara states, where they receive state support.
The government of Kano, which denied the allegations by the federal officials, responded on February 13 by filing a lawsuit with Nigeria's Supreme Court challenging the ban on Hisbah.
Kano Gov. Ibrahim Shekarau, whose Hisbah Commission trained 9,000 Islamic vigilantes last year, asserted that Kano's 2003 and 2005 laws establishing the corps were necessary to provide good governance. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to keep the federal government from interrupting Hisbah operations.
The other 11 northern states enforcing sharia are Bauchi, Gombe, Niger, Yobe, Borno, Kaduna, Katsina, Jigawa, Kebbi, Sokoto, and Zamfara.
Nigerians wait anxiously for the outcome of the legal battle, the latest in a constitutional crisis for President Olusegun Obasanjo, as it could mark a turning point in the country's religious history.
Christians in sharia states have complained of assault, harassment, intimidation, and flagrant violation of the religious rights of Christians by the Hisbah, which one leader said is a "terror machine" in the hands of fanatical Islamic governments aimed at strangulating Christianity in northern Nigeria.
The Rev. Murtala Marti Dangora, Secretary of the Kano District Church Council of the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA), said the Hisbah has been used as an instrument of coercion, intimidation, and harassment of Christians - most recently of Christian women.
"Christian women are daily being assaulted by men of the Hisbah on claims that they are not dressing in conformity with Islamic religion," Rev. Dangora said. "Why should this be the case?"
He said the Hisbah also have assaulted Christian women for riding on motorbike taxis.
"This is so even when the government is aware that there are limited means of transportation in the state," he said. Since Muslim women are in purdah (seclusion in accordance to Islamic tenets) and only Christian women are engaged in productive activities, he said, they are the only ones stopped for riding on the motorbikes taxis.
According to sharia, men and women are not allowed to travel together on public transport, though women are supposedly allowed to travel with their male relations.
But the Rev. Seth Saleh, a priest of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), said Hisbah have prohibited Christian women from traveling even with their husbands in Zamfara state.
"If you are a Christian in Gusau and you do not have a car, it is impossible for you to move with your family," he says. "You cannot travel or move together with your wife in the same car. So your wife has to trek to wherever she is going."
The Rev. James Obi, pastor of Channel of Blessings Church, Gusau, said Hisbah activities have been humiliating to the church in Zamfara.
"Cases of rape and assault of Christian women by Hisbah corps and Muslim fanatics are on the increase in this state," he said. "In December 2005, a Christian lady from the Living Faith Church here in Gusau town was attacked and pulled off from a speeding motorcycle by some Hisbah members."
She sustained injuries and was hospitalized, said Rev. Obi, who is also secretary of the Zamfara State Chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria.
"Within the same period, a Christian lady from the Roman Catholic Church here in Gusau had gone to church for mass, and on her way home, she was attacked, stripped naked, raped and beaten into coma by some Hisbah corps and Muslim fanatics," he said.
Rev. Obi says the Christian leaders in the state have taken up these cases with the Zamfara state government, to no avail.
"The government has always told us that this is an Islamic state, and they will enforce the tenets of Islam on all who live in the state, and if we don't like it we can go to hell," Obi said. "So, unless the Nigerian government acts to protect us, we have nothing to do - we are hopeless here."
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