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Freedom of Religion: Country Studies - Nigeria

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 4 Political Rights, 4 Civil Liberties (Partly Free)


Nigeria is Africa's 14th-largest country by area and its most populous, with 144 million inhabitants. It is also one of the more urbanized countries in Africa, with about half of the population living in cities. GDP by standard measurement was $115 billion in 2006, the 47th largest in the world. GNI per capita was $640, ranked 172nd. By PPP, the GNI per capita was $1,050, or 195th in the world. Nigeria's economy is dominated by its petroleum industry, based in the Niger River delta. It is the world's 12th-largest oil producer and also has large untapped reserves of natural gas. Once an agricultural exporter, today it imports a large percentage of its food.


Nigeria has some 250 ethnic groups, each with its own language in one of several language families. The country is also split religiously. About 50 percent of the population is Muslim, 40 percent is Christian, and the remainder adhere to indigenous beliefs. Muslims live mostly in the north and Christians in the south, but every state has a mixed religious population.

After declaring independence from Great Britain in 1960, Nigeria had only six years of democratic government before it plunged into nearly three decades of military dictatorship, with only a brief respite. Today, the Federal Republic of Nigeria is considered a democracy, having held presidential and parliamentary elections in 1999, 2003, and 2007. Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler, won the first two presidential elections, and his party's candidate, Umaru Yar'Adua, succeeded him in the 2007 election. Obasanjo's ethnically mixed party won parliamentary majorities in all three elections. However, the balloting has been widely seen as tainted by fraud and other abuses, and the country faces an array of problems, including poverty, instability, corruption, and religious friction.

About 50 percent of the population is Muslim, 40 percent is Christian, and the remainder adheres to indigenous beliefs.


Precolonial Period

The first evidence of human habitation in Nigeria dates to about 9000 BC. By the fourth century BC, residents of the area had developed ironworking technology and produced distinctive terra-cotta sculpture. During and after the first millennium AD, a number of city-states emerged among the country's various ethnic groups. Several Hausa states took root in the north, as did a portion of the Kanem-Bornu Empire to the northeast. Yoruba kingdoms occupied the southwest, and in the southeast, the Igbo established a decentralized, village-based political system.

These and other polities vied for territory and control of trade routes throughout the precolonial period. The southern states practiced local or regional polytheistic religions, with the leaders or kings often serving as high priests. In the north, Islam began to spread in the 11th century, assisted by the influence of Kanem-Bornu and the Mali and Songhai Empires based to the west of modern Nigeria. In the early 1800s, leaders from the traditionally pastoral Fulani ethnic group established an Islamic state centered on the city of Sokoto in the Hausa region, absorbing surrounding states and attempting to eliminate pre-Islamic religious practices.

The arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century, and the other Europeans who followed, greatly stimulated the slave trade in West Africa. Oyo, a Yoruba kingdom, and the Aro confederacy, led by an Igbo group, became important slave-exporting states and dominated southern Nigeria until the 19th century.

British Colonization

Amid instability associated with the expansion of Sokoto and the collapse of Oyo in the early 19th century, Great Britain began to combat slavery and foster the palm oil trade in the region. The British annexed Lagos in 1861 as part of its antislavery efforts, and Christian missionary activity increased. At the 1885 Congress of Berlin, the European powers recognized Great Britain's claims to southern Nigeria. Meanwhile, British businessman George Goldie built up a monopoly on trade along the Niger River, and his enterprise was granted a charter as the Royal Niger Company in 1886. In 1900, the company was replaced by a system of protectorates that had first emerged in the south, and within a few years British forces had conquered the Muslim states in the north. This process was driven in part by competition from Germany and France, which were also organizing colonial empires in West Africa. The entire country was united as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, ruled by a British governor, in 1914. The British actively co-opted and modified traditional governing institutions and created new legislative bodies with limited power and representation. Nigerians soon organized political parties to win further concessions.

