"SENTENCED TO DIE BY STONING FOR ADULTERY, Safiya Hussaini Tungar Tudu waits on her appeal.."

‘One thing I cannot accept is to die alone when I know - and the alkali [Sharia law judge] knows - I could not have made this baby alone. I mean I am not the Virgin Mary!

"Brilliant, aren’t they, these men? They stick to a law inherited from the seventh century for people having sex in the open Arabian desert or makeshift tents, but in the 21st century they can impregnate us in Hilton Hotel rooms with air conditioning and then deny us."

So spoke Safiya Hussaini Tungar Tudu following her sentence to death by stoning after being convicted of adultery by an Islamic Sharia court in a predominantly Muslim area in northern Nigeria. The judge who convicted her decreed that 35-year-old Safiya will be buried up to her neck in a pit and then men - only men - will begin hurling rocks at her head until she is dead.

The attorney general of Sokoto state, Aliyu Abubakar Sanyinna, says of Safiya’s sentence: "It is the law of Allah. We are just complying with the laws of Allah, so we don’t have anything to worry about."

How big will the executioners’ stones be? "It could be something like this," replies the attorney general, holding up his fist.

If Safiya becomes the first Nigerian executed for adultery, the case could be as damaging for Nigeria as the hanging of the environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa was to the country’s former military dictatorship. Meanwhile in Europe, and among Nigerian feminist activists, there is growing outrage at the sentence handed down against Safiya last October in the dust-shrouded city of Sokoto on the edge of the Sahara.

On 14 January, five Sharia appeal judges adjourned the hearing of Safiya’s entreaty against her own execution until 18 March. Safiya sat quietly breastfeeding her eleven-month-old daughter Adama in the court as the judges pondered her fate. Human rights activists, women’s groups and about a dozen defence lawyers were also in the courtroom. The judges claimed they needed more time to consider five new grounds of appeal brought by Safiya’s defence team.

Safiya was unimpressed. "Only I will be punished, because the injustice of the law is that men are not punished for impregnating women," she says. "I insist that my crime is not adultery, but pregnancy. Since only women can be pregnant this means that the real crime is being a woman. The man will always commit adultery and escape. The woman is the only one who can ever conceive, the unknowing depository of the traitor’s semen."

The above is the outline of the terrible fate of mother-of-five Safiya Hussaini Tungar Tudu. Born the fifth of 12 children to an illiterate herbal doctor father in the remote and poverty-stricken village of Tungar Tudu in northern Nigeria’s semi-desert, Safiya was married off at the age of 12, thus beginning the harsh and difficult life of a typical northern Nigerian wife. Her marriage, and two subsequent marriages, did not last, as is so often the case in the region’s particular culture of Islam. Divorced by her third husband in 1998, she began receiving the attention of another man who, she alleged, raped her.

Meanwhile, full Sharia law was established in Sokoto in June 2000, a month after baby Adama was conceived. According to the interpretation of Islamic law by Sokoto’s judges, Safiya, as a woman who has been married, is an adulteress for conceiving a child outside marriage. For that, the penalty is death by stoning. If Safiya had never been married, she would have been charged with the lesser offence of fornication, for which the punishment is 100 lashes.

The Sokoto judgment has been fiercely criticised in the largely Christian and animist southern Nigeria, and by some Muslim theologians who question whether stoning adulteresses was ever sanctioned in the Koran.

As Safiya received no education as a child, spending her early years fetching water and herbs for her father, she speaks hardly any English, only her native Hausa, and has difficulty understanding the complex arguments swirling around her. These are the factors that prompted Nigerian satirist, Sanusi Lamido, to take up her cause by publishing The Adulteress’ Diary in Safiya’s name. It is a controversial piece, which savages the Sharia lawmakers, accusing them of gross hypocrisy and questioning their interpretation of the Koran. Thus, the quotes at the head of this article are Safiya à la Lamido. Now confined, on bail, to her blind father’s mud hut, Safiya has made only limited statements herself since her ordeal began.

How big will the executioners’ stones be? ‘It could be something like this,’ says the attorney general, holding up his fist

Lamido is not the only person to pour scorn on the mullahs. Delphine Nobime, a Christian studying at a polytechnic in Zamfara, another northern state whose governor, Ahmed Sani, has introduced full Sharia law, says: "The Moslem leaders preach Sharia during the day and run after us girls on campus at night. They are the champions in drinking."

Emmanuella Onorah, a southerner serving with the army in Zamfara, says: "Sharia only really exists for the poor. It’s easy to cut off the hand of some unfortunate guy who steals a chicken or to flog a woman who has sex. But no-one asks what actually goes on behind the tinted windows of the Mercedes owned by government officials or religious leaders."

Safiya’s plight has assumed extraordinary importance because, less than three years after ending dictatorship, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is struggling with waves of religious and ethnic killings that threaten its new democratic system and the country’s unity. A series of Muslim -Christian atrocities and inter-tribal clashes have brought the number of people killed to nearly 8,000 since 1998 - following the death of the dictator, General Sani Abacha, himself a Muslim , allegedly in the arms of two Indian prostitutes.

