Cablegate: Nigeria's Special Brand of Islam

Published: Tue 20 Jul 2004 02:21 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) SUMMARY. The Ambassador met with the
Secretary General of the Nigeria Supreme Council
for Islamic Affairs Lateef Adegbite in early July
to discuss the nature of Islam in Nigeria,
including procedural safeguards inherent in Sharia
law, the urgent need to restart of the polio
vaccination campaign in the north, and religious
reconciliation. Adegbite's outspoken support for
Obasanjo may reflect that they are both Yoruba and
from the same district. Adegbite distanced the
practice of Islam in Nigeria from terrorism,
emphasizing the religious tolerance that
characterizes Islam in Yorubaland and, he said,
other parts of the nation. Adegbite represents
the moderate, tolerant Yoruba brand of Islam that
is anathema to the more fundamentalist Islamic
thought found in northern Nigeria. END SUMMARY.
2. (SBU) The Ambassador met with the Secretary
General of the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic
Affairs, Dr. Lateef Adegbite on July 1 in Lagos.
Adegbite opened by saying that Nigeria is making
progress on the issues of Sharia law and
Muslim/Christian reconciliation. Adegbite asserted
that the nature of Islam in Nigeria has nothing to
do with terrorism. He expressed concern over a
perceived "blacklisting" of Nigerian Muslims as
supporters of terrorism by outsiders. Adegbite
emphasized that Nigeria's own brand of Islam is
non-violent, and that its Muslims have never
harbored or supported secret patrons of terrorism.
Adegbite said assistance from various
organizations outside Africa to build mosques and
schools has dried up as a result of Nigerian
Islam's false association with terrorism.
Adegbite underscored that the practice of Islam in
Nigeria is different from other parts of the
Muslim world.
3. (SBU) Adegbite offered his historical
perspective on Nigeria's religious conflicts over
the past decade. He recalled conflict over
Sharia law in 1981 in Kaduna and Jos, which
overflowed into Plateau State. He stated that
current religious disturbances are often political
or ethnic in nature, like those past events.
4. (SBU) Adegbite discussed the current conflict
in Plateau, which began in 2001. He suggested
that the conflict stems from the indigenous
population's monopoly hold on government jobs that
excludes more recent immigrants to the state.
Adegbite described the indigenous communities of
Plateau as mostly Christian and the immigrants as
mostly Muslim. He stated that the immigrants,
feeling disenfranchised, vent their anger by
attacking rival religious institutions. While the
conflict in Plateau appears to be religious, its
root causes are rivalries between "indigenes" and
newcomers that are often expressed in ethnic and
religious terms. As for the historical conflicts
between the indigenous farmers and immigrant
herders, economic competition and employment are
also important underlying factors.
5. (SBU) Adegbite discussed the activities of the
Nigerian Inter-Religious Council, a Muslim and
Christian group with a mission of religious
reconciliation. Founded five years ago by Muslim
imams and Christian preachers to intervene
positively in the Sharia crisis, it is a
grassroots effort by 25 Christians and 25 Muslims,
the highest-ranking religious leaders in Nigeria,
who work to defuse religious issues. The
Council's coordinator is Professor Obaje,
President Obasanjo's Chaplain. The Sultan of
Sokoto is also a member of the Council.
6. (SBU) Adegbite cited the practice of Islam in
Yorubaland as an example of successful religious
coexistence both with Christianity and traditional
Yoruba religion. He characterized the Yoruba way
of thinking as open and tolerant, and Yoruba
adherents of Christianity, Islam, and indigenous
religions are united by a strong sense of common
7. (SBU) Adegbite contrasted the differences
between the political roots of Islam in Nigeria
and the Arab world. While Nigerian Muslim
scholars trained in Saudi Arabia tend to be more
conservative and traditionalist in their practice
of Islam, they are reluctant to criticize the
conventional practice of Islam in Nigeria.
Adegbite said Arab influence is limited because
traditional leaders-sultans, sheiks, and emirs--
fulfill both religious and civil functions in the
region. Adegbite asserted that they exercise firm
control over the North. He also remarked that
these leaders have very close relationships with
the United States and the United Kingdom.
8. (SBU) Adegbite asserted there is strong
support for the establishment of Sharia law in
Nigeria, particularly among the younger
population. He said divorce, family, and estate
issues are those most often brought into Sharia
courts. Adegbite is pleased that Muslims in
Nigeria have the right to choose their own legal
system under the current democratic dispensation.