Particularly after World War II, Great Britain gradually yielded power and granted regional self-governance as part of a broader decolonization process in Africa and around the world. Nationwide elections were held in 1959, and a formal recognition of Nigerian independence came on October 1, 1960. The following year, plebiscites decided the fate of a strip of territory that had belonged to German Cameroon prior to World War I; the German colony had been divided between Great Britain and France as trust territories after that war. The northern portion of the British strip voted to join Nigeria, while the southern portion opted to join the former French trust territory, the Federal Republic of Cameroon.

Independence Day Celebration in Nigeria

The First Republic

Independent Nigeria's first constitution established a parliamentary democracy, with a bicameral legislature consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Executive power was vested in a prime minister, while a largely ceremonial governor general represented the British monarch as head of state. In 1963, the governor general was replaced with a president serving a similarly symbolic function, making the country a republic. Each of Nigeria's three constituent units—the Western, Eastern, and Northern regions—also had its own government and premier.

The three main political parties at the time of independence were (1) the Northern People's Congress (NPC), which represented the Muslim Hausa and Fulani groups of the north; (2) the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), supported mostly by the substantially Catholic Igbo in the southeast; and (3) the Action Group (AG), a left-leaning party that drew strength from the Yoruba-dominated southwest. The first postindependence government was formed by the NCNC and NPC, while the AG was in opposition. The AG split in 1962, with a conservative faction forming the new United People's Party (later renamed the Nigerian National Democratic Party, or NNDP) and cooperating with the government. After violence associated with the schism broke out, the AG's leaders were arrested, and the conservative faction gained power in the Western Region. A Midwestern Region was carved out of the Western Region in 1963, and the NCNC won elections there the next year. In national and Western Region elections stretching from late 1964 through 1965, a new alliance led by the NPC and NNDP took power at the expense of the NCNC and its smaller allies, despite evidence of widespread voting fraud and manipulation. The resulting riots caused hundreds of deaths.

Dictatorship and the Biafra Tragedy

In early 1966, ethnic Igbo military officers overthrew the NPC-NNDP government, only to be replaced several months later when northern military officers staged their own coup. They named Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Christian officer from a minority ethnic group, as their leader. Thousands of Igbo were massacred in the north in the second half of 1966, leading many to flee to the Igbo heartland in the Eastern Region; northerners living there faced retaliatory violence, driving them back to their own ethnic homelands. These developments led to growing support for an independent Igbo republic. Gowon responded in part by replacing the four regions with a system of 12 states, but the military leader of the Eastern Region, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, declared it the Republic of Biafra (named for the Bight of Biafra) in May 1967. Federal authorities retained control of the rest of the country, as well as the Niger delta portion of the defunct Eastern Region, which was populated by non-Igbo ethnic groups. Biafra gained scant international recognition, and Nigeria blockaded its territory. Federal forces finally crushed Biafran resistance in early 1970; the war resulted in at least a million deaths from combat, famine, and disease, making it one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. Ojukwu fled the country, and the rebel territory was reabsorbed into Nigeria.

The Short-Lived Second Republic

After Gowon postponed plans to return Nigeria to civilian rule, he was overthrown in a 1975 coup that installed General Murtala Muhammad, who was in turn murdered in 1976. Muhammad's aide, the Christian and Yoruba general Olusegun Obasanjo, succeeded him as military ruler. Obasanjo oversaw the transition to democracy, including the convening of a constituent assembly, the adoption of a new constitution in 1979, and federal elections later that year. The constitution established a presidential republic, replacing the parliamentary system of the First Republic. A new civilian government took power after the voting, led by Shehu Shagari of the mostly northern National Party of Nigeria (NPN). But the elections of 1983 were marred by violence and indications of massive vote rigging in favor of Shagari and the NPN, who had lost popularity due to rampant corruption and economic decline. In December 1983, a coup ended the Second Republic, and 16 years of military rule followed. Elections were held in 1993, but ruling general Ibrahim Babangida annulled the results, leading to unrest that forced his resignation. An interim civilian leader appointed to succeed him was quickly ousted by General Sani Abacha, whose five-year rule took Nigeria to new depths of repression, corruption, and illegality. The democratic regime that would have resulted from the 1993 elections is known as the Third Republic.