The election in 1999 of a civilian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, and of a democratic federal parliament raised Nigerians’ hopes of a better future. Under Abacha and previous military dictators, the Nigerian people had grown poorer despite massive oil wealth. Nigeria has earned more than £200 billion from oil exports since it was first discovered in the late 1950s. But its people are worse off now than they were 30 years ago, when it seemed that the 1970s oil boom would make Nigerians rich beyond their dreams.

Instead, at least half of Nigeria’s 120 million citizens live in abject poverty without access to clean water. The literacy rate is below that of the Congo, long thought of as one of Africa’s poorest areas. The World Bank ranks Nigeria as the 13th poorest country in the world. Its foreign debt stands at more than £22.

Added to this, the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International calls Nigeria the most corrupt nation on earth. One of its workers, Bilikisu Yusuf, says corruption pervades Nigerian society so deeply that it has reached "the degree of insanity".

The country’s rulers, especially past military dictators who ruled for 30 of the 40 years since Nigeria became independent from Britain, have diverted most of the oil wealth into a limited number of private pockets. Leaders have plundered the country, sucking out billions of dollars and stashing them in western banks.

Having survived six successful military coups, four failed coups, and a civil war from 1967 to 1970 that claimed a million lives, Nigerians now stand at a new crossroads. Civil war again threatens and there is a possibility of the break-up of a country created by Britain in 1914 from more than 250 tribes speaking 200 languages.

Above all, it is the Muslim-Christian clash (accentuated by America’s and Britain’s war against the Taleban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan) that could plunge Nigeria into terminal chaos. Bin Laden has acquired cult status among Nigeria’s Muslims: portraits of the al-Qaeda leader have been selling well. But in reality trouble was brewing long before Bin Laden became an issue. Since the end of military dictatorship, President Obasanjo has come under huge pressure from northern militants who want to implement full Sharia law.

A mild form of Sharia, confined solely to civil courts and only for those who wanted it, was practised in the north under British imperial rule. The British allowed the traditional sultans and emirs to run their provinces according to their own rules, as long as they imposed none of the crueller Sharia punishments such as amputation. The system, it was thought, was cheap and required few colonial officers to administer it.

But the new Sharia laws being implemented in 12 northern Nigerian states are harsher and often compulsory for both Muslims and non-Muslims. They outlaw sex before marriage, and alcohol. They bar women from many jobs. Public transport and schools will soon be sexually segregated. Punishments such as stoning for adultery and amputation for theft - banned not only by the British but throughout the first 40 years of Nigerian independence - have been reinstated.

Last year, in Zamfara state, a teenage mother, Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, was flogged 100 times for having sex before marriage. The sentence was carried out even though her case, in which she was planning to argue that she had been raped, had yet to come before an appeal court to be heard.

The popularity of Sharia in the north - dominated by the big Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups - has fuelled anger and separatist agitation in the south, where the dominant Yoruba and Ibo tribes are largely Christian. The southerners see Sharia as a way of persecuting Christians. They also fear it will be used to perpetuate the power the north enjoyed during the years of military rule: most of the successive military dictators were Muslims. The southerners also seek more control over revenues from oil, produced entirely in the south.

One separatist group, the Oodua Peoples’ Congress, which has significant support in the Yoruba southwest of the country, has led a campaign of violence against northerners that has claimed about 1,000 lives in the past two years. Still Obasanjo, a Christian and a Yoruba himself, is under attack by his fellow southerners. The Christian Association of Nigeria, the biggest non-Muslim religious grouping, has accused the President of failing to uphold Nigeria’s secular constitution, which forbids any level of government from imposing criminal law based on religion.

Increasingly, Islamic law and old ethnic tensions are splitting the country and may yet propel it towards renewed civil war. "The roof is already burning over Obasanjo’s head. He thinks it is not," says Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s Nobel Prizewinning author. "Obasanjo thinks that some accidental rain which is ‘The act of God or Allah’ will put out the fire."

Meanwhile, Safiya, almost toothless and looking far older than her 35 years, has changed her original plea from one of rape to having had consensual sex with a husband who divorced her two years ago. Before Islam came to northern Nigeria five centuries ago, a woman was not considered to have had sex outside marriage if she had a child by a former husband for up to seven years after the divorce. This pre-Islamic custom has somehow become knitted into Sokoto’s 21stcentury Sharia law.

That clash between ancient traditional practice and Islamic orthodoxy could yet save Safiya’s life. In one of the few real interviews she has given, Safiya, speaking in Hausa, says: "I felt like dying that day [of the sentence] because of the injustice. I never thought there would be such a penalty. It is because I am poor, my family is poor, and I am a woman."

She only recently began to question the law that says an adulteress should be stoned to death. "That one is too political for me to answer," she says. "My fate is in the hands of Allah."

To which one letter writer to a newspaper added: "Allah is indeed merciful, Sharia law not so."

January-March archive of nigeriannet