After being the first state in Nigeria to introduce the Sharia as the administrative and penal code in October 1999, Zamfara State again took their pioneer status to new level on May 29, 2018 when the governor, Abdulaziz Yari, signed into law a bill that confers greater powers to the state Hisbah Commission, the religious police that enforces Sharia. In Yari’s words, the new law “gives the Hisbah Commission the power to arrest, interrogate and search residences or items where they suspect anti-Sharia activities or substances banned by Sharia are being kept.”
The added powers to the Hisbah Commission are quite sweeping in conception and application as it’s operatives can now search, arrest and interrogate persons they deem to harbour “substances banned by Sharia” or engage in “anti-Sharia activities” in their residences or items where it’s operatives suspect are being kept. Without professing it outright, the government of Zamfara State has effectively set up a full fledged state police, albeit with religious colouration.
First, the daring of the state has made debates on state police a fait accompli. It is no longer a question of if but the institutional and operational parameters for running a state police. Amazingly, since the bill was signed into law, there has been disquiet about it at every level of government. Under the platform of religion, Zamfara has, in reality, set up its own police now that Hisbah personnel can search, arrest and interrogate.
However, the enhanced powers of the Commission raise some questions bordering on civil rights and liberties. Can Hisbah operatives storm the homes and offices of Nigerians living in the state irrespective of their religious persuasion? Governor Yari did not give an insight into the level of application of the new powers conferred on the commission. But going by the enforcement of the Sharia code since its adoption by the state in 1999, the law will be applied without deference to the religious plurality of residents of the state.
The earlier version of the Sharia law had limited its application to adherents of Islam, at least at the point of prosecution of suspects. But a sweeping power to search, arrest and interrogate is a different ball game. If homes and private business premises of non-Moslems are unilaterally searched and arrests made, issues on trampling of civil rights as enshrined in the 1999 constitution will be thrown up.
Secondly, it is time for a national dialogue on not if the establishment of state police is imperative but to evolve the template, modalities for their setting up, range of powers to be conferred on them as well as their relationship with the federal police. While the states in the southern part of the country have been advocating the setting up of state police, their counterparts in the north have been quieting but progressively setting up theirs even though they are dressed in religious garb. When individuals can no longer engage in businesses that relate to sale of alcoholic beverages to willing adults, when the Sharia code now guides some civil relationships, then state police is effectively being introduced.
This time, Zamfara’s enhanced Sharia law has profoundly chipped off some of the pillars of liberty in our federal constitution.
The surge in the application of religious laws aside, it has been generally acknowledged that crime is local and so is the solution. In the past three years, virtually every section of the country has been contending with serious security challenges that have stretched the nation’s police beyond its capacity. The deployment of police personnel to areas where they are not familiar with the environment has been one of the impediments to policing. In response, the federal government has resorted to deploying combat troops who are now in every zone of the country for assignments the police is better suited to undertake. The deployment of the army to mix inexorably with civilians has come with a lot of collateral damage that have tended to dent the perception of our military in the area of respect for personal liberties.
The introduction of state police is one of the critical components of the restructuring of the country to put it on the path to a more perfect union and enable us overcome emerging challenges in nation building. It begins with streamlining the Zamfara venture and laying the guidelines for introducing state police in a manner that will preserve and respect our plurality and uphold constitutional liberties.