The Fourth Republic

In the face of severe crackdowns by the government, Nigerian civil society struggled to organize in favor of a transition to civilian rule and democracy. Opposition groups coalesced in the National Democratic Coalition and worked with the trade union federation and environmental groups to step up international pressure. When Abacha died suddenly in June 1998, his successor, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, freed political prisoners and implemented a new constitution based on that of 1979, with a strong president and bicameral legislature. The federal structure was retained, though the number of states had by this time grown to 36. A timetable for elections was set, and three parties competed first in local elections and then for control of parliament and the presidency. Obasanjo of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) won the latter by a large margin in February 1999. He won again in 2003 with 62 percent of the vote, defeating Muhammadu Buhari, the candidate of the northern All Nigeria People's Party. The PDP was also victorious in the legislative elections, gaining 223 of the 360 seats in the House of Representatives and 76 out of 109 seats in the Senate. Opposition presidential candidates filed a petition to annul the elections due to fraud, but this was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2005.

Obasanjo took a number of steps to lead Nigeria in the direction of a stable democracy with a free-market economy. Many freedoms denied under the dictatorship have been restored, and Nigeria has a thriving press and nongovernmental sector. In 2006, Nigeria became the first African country to fully repay its debt to the Paris Club of creditor nations following an agreed-upon rescheduling and relief package. And Obasanjo set Nigeria's foreign policy in support of democracy and peacekeeping, including recent assistance for peace efforts in Sudan's Darfur region. However, despite respect for his achievements, Obasanjo is widely criticized for allowing serious economic, environmental, ethnic, and religious problems to grow and for rigging the 2007 presidential election in favor of the PDP candidate, Umaru Yar'Adua. (The parliament had earlier rejected an attempt by Obasanjo's supporters to push through a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to seek a third term.) Furthermore, since Obasanjo took power in 1999, 12 states have adopted new Sharia (Islamic law) statutes, worsening ethnic and religious friction. Police services and army units commit human rights abuses with impunity. Oil poaching in the Niger delta, including by delta separatists, has created an environmental disaster of enormous proportions, and explosions resulting from the problem have killed thousands. Despite efforts to curb corruption, it remains endemic; Nigeria was ranked 147 out of 179 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of Religion

Top government officials claim that Nigeria, a highly diverse society, observes freedom of religion, but both the constitution and state practices raise considerable doubts about this assertion.

Before Independence: A History of State Religion

As noted above, Nigeria has a long history of state-imposed religion. Kingdoms based on indigenous beliefs often fused the roles of religious and temporal leader and imposed the state's religion on its subjects. The spread of Islam in the north, especially after the 10th century, also combined aspects of religion and governance. At the beginning of the 19th century, an ethnic Fulani Muslim scholar, Usman dan Fodio, organized an army to conquer the Hausa states and took over much of northern Nigeria. He imposed Sharia and exercised loose control over surrounding emirates in what was called the Sokoto caliphate (noted above), which remained intact until the British imposed colonial control in military campaigns after 1900. But under the British practice of indirect rule, Sharia and other local customs and institutions were built into the governing system; while corporal punishments were permitted, colonial officials prohibited more severe Sharia penalties like death by stoning and amputations. In the south, the British supported Christian missionary work to provide schooling and other social services, which continued after independence. This reflected a general colonial policy that left the remote north relatively undeveloped, thus contributing to significant social disparities.

...under the British practice of indirect rule, Sharia and other local customs and institutions were built into the governing system; while corporal punishments were permitted, colonial officials prohibited more severe Sharia penalties like death by stoning and

Freedom of Religion After Independence

At the outset of independence, the constitution incorporated the principle of separation of religion and state to some extent and declared the religious freedom of both individuals and communities. This was important given Nigeria's mixed population. While ethnic and religious groups dominated certain areas, there had been substantial internal migration during the period of British rule. The largest city and the capital at independence, Lagos, included members of all segments of Nigerian society. (The capital was moved to Abuja, in the center of the country, in 1991.) Freedom of religion, however, was often violated in practice during the early independence years, with widespread discrimination based on religion in state employment and investment.

