Two trending events bring to light the serial violation of human rights in Nigeria by agents of the state. In Kebbi State, the religious police, Hisbah, released “guidelines” that blatantly violate basic rights in its mission to enforce criminal aspects of Sharia law on residents of the North-West state. A few days earlier, video clips and photographs shared nationally and around the world depicted Kano State Hisbah operatives shaving the hair of young men arrested for donning stylish hairstyles they felt did not meet their religious inclination. Such impunity has no place in a multi-religious, democratic society guided by the rule of law and the constitution.
When impudence goes unchallenged, its perpetrators become emboldened to trample at will on the rights of their victims. Kebbi State follows this template. Having been tolerated when, like 11 other northern states, it passed controversial religious ordinances in defiance of the constitution, the state’s Hisbah has gone further. News media reported that it has now banned stylish haircuts, sagging of trousers and playing of music at social events. It also banned commercial tricycles and motorcycles from carrying two women as passengers. This is ridiculous, but not new to Nigerians.
Such theatre of the absurd has been standard fare since Zamfara blazed the trail by introducing criminal aspects of Sharia law in 2000. In Kano, photos and videos had emerged showing the Hisbah men forcibly shaving the hair of young men they had arrested for sporting “un-Islamic” hairstyles. They also routinely arrest, detain and punish youths for alleged “improper dressing” and for posting photographs and posters on their tricycles that they imperiously declare to be obscene. Choice of dressing, hairstyles and assembly are constitutionally guaranteed personal, fundamental rights. The morality police are a misnomer in a multi-religious or a secular society. These provocations have gone far enough.
Really, Hisbah and these state governments are acting in defiance of the constitution. In January 2014, the Kano State Hisbah Board boasted that 2013 was for it “a wonderful year” during which it destroyed over 200,000 bottles of beer seized across the state’s 44 local government areas in addition to prosecuting its owners. It has continued this practice; in September 2019, it gleefully announced the destruction of another 196,400 bottles of beer and 12 trucks ferrying alcoholic beverages into the state. Neighbouring Jigawa State in August said its Hisbah seized and destroyed 588 bottles of beer in Ringim LGA. The international community was scandalised by the recent death sentence on a singer and a 10-year prison term on a 13-year-old boy for “blasphemy” by Kano Sharia courts.
In May 2018, then Governor Abdulaziz Yari signed into law a bill authorising the Zamfara State Hisbah Commission to “arrest, interrogate and search residences or items where it suspects anti-Sharia activities or substances banned by Sharia are being kept.” Ironically, Yari announced this unabashed promotion of religion to mark “Democracy Day” as part of his “achievements.”
These activities and the laws that enable them stand in violation of the 1999 Constitution and should be challenged. While it permits customary and Sharia family and communal civil law, Section 10 unambiguously declares that the “Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” Declarations by some governors to compel Sharia-compliance in their states circumvent this. Banning perfectly legal activities in a secular republic such as production and sale of alcohol, dressing styles and peaceful assembly and social mixing of the sexes, are flagrant rights violations.
These rules infringe on fundamental rights set out in Chapter IV of the constitution such as personal liberty; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; expression; peaceful assembly and association, and freedom from discrimination. The President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should rise above personal considerations and order the Nigeria Police to stop collaborating with the Hisbah in violating Nigerians’ fundamental rights.
It is ironic that it is precisely those sections of the country that vehemently oppose amending the constitution to facilitate state policing that have created religious state police. Hypocritically, they have also opposed the South-West regional security outfit, Amotekun. Human Rights Watch noted that penalties under criminal Sharia law in Nigeria amounted “to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.” It cited arbitrariness, infringement of the rights of non-Muslims, ill-prepared judges, violation of the right to fair hearing and failure of the entire enforcement process to conform to international human rights standards.
Nigeria is a signatory to international compacts such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; it subscribes to the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. These commitments have to be enforced. The police can no longer justify their involvement in enforcing rules that effectively deprive many Nigerians the right to move freely or live in some states of the federation where their lawful activities are circumscribed. Nigeria is moving towards breaking point by such rascality.
Incidentally, the states where Hisbah holds sway are also the most wretched. The North-East states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe are ruined by terrorism; the seven North-West states have the highest poverty rates in the country, while drug abuse, prostitution and banditry have spiked in the region according to a joint study by the National Bureau of Statistics and UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The economies of the two zones are ruined and over two million persons are displaced. Clearly, the country needs state and local policing, not politically-motivated religious police.
Hisbah’s coercive disciplinary functions should be curtailed. Even in Saudi Arabia, things are changing for the better on morality policing. Reuters reported in 2016 that Saudi Arabia had barred its religious police from pursuing suspects or making arrests, curbing the powers of an institution whose aggressive enforcement of the Islamic kingdom’s strict morality rules has drawn criticism from more liberal Saudis. From then on, “members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was no longer allowed to pursue, question, request identification from or arrest suspects,” Reuters reported.
Nigeria is a plural society and no religious organisation has the right to enforce its moral values on others. Those whose rights are being violated should, therefore, seek redress in the courts and challenge the unjust laws. Freedom, said the American statesman, Benjamin Franklin, “is not a gift bestowed on us by other men,” but a right worth defending. Civil society organisations should step up their advocacy, enlightenment and defence of the victims, who invariably are often the youth and the less privileged.