IN Kano state, religious police known as Hisbah are violating the freedom of many Nigerians in the name of religion. The Hisbah operation also is characterised by hypocrisy and preference to persecute the working-class residents of the state. The ICIR’s Lukman ABOLADE reports.
At around 11 p.m. one Sunday evening in June 2021, a student of Bayero University, Kano Racheal James* and her three other roommates, were having dinner in their sitting room when they began to hear loud knocks on the door and voices shouting ‘open this door’ in Hausa language.
“They were banging the door like they wanted to break in, telling us to open the door. When they came in, I was scared because they held long machetes and big long sticks called (Gora). I felt they were going to kill me,” Racheal said.
She told The ICIR that it took her a few minutes to recognise that the men who broke into their apartment were the Hisbah religious police officers.
The Hisbah in Kano is religious police established by the state government to enforce Sharia laws among Muslims.
Racheal said one of the Hisbah officers pulled her by her hair when she refused to follow them into their patrol van.
“I did not want to follow them; one of them just pulled me by my hair and dragged me into their Peugeot van that midnight,” she narrated.
Racheal and her roommates inquired what offence they had committed; the Hisbah officers said she was cohabiting with male students.
A day in Hisbah cell
After their arrests, the Hisbah officers went to other houses in the community to enforce more arrests that night.
“When we eventually got to their office, they kept us in a room that night and took the guys elsewhere, and early in the morning, they took us to another place where they kept other persons they had arrested,” Racheal said.
She told The ICIR that there were many young female children of about eight, ten and fifteen years old that the Hisbah Police arrested.
Racheal said a pregnant child aged about 15 years was locked up with chains and padlock inside the cell.
They said she escaped from her husband’s house, so they beat her up tied her legs with heavy chains and padlock; even though she was pregnant, they still beat her up, and she was bleeding. It was terrible,” she said.
She noted that most of the children in the female section had spent about one month in the cell.
On Thursday evening, Racheal was asked to sign an undertaking that she would not stay with men anymore or be charged to court.
“They wrote it themselves and told me to sign under it, I was later released on Thursday evening around 8:30 p.m., by then I had already missed my test.
“I explained to them how it was difficult for me to get the apartment, but they did not listen and said I had just two weeks to vacate the place even though I had paid for it. Now I have to leave there, and I don’t have money to get another apartment, and my exams are close,” she said.
Racheal added that the doctrine of Shariah does not apply to her because she practises Christianity.
In the same school was another 23-year-old lady, Hikmah*, who had also had a rough encounter with the Hisbah police. She also had to pay her ‘sin’.
Hikmah told The ICIR that while her exams were approaching, she visited her coursemates that evening to study together.
While they were in the room studying, the Hisbah police, in their usual manner, stormed the house and arrested them.
“Their patrol vans did not have seats; we were thrown at the back like criminals as they drove to their station. I was so embarrassed. They treated us like animals,” Hikmah said.
She said that when they got to the Hisbah station, they were asked to pay N20,000 for their bail.
“I asked why I had to pay, but they said it’s how they do things. I had exams to write the next day, so I had to pay. The four of us contributed N5,000 each, and we were released.
“Although I am a Muslim, I don’t know why I cannot visit my male friends to study together, and I don’t know where the Qur’an says that,” she said.
Earlier in March, there were reports that Hisbah officers invaded an off-campus hostel in Kano and arrested female students.
The arrested students said HIV and pregnancy tests were forcefully conducted on them, an allegation denied by the Hisbah Board.
Aside from students, other residents in the state have also had ugly encounters with Hisbah police in Kano State.
Samson Isah is a Master of Ceremony (MC) based in Kano state. He had just secured a promotion contract for Gold Foam Nigeria Limited to mark its 14th anniversary.
He organised a show in the metropolis of Kano where he had dancers and played music to call the attention of residents.
“The DJ was playing music, and all of a sudden, some men came around, and one of them said we violated their law – the Hisbah law. They said we’ve violated their law because the girls were dancing. The translation was that we’re teaching the children how to do immoral things,” Isah said.
Isah said two vehicles moved in and arrested him alongside 11 others, including the dancers.
He and the 11 others were eventually arraigned before court for immorality.
“We pleaded not guilty because we didn’t do anything wrong. We were only doing a show, giving out gifts: shirts, pens etc. But the Hisbah men showed the judge a video clip of the girls dancing. And the judge said we violated the Sharia law and sentenced us to six months in prison or pay a fine of N100,000 each without a lawyer,” Isah said.
When they eventually got a lawyer, Isah said it was already too late for the trial to continue, and they were remanded at Gandu prison in Kano.
The prison officials shaved off the hair of the men while the ladies were made to lose their hairdo but were released the following day.
“The most annoying part is that, despite the fact that all of us were Christians, we were tried under Shari’ah law because we’re living in Kano.
“I see it as an injustice because we didn’t steal anything, we didn’t fight anybody, we didn’t harass anyone, but we’re still judged even when the advert for the anniversary was aired on Radio.
“I didn’t spend more than 24hrs the cell, but it’s as if I spent six months there. The condition of the environment is not something I would wish for my enemy,” Isah said.
The Kano Hisbah was established in 2003 as religious police to enforce Shariah laws for Muslims in the state.
