April 2002 -- As the United States and the rest of the Western world help members of the Afghan coalition rebuild their nation, and as we pressure them to implement democratic reforms, perhaps we should stop to ask ourselves if democracy really is the best policy. The Taliban certainly brought terror and tyranny, but democracy may not be much better. After all, terror is terror, whether it is imposed by dictatorial fiat or popular election. And while it is comforting to believe that democracies don't produce tyrannies, that's not always true. Nigeria is a case in point.

Just last year, a young Nigerian man who stole a goat had his right hand amputated. A teenage Nigerian girl who says she was raped by three men was given 100 lashes in public for engaging in pre-marital sex. Then men from the audience that came to watch her brutalization presented themselves, and she was forced to marry one of them. Of course, now that she is married she doesn't have to worry about being whipped if she's raped—if a woman is raped while married, it is considered adultery. Last June, Sufiyatu Huseini was convicted of adultery by a Nigerian court. Although she is legally divorced, under Nigerian law her pregnancy was considered prima facie evidence of her guilt as an adulteress. She gave birth to her daughter and was sentenced to death. By stoning.

Although Huseini later was acquitted, the law against adultery—and the punishment—remains on the books. While Huseini's acquittal has received international praise, there is little cause for celebration. The Nigerian court overturned the verdict, not the punishment. Had the court found that there was indeed sufficient evidence to indicate Huseini's daughter was not fathered by her then-husband, she would have been stoned. In fact, just a few days before Huseini's acquittal, another woman, Amina Lawal Kurami, was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.

Such atrocities are not unique to Nigeria. They are the law of the land in countries that enforce Islamic law (shari'a). Last December, 18-year-old Abok Alfa Akok was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in the Sudan, and two women were stoned to death in Iran last year. Shari'a is also the law of the land in Libya, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia. What makes Nigeria different is that—unlike in other countries where shari'a has been imposed by either dictatorial fiat (Libya) or a relatively small religious elite (Iran)—Nigeria's shari'a was introduced democratically in response to a grassroots political movement.

Ironically, the imposition of shari'a in Nigeria would have been impossible if not for the end of military rule in 1999. Nigeria is an ethnically divided nation. Northern Nigeria is predominantly Muslim, while southern Nigeria is mostly Animist and Christian. It was only after the fall of the dictatorship that the northern states were "free" enough to oppress themselves with such a vengeance. Of course, the military dictatorship was brutal and tyrannical, and the decades of political turmoil that preceded were no picnic either. Things just haven't been the same for Nigeria since the British left in 1960.

And that's the rub. For all of its downsides, imperialism was the best thing that ever happened to Nigeria. The British brought with them to Nigeria a respect for individual rights, a rational basis for law, and at least some semblance of criminal justice. Unfortunately, they also took all that with them when they left. The result is that Nigeria is trying to build a political and legal house of cards. It's using all the right tools—a constitution, a democracy, etc.—but it lacks the cultural foundation on which to establish those institutions. Most notably, the culture has no respect for individual liberty. Self-determination and democracy are great things, but self-governance works only if the people know what they are doing. In Nigeria, politicians adopt the shari'a as a public demonstration of their commitment to Islam. The amputations, lashings, and stonings are just public relations. After all, even Sufiyatu Huseini believed that her "fate in this matter is in the hands of Allah."

Of course, Huseini's fate, and the fate of women like her, is not in the hands of Allah. It is in the hands of men like Attorney General Aliyu Abubakar Sanyinna, who believes that "adultery is more serious than murder" and speculates idly whether it would be better if victims were tied to a tree or stoned in a pit.

Her fate is in the hands of men like Mnsur Ibrahim Sa'id, dean of the law faculty at Dan Fodio University, who helped draft the new legal code. Like the attorney general, he says that he would be happy to throw the first stone. And to his mind, the punishment satisfies more than just his interests. In a spectacularly offensive twist of logic, he muses, "If she is stoned to death, she is content." It is, after all, the will of Allah.

It's also the will of the people. The shari'a is enforced by officials elected by a democratic Nigeria. This is the barbarism that its people enjoy and accept. And, frankly, if this is what Nigerians do with democracy, they don't deserve it. After four decades of independence from Britain, they still are not ready for self-rule. Civilized cultures do not practice female circumcision, and they don't amputate limbs. Civilized societies don't force children to marry men who attend public beatings, and they don't throw rape victims into a pit and stone them to death. Democracy cannot remake a corrupt and debasing culture; it can only give that culture political voice. Even worse, in today's world, democracy can lend a vicious, cruel, medieval custom worldwide credibility. Inasmuch as it covers the barbarism of stoning with a patina of mock justice, Huseini's acquittal may be used in that way.

The United Nations will do nothing, and we shouldn't expect it to. For all the UN's bluster about human rights, it is the same organization that gave Yassir Arafat the status of statesman and elected Sudan and Sierra Leone to the Human Rights Council. The UN also supervised Nigeria's transition to democracy.

A copy of the UN declaration of human rights even hangs in Mnsur Ibrahim Sa'id's office. When asked if the law he helped draft might violate the UN's position against cruel and inhuman treatment, he responds, "You have to decide what amounts to cruelty and take into account the religious background. What yardstick are you using? You have to know if the people who use this law see it as cruel and inhuman." His statement is all the more frightening because it is not the ranting of a fundamentalist zealot but the calm pseudo-logic of a moral subjectivist. Maybe the UN has had a big impact in Nigeria.

And if the UN is not the solution for Nigeria's problems, neither is America. American military occupation is not the best alternative for America or Americans. It would be expensive, risky, and difficult, and it might accomplish nothing. Besides, America isn't responsible for the welfare of Nigerians, nor for that matter the welfare of Sudanese, Somalis, Rwandans, or any other oppressed people.

The sad fact is that Nigeria will have to rescue itself, and that may take a long time. But in our zeal to help install new democratic regimes around the Third World, we should remember that democracy is no substitute for justice. And sometimes, in an attempt to secure the former, we sacrifice the latter.


This article was originally published in the April 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

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