Blueprint yesterday carried a story that the Kano Hisbah Board will “prosecute idle people and those trading in the business of gossiping.” If this is true, this will be the harshest and most disturbing action of the Kano hisbah I’ve yet seen. The Hisbah are shari’a “vigilante” groups (as they have a formal function recognized by the state “vigilante” always seems like the wrong word to me–though it seems to be the word most often used by scholars to describe them).
According to Rasheed Oyewole Olaniyi in his 2011 Africa Today article “Hisbah and Sharia Law Enforcement in Metropolitan Kano:”
Hisbah had its origin in the initiative of Islamic groups with the aim of supporting Sharia implementation. Following the reintroduction of Sharia, there was a spontaneous proliferation of Hisbah groups by Islamic civil society. Governor Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso formally launched Hisbah in 2000 as a form of institutional support to control crime and maintain social order enjoined by Islam. The establishment of Hisbah religious vigilantism was part of the Kano State government’s effort to implement Sharia and a response to curb the insecurity and rapidly growing social anomie among youths. (84)
However, Olaniyi notes that initially under the Kwankwaso government, there were inconsistencies in the way the hisbah operated and two factions developed. In 2003, newly elected governor Ibrahim Shekarau created the Hisbah board:
According to him, section 28, subsection 1, of the 1999 federal constitution empowers Kano State to promulgate a law establishing the Hisbah Board, responsible for general policymaking and coordinating activities between state, zonal and local government Hisbah committees. [...] Hisbah personnel do not have the power to arrest or prosecute culprits; rather they are expected to hand over people found to have violated Sharia law to the police.
The board is meant to engage in activities useful to society such as encouraging sanitation, helping with traffic, controlling crowds during religious services, mediating local conflicts, acting as a sort of neighborhood watch, and so on. I have heard stories of how helpful they have been in providing community security and have seen them directing traffic around mosque time. In keeping with shari’a regulations banning alcohol, the hisbah also regularly destroy alcoholic beverages.
However, the board has been involved in quite a few controversies since its establishment. In 2005, a controversy developed when they began to arrest commercial motorcyclists who were carrying women. (See two articles from that time period by Fatima Adamu and Jaafar Jaafar). During my research on Kannywood in 2008-2011, the hisbah also seemed to act as an arm of the censorship board (the director general of which, Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim, had been the former deputy head of the hisbah), confiscating equipment on film sets they deemed to be operating without permission and arresting filmmakers. As I recounted in an earlier post, “Director of Photography Felix Ebony of King Zuby International recounted how hisbah had come to a location he was working on and impounded four speakers and one camera, telling them they had not sought permission to shoot.” The hisbah also shut down music and fashion shows in the state, and I heard complaints that poor people could no longer have singing and dancing at their weddings as the hisbah would shut them down. (Wealthy people, on the other hand, they told me would just hire police to stand guard at their doors and the hisbah would not be able to enter.) In March 2010, one of my Muslim musician friends called me very upset that his Christian friends in the “Police Band” had been beaten up and arrested by security forces for playing at a Muslim wedding. When Shekarau was running for president in 2011, he denied during an NN24 debate that the hisbah had any problem with the film industry, but these claims seemed rather disengenuous.
When Rabi’u Kwankwaso was voted back in, however, there seemed to be the feeling that such high-handedness was a thing of the past. And since Kwankwaso resumed office, there have been some popular moves by the hisbah. Among what some see as the achievements of the hisbah during the Kwankwaso tenure have been several state coordinated mass marriages of divorcees and widows.
(The Hisbah even have a facebook page created 30 December 2011, though by the time I posted this, it only had 105 “likes.”) This year, however, there have been more reports of extreme pronouncements from the Kano State hisbah.
On July 17, the Hisbah board banned night-time courtship, an old tradition in Hausa culture where a young man will visit a young woman outside her house at night. Such practices are described in some of the early soyayya novels such as Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s In da So da Kauna and Kaico!. In fact this clip of the 1994 film adaptation of the bestselling novel In Da So da Kauna (It sold over 100,000 copies) shows the heroine Sumayya receiving two such visits from suitors at night. (Her second suitor, Muhammad, played by author Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, is more successful than the first one!)
Director General of the board, Alhaji Abba Said Sufi, who stated this in a terse statement, said the measure was meant to curb open immorality among youths, which the board noted was on the increase.
Sufi vowed to rid the state of all corrupt vices, stressing, “It is better for government to infringe on its citizens’ right than allow corrupt and un-Islamic behaviour to continue in the state.”
Shortly thereafter, during Ramadan, newspapers began to report that the hisbah was arresting Muslims who were not fasting. (See these articles from Daily Trust, Daily Times, and Blueprint.) While some people saw this as within their jurisdiction as enforcers of shari’a law, others were alarmed by what they saw as an abuse of power. Regarding the ban on night-time courtship, Blueprint reports:
Some respondents who spoke to our correspondent faulted the measure, saying it was against right to privacy as advocated by Islam.
