Sharia, Violence and Nigeria

In the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna renewed religious violence has left at least 300 people dead.

Thousands had taken shelter in army and police barracks, terrified to move out into the dangerous streets.

James Wuye, national coordinator for the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum, said: "There are silent killings still going on, making the actual death toll difficult. But information from Christian and Muslim brothers give a death toll of 300." There were also reports that more than 1,000 buildings had been burned down in the riots, the second outbreak in three months in Kaduna.

In late February, hundreds of people died after fighting between Christians and Muslims erupted over proposals to expand the jurisdiction of sharia Islamic Law. Tension has remained high in the city since then, although the causes of the latest outbreak of violence are not clear.

Unlike in February, the fighting has been restricted to the poorer, densely inhabited neighbourhoods, and Kaduna city centre has not been affected. Churches and mosques have been set on fire, and eyewitnesses say rival gangs of Christian and Muslim youths have been burning and hacking each other to death. The authorities have imposed a curfew and promised to deal firmly with any troublemakers.

Religious and ethnic tensions threaten the stability of the most populous nation in Africa, and the regular outbreaks of violence which have dogged President Olusegun Obasanjo during his first year in office have undermined confidence in the new democracy. Of immediate concern to the authorities now will be that the violence does not spread from Kaduna, as it did in February.

Thousands of Ibo people, who originally came from south-eastern Nigeria, fled from the north in February and March in fear of their lives. Ibo youths then carried out reprisal killings of Muslim northerners in the south-eastern cities of Aba, Owerri and Umuahia.

This time, Aba is again particularly tense. A march on Monday by Ibo extremists who wish to resurrect the breakaway state of Biafra attracted thousands of youths. Police were later reported to have shot two of them, provoking angry demonstrations, and forcing Muslims to seek shelter in police and army barracks.

Mr Obasanjo is trying to heal the ethnic and religious rifts to prevent any further violence. He has always said he is not surprised by the unrest that has accompanied Nigeria's return to democracy after 15 years of dictatorial military rule.

He has blamed hidden forces and powerful vested interests bent on destabilising his government because of his much-heralded war on corruption. He said: "What we are going through is a revolution of some sort, and we expected those people who have done wrong in the past will probably fight back." But the President was criticised earlier this year for his initial inaction on the sharia issue, despite the fact that it had been raising tensions for months.

Last October, the northern state of Zamfara announced plans to expand the scope of sharia. Islamic law is already incorporated into aspects of family and civil law in northern Nigeria, but Ahmed Sani, Zamfara's Governor, said he also intended to operate a sharia criminal code. This includes punishments such as amputation for theft, and flogging or stoning to death for adultery.

With widespread support from the Muslim majority in Zamfara, Mr Sani introduced sharia in late January. Although he has stressed that it is to apply only to Muslims, certain measures, such as bans on alcohol and public music, and the closure of all cinemas, have impinged on the lives of a nervous Christian minority.

Soon other northern states followed Zamfara's example; at least three more governors passed legislation expanding the scope of sharia, and others seemed likely to follow. The violence in February put those plans on hold.