Exploring 15 years of Sharia implementation in northern Nigeria

A research project led by the Nigeria Research Network at ODID set out to explore the trajectories and consequences of Sharia implementation in northern Nigeria between 2000 and 2015. Late last year we published the findings in a series of research papers and policy briefs.

We focussed on six key areas: the consequences for gender relations; the courts; the hisbah ‘enforcement’ police; the institutions of zakat and waqf (loosely, alms and endowments); the impact on the ulama (Muslim clerics); and wider public perceptions of Sharia implementation. The results threw up a number of interesting findings.  

Firstly, we found that some of the more alarming expectations around Sharia implementation do not appear to have been realised.

We found that Islamic criminal law was not being imposed on non-Muslims against their will, and serious punishments such as amputations and stoning to death were rarely being imposed – and where they were imposed, were not being executed.

The Sharia courts were generally working to the satisfaction of the people they served, although there were clearly problems – notably, defendants often did not know their basic rights and no one was required by law to inform them, nor was there any requirement to provide legal representation for those who could not afford it. Poor administration, record-keeping and data collection were also an issue.

Equally, while the hisbah were carrying out the controversial coercive activities related to public morality with which they are often negatively associated – such as enforcing dress codes, preventing the performance of music and films etc – and remain a source of some anxiety for some Muslims and non-Muslims, they also perform an important social welfare function for those neglected by the state.

Hisbah carried out a surprisingly wide range of religious and social activities, from the more expected, such as evangelical functions, the repair of mosques and the protection of people at religious events etc to the less obvious, such as traffic control, promoting science exhibitions, organising workshops on drug addiction etc – among many other activities. In fact in some states – for example Kano – hisbah legislation had no particular focus on Sharia implementation at all.

Overall, we found hisbah varied in character significantly across states and were highly adapted to different local contexts. Attitudes towards the institution were quite mixed across states too: in Niger, only 19.7% felt hisbah were more trustworthy than the police, compared with 84.3% in Kano; only 18.8% of respondents in Niger felt they treated women fairly, compared with 88.4% in Kano. However few respondents felt they should be disbanded (1.3% in Niger vs 4.7% in Kano).

We found that the collection of zakat and waqf also varied widely across states – with significant differences in the legislative framework and collection and distribution processes.

Efficiency was frequently hampered by an absence of information or agreement about some of the basic parameters of collection, such as the level of zakat, the amount of “zakatable” wealth in a community, or the level of poverty that needed alleviating. We also found that collection from waqf – which has been used effectively in many Muslim countries to fund the construction of schools, hospitals and universities – was negligible. As a result, one of our recommendations is for the establishment of proper university training programmes in zakat and waqf administration and management in Nigeria.

Turning to gender dimension, we found that women were major users of Sharia courts, mainly to resolve interpersonal, marital and family disputes: they constituted over 70% of the complainants at some courts. The courts were thus an important forum of access to justice for Muslim women, who we found benefitted from the speedy, familiar, non-technical, and comparatively user-friendly processes of the Sharia courts. The limited surveys that have been conducted in relation to some Sharia courts showed women’s user satisfaction levels ranging from 52% to 89% over a period of five years.

However, we also found that women were poorly represented in the Sharia judiciaries. In Jigawa and Kano States, for example, women formed less than 3% of the staff and no women have been appointed as Sharia court judges in any of the Sharia states. Women also faced a number of obstacles to using the courts, including the cost, and cultural attitudes that discourage the use of litigation to claim rights.

We also found that women turned to hisbah for dispute resolution: in Kano, it is estimated that 70% of the disputes being mediated by hisbah were family and matrimonial cases brought by women. Representation of women among hisbah personnel was also greater than in the court system.

In addition, women appear to be particular beneficiaries of the zakat and waqf institutions – especially widows – although this had only limited impact on generally high levels of female poverty.

Now the findings of our research are being presented to policy-makers via a series of policy dialogues in the hope that some of this new body of knowledge can contribute towards continuing improvement in the Sharia system in northern Nigeria and informing interfaith relations.

Find out more:

Policy Brief No 1 - The Sharia Courts

Policy Brief No 2 - The Case of Hisbah

Policy Brief No 3 - Zakat & Waqf Institutions

Policy Brief No 4 - Impact on Women

Policy Brief No 5 - The Roles of Ulama


In October 1999, Zamfara in the north became the first Nigerian state to reintroduce full Sharia law and by the end of 2001, 11 other northern states had followed suit.

The introduction of full Sharia – Islamic law had previously been limited to civil matters – raised fears of the Islamization of society and sparked a wave of inter-religious violence that claimed thousands of lives and the destruction of properties. But what has actually happened in the years since implementation?