After the 1967–70 war with Biafra, the federal military government took over mission schools and expelled foreign missionaries, who had been viewed as supporters of separatism among the mostly Catholic Igbo. In 1975, a government Pilgrim Board was established to oversee the Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj, violating state noninterference in religious practices. Meanwhile, many northern Muslim leaders advocated a greater role for Sharia, which had largely been confined to civil matters among Muslims, such as divorce and inheritance disputes, since independence.

Nigeria's successive military governments were most often concerned with maintaining order and did not attempt to radically expand or abolish Sharia. However, Babangida, a Muslim, made the country a full member of the international Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1986, sparking riots by those who objected to the implication that Nigeria was a Muslim nation.

The Constitution: Striking a Balance?

The 1999 constitution, like the charters that preceded it, was adopted only after debate on the issue of religion. Some Muslim leaders sought a prominent position for Sharia, while other Nigerians argued for a purely secular state. The result was a compromise that essentially left the existing arrangement intact. The constitution's Section 10 states clearly, "The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion." But under Nigeria's federal system, the constitution allows individual states to establish their own courts for matters not covered by federal law, and Sections 275–279 allow states to establishment their own Sharia courts of appeal for civil matters. Another provision, Section 38, has been subject to differing interpretations. It states that "every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion…and freedom…to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance." Advocates of a more robust Sharia claim that it is integral to Islamic "worship, teaching, practice, and observance" and therefore should be allowed under this clause. Many Christians and secularists argue that official, institutionalized Sharia violates their freedom of religion and the separation of religion and state.

Reintroducing Sharia

After the restoration of civilian rule in 1999, Sharia advocates began to assert themselves at the state level. In 2000, Ahmed Sani, governor of Zamfara state in the northwest, oversaw the implementation of a new law that extended Sharia to criminal matters. President Obasanjo did not challenge the move, and 11 other northern states followed suit by adopting some form of Sharia criminal code. As noted above, the practice of Sharia is not new in Nigeria, and even in its latest form it applies only to Muslims. However, its recent expansion has exacerbated friction between religious groups, which in some cases has broken out into communal violence, killing hundreds of people.

In Nigeria, there is also variation in how Sharia is interpreted and applied from state to state and among the individual courts, partly because the new criminal system was erected so quickly.

Neither Sharia nor Islam itself is uniform across the Muslim world. The faith has two main branches, Sunni and Shia. Within Sunni Islam, practiced by most of the world's Muslims, there are four major schools of Sharia jurisprudence that developed around the turn of the first millennium. In Nigeria, the Maliki school is dominant. It is considered a more flexible variant than others, but all four schools adhere, at least on some level, to the punishments for major crimes described in the Koran or the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, including death by stoning for adultery and amputation for theft. Flexibility arises from the standards of proof involved and the particular circumstances of a crime; a thief who steals out of dire need may receive leniency, for example. In Nigeria, there is also variation in how Sharia is interpreted and applied from state to state and among the individual courts, partly because the new criminal system was erected so quickly. Furthermore, defendants retain their right to appeal to the federal courts. There have been at least two cases of women being sentenced to death by stoning for extramarital sex, but the sentences were overturned on appeal.

By allowing religion to intrude on a core state function like criminal justice, the government has further blurred the lines between religion and state, compromising the integrity of both. The arrangement also perpetuates the existence of parallel legal systems for different religious and ethnic groups, a divisive legacy of British colonial rule, and the often arbitrary nature of Sharia judgments raises additional questions about due process. While it is not uncommon in predominantly Muslim countries for Sharia courts to adjudicate civil or family disputes, or for Islamic principles to be woven into the larger legal system, it remains unclear whether a politically, ethnically, and religiously fragmented country like Nigeria can survive the internal contradictions presented by official Sharia institutions.