Kano ready to enforce sharia rule

Kano - Business was good in the taverns of Kano as the city's football fanatics gathered to watch the English FA Cup quarterfinals this weekend, and as the beer sellers stacked crate after crate of empties back onto their trucks they seemed unaware that this might be one of their last loads.

The government of northern Nigeria's biggest city - part sprawling warren of mudbrick neighbourhoods, part modern trading centre - insists it is finally getting ready to get serious about the application of Islamic sharia law, just over three years after millions of cheering Muslims celebrated its return.

"In the past week someone caught drinking was caned on the back with 100 strokes as sharia requires. The police prosecuted the case," boasted Sule Ya'u Sule, Kano State's genial young spokesperson, welcoming a small victory for Governor Ibrahim Shekerau's policy of gradually involving sharia in all aspects of his rule.

This past week's case should be a minor incident in an unruly yet conservative city, but in reality it marks a significant shift, Sule said; the unlucky drunk's prosecution was overseen by Nigeria's federal police force, acting in co-operation with Kano State's Islamist vigilante force, the Hisba.

Once a gang of street toughs loosely organised by the mosques to enforce Islamic morals, the Hisba has been brought under Shekarau's wing as a paid arm of law enforcement; reporting un-Islamic activity to the police for punishment. Kano's Christian minority could be the next to suffer their wrath.

For although sharia is not meant to apply to non-Muslims, Sule says that the state is determined to enforce the law banning the sale of alcohol, whether it be in the crowded beer parlours of Kano's Christian ghetto, Sabon Gari, or in the high-class hotels serving expatriate traders and the political elite.

"Two weeks ago the sharia commission called all the hoteliers to State House. They were given a period of time to dispose of these things. I think it was three months," he smiled.

Sabon Gari - "New Town" in the Hausa lingua franca of northern Nigeria and the adjoining region running along the southern edge of the Sahara desert - looked dingy and grey as the dust clouds kicked up by the annual Harmattan wind bleached out the normally scorching sunlight.

Refuse fills the potholed roads and the smell of melting rubber from the tyre vulcanises mixes with human waste and stale beer on Ibadan Road as traders, Christians from southern Nigeria's Igbo ethnic group, stack crates ready for their return to the Kronenbourg brewery in Kaduna for refilling.

Behind the trucks, thousands more crates stand in warehouses ready for departure; thousands more than the small Christian community could ever empty on its own. For, while Igbo traders play sharia's rules to their comparative advantage, the Muslim Hausa are their best customers, locals admitted.

Maureen, a strapping young Igbo woman, was born in Sabon Gari. Her wholesale business was started by her mother, and she knows nothing else. There have been warnings of a crackdown before, and she is unmoved by the prospect of Kano's renewed Islamic zeal: "There's never any problems here," she grinned.

Across the road, an Igbo businessman who would not give his name was unimpressed at the news that the police have been brought on board for the clean-up operation. "We pay the police to escort our beer waggons," he shrugged, totting up the receipts from another weekend's roaring trade.

But there have been problems in Kano's recent past. In 2001 when United States forces were preparing to strike Afghanistan to root out the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, angry Muslim youths raided Sabon gari and triggered a riot that left some 30 dead.

In Kano's neighbouring northern cities - Kaduna and Jos - more than 4 000 people have been killed in clashes between Christians and Muslims since 1999.

And even some Muslim leaders fear that this time the authorities could push their zeal too far and trigger violent unrest, in part because of the rising influence of Saudi-funded ultraconservative Wahhabi Muslims in the government.

"They need to send them packing, because of the dangers and distress they bring among Muslims, which could explode into violence," said Sheik Musalqasiyuni Nasir Kabara, one of the local leaders of the moderate Qadiriyya sect, part of the Sufi mystic tradition in Islam.

"We abhor alcohol, on that the sects converge, there's no doubt about that," he said. "The point of difference is how to go about solving the problem of the sale of beer. The beers are largely drunk by Muslims.

"The issue is now to convince the Muslims to hold to Islam. If the Muslims now withdraw from Sabon Gari, they will have less customers there, and they will have to change their way of life, or move on," he advised.

But instead, he warned, Kano has fallen under the rule of hardliners determined to force a confrontation. The result, he fears, will be bloody: "Whatever Wahabbis are involved in, historically it's all about violence and causing trouble, look at what happened in Afghanistan."

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