Shariah law is in practice in 16 states of the Northern part of Nigeria, including the FCT.
According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, most Hisbah members were recruited at the local level by traditional leaders and local governments.
They ‘consists of young men with a low level of formal education, no background in law, and no training in law enforcement or procedures for arrest, investigation, or gathering of evidence’.
However, the operation of Hisbah in Kano state has been marred by hypocrisy, selective implementation and frivolity.
Recently, the media was awash with reports that the Kano Hisbah had banned mannequins with heads in the state.
According to Hisbah, Islam frowns at idolatry because the heads of the mannequins make them look like human beings.
The commander of the Hisbah in Kano Haruna Ibn-Sina also said the mannequins’ head should also be covered because the body shows the shape of the breast, bottom, and other private parts which Sharia forbids. Many residents and other Nigerians have criticised this interpretation of Sharia.
Despite its high penchant for morality and adherence to the Sharia, the Hisbah in Kano looked away when the son of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari married Zahra, daughter of the Emir of Bichi, Nasiru Ado Bayero in a colorful wedding that runs against the grain of Sharia interpretation by Hisbah.
In videos seen by The ICIR, although it was a Muslim wedding, the ceremony contained many practices for which the Hisbah persecutes ordinary Nigerians.
Secular songs that contained vulgarity were played at the wedding, and the guest danced to it, but there was no sanction by the Hisbah.
Many Nigerians criticised the religious police for their selective sanction.
Although the Hisbah claimed to be moral police, one of its officials recently was found engaging in illicit affair with a married woman in a hotel room.
Earlier this February, one of the Hisbah’s senior officials Sani Rimo, was caught with a woman in an hotel at the Sabon Gari area of Kano.
Rimo is reportedly in charge of arresting prostitutes and beggars in Kano state.
Hisbah Police is also famously known for frowning against the use and sale of alcohol in the state.
Kano state has also been known for exercising critical Islamic codes that violates human rights of Nigerian citizens.
A 13-year-old Omar Farouq was in 2020 sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for blasphemy by a Sharia court in Kano state.
In the same year, Yahaya Sharif, a 22-year-old musician, was sentenced to death by a court in Kano for blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad.
Although the sentence was eventually overturned, he spent several months in custody.
Hisbah arrests 561 residents in two years
According to data gathered by The ICIR through media reports in Nigeria, the Hisbah police arrested 561 residents in Kano state between 2020 and 2021.
The arrested suspects included students, security agents and other residents.
In 2019, the United States placed Nigeria on a special watchlist of religious persecution, according to a statement by the then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“We believe that everyone, everywhere, at all times, should have the right to live according to the dictates of their conscience.
“We will continue to challenge state and non-state entities that seek to infringe upon those fundamental rights and to ensure they are held to account for their actions,” Pompeo said.
The decision though has been reversed recently.
Lekan Bello, a lawyer, based in Abuja, told The ICIR that the invasion of people’s privacy by the Hisbah is a violation of the fundamental rights of the affected persons.
According to Bello, Nigerians’ right to private life is adequately guaranteed in section 37 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended).
He added that imposing the Shari’a law on citizens of any state without regard for the faith of non-muslims is an infringement on their right to freedom of thought and religion as provided for in section 38 of the Constitution and Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.
“The Constitution, by virtue of section one, is the grund norm and the supreme law of the land, and any law which is inconsistent with the Constitution will be void to the extent of its inconsistency.
“That same Constitution forbids a state religion and declares Nigeria a secular state. Therefore purporting to proclaim a religion as the state religion is unconstitutional, null and void,” Bello said.
He noted that invading people’s privacy at home without a legally justifiable reason and forcefully subjecting people to the laws of a religion they have not professed is unconstitutional and amounts to trampling on their fundamental human rights.
“However, it must be noted that the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution are not absolute and may be limited when a citizen has committed an offence. But even at that, no act or omission can be said to constitute an offence unless that offence and the punishment for it are stated in a written law,” he said.
The spokesperson for Hisbah in Kano state, Lawan Ibrahim, was not available for comments when filing this report.
You must obey our laws if you live in Kano
In response to questions about the activities of the Hisbah, the Kano state government said every resident of the state must obey its law irrespective of their religious or ethnic affiliation.
The Kano state commissioner for information Muhammed Garba during an interview with The ICIR said Hisbah had the mandate of the state government to arrest anyone found to be involved in ‘immoral’ activities.
“Anything that conflicts with our morals, laws and programme and Kano state, I think Hisbah has the mandate of the state government to intervene,” Garba said.
Although he initially denied that there were underage people in Hisbah custody, he eventually conceded that some of them were drug addicts.
Garba further noted that irrespective of the religious affiliations of any residents in the state, they would be arrested according to the state’s laws.
He said the Kano state government has been tolerant of all residents’ religious and ethnic affiliations in the state.
“We engage every religion in the state activities, and we don’t discriminate. Hisbah arrests Muslims and Christians in the state once you go contrary to the laws governing the operations of Hisbah. Even if they are arrested, it’s not because they are Christians,” he said.
As Hisbah’s regime of moral policing in Kano continues, it’s an uneasy survival for Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the state.
“This story was produced with the support of the International
Center for Journalists (ICFJ), in partnership with Code for Africa and Ayin Network.”