Ahmed Mohammed, a student of Bayero University, Kano, said social visits among the opposite sex had been going on for ages, saying the government had no reason to ban them in a democracy.
He said even if such decision is to be taken, there should be a legislative backing.
According to a later Blueprint article, similar protests were heard against the arrests of non-fasting Muslims:
Some of those who spoke with Blueprint are of he opinion that religion is an issue between a person and his Creator. Hisbah, therefore, has no power to harass them or force them to fast.
Yesterday, a friend on twitter who had read that day’s Blueprint alerted me to the latest communications of the Hisbah. Although the article has not yet been put online by Blueprint, I share a photo of it here. To be taken to a readable version, just click on the photo and then click on the magnifying glass icon:
Here are a few highlights of the article: According to The Deputy Director General legal matters of the Kano State Hisbah Board, Barrister Nahabani Mohammed, the board had organized “a one-day workshop to educate its personnel and their informants on the way and manner of identifying people whose main business is to sit in a certain corner and gossip.”
Now, read carefully the sorts of things that were seen to be prime evidences of gossip worthy of prosecution:
He said, “You will hear them alleging things like, ‘Do you know the governor had done this and that? Do you know Comissioner A has just bought three new houses?’ Or ‘Do you know that the commander general of Hisbah has just taken a new wife?’ Things like these are what we intend to stop.
Mohammed, who told our correspondent jokingly to rush and pick a form in the Zawarawa mass marriage scheme before widows, divorcees and even young girls became scarce in Kano, askiked, “Of professional gossips and idlers are allowed to sit around and talk about life style of their neighbours, their families, political officeholders and other things they cannot prove or verify, before you know what is happening it will spread fast and create hatred in the society.”
The implications of this are extremely worrisome. While I can understand concern over rumour-mongering in times of crisis, this sort of vigilantism against “gossip” could create a climate of terror of the kind found in a totalitarian-state. Is this about religion or politics?
Look at the examples he gave of “idle gossip.” The hisbah would arrest people for gossiping that a Commissioner “has just bought three new houses” or that “the commander general of Hisbah has just taken a new wife.” Such measures seem designed to stop public protest against abuse of power and corruption among the political class. And in my experience, this is the kind of talk that does preoccupy many ordinary people. It reminds me of what hiphop artist Nazir Hausawa (Ziriums) told me in February 2009 when then Governor Shekarau authorized destruction of “illegal structures” during a bid to host the next FIFA world youth soccer tournament.
There is a hadith that if you see something haram, you’re supposed to fight it. If you can’t fight it, then you talk about it; if you can’t talk about it, then you feel it in your mind. The way that Shekarau is destroying people’s property right now.[…] People can’t do anything but feel bad in their minds. We, [filmmakers and musicians], are in the middle. We can’t fight, but we can talk about it […] through film.
For more information about the history of the hisbah in Kano and implementation of shari’a in Northern Nigeria, see these resources.
“Hisbah and Sharia Law Enforcement in Metropolitan Kano:” by Rasheed Oyewole Olaniyi. Africa Today. 57:4 (Summer 2011), pp. 70-96. (Note that this version is behind a pay-wall, but you can access a free version of an earlier draft of the paper on the IFRA website here.)
Gender, Hisbah and Enforcement of Morality in Shariah Implementing States of Zamafara and Kano in Northern Nigeria” by Dr. Fatima Adamu, at The African Gender Institute
Sharia Implementation in Northern Nigeria 1999-2006: A Sourcebook, edited by Philip Ostien
Recent News on Hisbah
“Kano Hisbah Detains non-fasting Muslims.” Daily Trust, 8 August 2012
“Kano Hisbah Board Nabs 20 for refusing to Fast.” Daily Times. 8 August 2012
“Kano Government Arrests Non-fasting Muslims.” Blueprint, 7 August 2012 (the most detailed of the reports)
“Hisbah Board Plans Mass Wedding for 250 Divorcees” Leadership. 11 June 2012.
“Hisbah officials, others, take wives in Kano Mass Wedding” Daily Trust. 15 May 2012.
“100 women, men get Kano Hisbah mass wedding today” Daily Triumph. 15 May 2012
“Kwankwaso’s security outfit keeps tongues wagging in Kano.” Sunday Trust. 19 June 2011.
“Governor Ibrahim Shekarau on Hisbah, Censorship and Kannywood in the Presidential Debates” by me on A Tunanina, posted 19 March 2011
“Hisbah: In Defense of the Information Minister” by Jaafar Jaafar, Dawodu.com, 2 March 2006