The Ambassador cautioned Adegbite about the human
rights repercussions of stoning and amputations as
a form of punishment. Adegbite replied that a
legal system should not be evaluated solely on the
basis of its possible forms of punishment. He
pointed to provisions for execution by electric
chair, firing squads, and hanging in the statutes
of many nations, including the United States.
Adegbite went on that these punishments do not
necessarily indicate the moral value of the legal
system that delivers them. Adegbite said he had
offered his legal services as a friend of the
court in a sharia case involving possible
adultery. (Adegbite did not mention the name of
Amina Lawal in the discussion, but that is to whom
he was referring.) In his analysis, Adegbite
emphasized that since no man had acknowledged the
paternity of the child in question, the defendant
should not have been found guilty of adultery.
Adegbite argued that the case was, therefore,
flawed in the terms of Sharia law, and, thus,
should have been dismissed - as it was. Adegbite
cited as evidence of Sharia's popularity the
attendance of two million people in Kano for the
public inauguration of Sharia law.
9. (SBU) The Ambassador expressed grave concern
about the progress of the polio vaccination
campaign in Kano. Adegbite replied that he had
visited the Kano governor to discuss the issue.
Adegbite claimed the governor is not against the
vaccination campaign in principle, but the
governor will not accept government-sponsored
vaccines. He insists that the polio vaccine be
from a Muslim supplier. The governor told
Adegbite that Kano State authorities had arranged
to obtain the vaccine from suppliers in Malaysia
or Indonesia and that vaccinations would resume
shortly. Adegbite stated that he had cautioned
the governor about the negative international
image resulting from this issue. Adegbite said he
would personally follow up with the governor on
the need for the resumption of polio vaccinations
in Kano.
10. (SBU) Adegbite gave high marks to Obasanjo
and his administration. Adegbite stated that
Obasanjo, given his military background, is the
right man for the job of President. Adegbite said
Nigeria's political culture has changed, fueled as
it was by the democratic elections of 1999 and
2003. He said the biggest dividend of democracy
is the air of freedom that Nigerians now enjoy.
Adegbite affirmed that one of Obasanjo's greatest
contributions has been his promotion of good
international relationships between Nigeria and
the rest of the world. (Comment. In a recent
press article, Adegbite was quoted as saying that
Obasanjo looks "like a successor to Mandela". End
11. (SBU) Adegbite recalled that he and Obasano
are both from a district near Abeokuta. Adegbite
noted that Abeokuta has disproportionately
produced Nigeria's contemporary leaders. He
mentioned Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola,
President of the Christian Association of Nigeria,
Chief Rotimi Williams, perhaps the leading Lagos
attorney, and the late Moshood Abiola, candidate
for the presidency. Adegbite attributed
Abeokuta's unique distinction to the residual
influence of freed slaves who had returned to
Africa and founded strong communities in that
district. Adegbite mentioned that his own great-
grandfather had been a returned slave. The first
church in Nigeria was founded in Abeokuta in 1842,
marking the beginning of organized Christianity in
Nigeria. The early influence of the Christian
missionaries and of their schools gave the town an
educational lead. The interaction between the
returnee communities, the missionaries, and the
indigenous population was characterized by an
openness and outward-orientation that today's
leaders inherited, he concluded.
12. (SBU) COMMENT. Adegbite is friendly and well
disposed toward the West. The official location
of his law practice is in Abuja, and he is often
there for his own and NSCIA business. He
maintains an office in Lagos, where he works
closely with American companies doing business in
Nigeria. To show Islam in its most positive
light, he has been active publicly on issues of
Sharia law, polio, and religious reconciliation.
He believes that there are enough procedural and
other safeguards in Sharia law to preclude
stoning, a view widely held by educated Muslims.
Adegbite's support for Obasanjo indicates that
ethnic unity may sometimes trump religious
difference, especially at the leadership level
among Yorubas. Adegbite is a close ally of the
traditional northern Muslim establishment. It is
their leadership that risks challenge should Islam
in Nigeria evolve toward more fundamentalists ways
of thinking and practice. Adegbite was unwilling
to discuss such fissures within the Muslim
community. END COMMENT.
13. (U) Ambassador Campbell has cleared this
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