Freedom of Religion: Country Studies - Nigeria

Nigeria Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Partly Free. Freedom Ranking: 4.5; Political Rights: 4; Civil Liberties: 5.



After gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria had a brief six-year period of elected governments before experiencing more than three decades of political instability and mostly continuous military dictatorship. Nigeria returned to elected civilian government in 1999 and has had four regular presidential and parliamentary elections. Even so, elections were so marred by fraud, other abuses, and chaotic political conditions that Nigeria was not considered an electoral democracy by Freedom House until 2015, following successful presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 and the first successful transfer of civilian power between two political parties. While Nigeria has emerged as the African continent’s largest economy, its economic growth has slowed due to drops in prices of oil, the country’s largest export. The country faces an array of problems, including largescale poverty, corruption, and a campaign of extremist violence carried out by the Boko Harem terrorist group.

Nigeria has around 250 ethnic groups, the largest being the Hausa in the north, the Igbo in the southeast, and the Yoruba in the central and southwest regions. The country is split religiously: about 50 percent of the population is Muslim, 40 percent is Christian, and the rest are adherents of indigenous beliefs. Muslims live mostly in the north and Christians in the south, but every state has a mixed religious population. Although Nigeria has a constitution protecting religious freedom for its different Christian, Muslim, and traditionalist communities, 12 northern states have adopted Sharia law causing tensions with non-Muslims who are forced to abide by its customs.

Nigeria is Africa's 14th-largest country by area and its most populous country, with about 182 million inhabitants (2016 estimate). The population density is high and Nigeria is among the most, urbanized countries in Africa, with about half of the population living in cities. Nigeria is the world's 12th-largest oil producer and has large untapped reserves of natural gas in its Delta basin. Once an agricultural exporter, today it imports a large percentage of its food. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), nominal GDP in 2014 was approximately $574 billion, 21st largest in the world (Nigeria recently surpassed South Africa as the largest economy in Africa). Nominal GDP per capita income ranking was much lower at 125th in the world ($2,758 per annum). Its PPP ranking was similar, 124th ($6,054 per annum). Although poverty remains widespread, the per capita figures are significant improvements from 2006, when nominal GDP per capita was $640 per year (ranked 172nd).


Precolonial Period

The first evidence of human habitation in Nigeria dates to about 9000 BC and it has been home to many ethnic groups. A number of city-states emerged in the first millennium AD and the centuries prior to colonialization, among them Hausa states in the north; the Kanem-Bornu Empire in the northeast; and Yoruba kingdoms in the southwest. In the southeast, Igbo communities developed a decentralized, village-based political system. These and other political structures vied for territory and control of trade routes. The southern states practiced local or regional polytheistic religions, with the leaders or kings often serving as high priests. In the north, Islam spread in the 11th century with the influence of the Kanem-Bornu, Mali, and Songhai Empires to the west of modern Nigeria. In the early 1800s, leaders from the pastoral Fulani ethnic group established an Islamic state in the north and attempted to eliminate pre-Islamic religious practices. The arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century and other Europeans who followed greatly increased the slave trade in West Africa. The Yoruba Oyo kingdom and the Igbo Aro Confederacy were important slave-exporting states dominating southern Nigeria until the 19th century.

Independence Day Celebration in Nigeria.

British Colonization

In the early 19th century, the collapse of the Oyo kingdom created an opening for Britain to expand its trade in the region as well as to limit the transatlantic slave trade, which it had outlawed in 1807. After the British annexed Lagos in 1861, the European powers recognized Britain's claims to southern Nigeria at the 1885 Congress of Berlin. The Royal Niger Company was granted a charter in 1886 to secure a trade monopoly on the Niger River, but the company was replaced in 1900 by a series of protectorates that expanded control of the northern Muslim states. In 1914, the entire territory was then united as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria and placed under a British governor. As the decolonization movement gained momentum after World War II, Britain gradually yielded power. Initially it granted only regional self-governance but nationwide elections were held in 1959. Britain recognized Nigerian independence on October 1, 1960. The following year, the northern region of British-held Cameroon voted to join Nigeria.

The First Republic

Nigeria's first constitution established a parliamentary democracy with a bicameral legislature. Executive power was vested in a prime minister, while a largely ceremonial governor general represented the British monarch as head of state. In 1963, Nigeria became its own fully independent republic and the governor general was replaced with a president. Nigeria was divided into three territorial units — the Western, Eastern, and Northern regions (a fourth Midwest Region was created later) — each having its own state government and premier. The three main political parties at the time of independence were the Northern People's Congress (NPC), which represented the Muslim Hausa and Fulani groups; the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), representing the mostly Catholic Igbo population in the southeast; and the Action Group (AG), a left-leaning party based mainly in the Yoruba-dominated southwest. The first post-independence government was formed by the NCNC and the northern NPC, while the Yoruba-dominated AG was in opposition. The AG split in 1962 with one faction cooperating with the government; it formed the Nigerian National Democratic Party or NNDP. Elections in 1964-65 saw a new alliance of the mostly Muslim NPC and the Yoruba-dominated NNDP, which took power at the expense of the Igb0-dominated NCNC. Riots took place amid evidence of widespread voting fraud resulting in 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 and named Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Christian officer, as leader. Thousands of Igbo living in the north were massacred and many fled to the Eastern Region in the south, while northern Muslims faced retaliatory violence and fled to the north. Gowon tried to thwart growing support for an independent republic among the Igbo by replacing the four administrative regions with a system of 12 states. But the military leader of the oil-rich Eastern Region, Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu, declared independence and created a new Republic of Biafra in May 1967. Federal authorities seized the Niger Delta, the oil producing area of the Eastern Region and blockaded the territory. The Republic of Biafra gained scant international recognition even as suffered a terrible famine. Federal forces finally crushed Biafran resistance in early 1970 but not before one million people died from combat, famine, and disease — one of the post-war world's worst humanitarian disasters. Ojukwu fled the country and the rebel territory was reabsorbed into Nigeria.

The Short-Lived Second and Third Republics

Nigeria then entered 25 years of political instability. Gowon was overthrown in a 1975 coup and that coup’s leader was murdered in 1976. A Christian Yoruba general named Olusegun Obasanjo became military ruler and from 1976 to 1979. Surprisingly, he oversaw a transition to democracy with the convening of a constituent assembly, adoption of a new constitution, and holding of federal elections. The parliamentary system was replaced with a mixed-presidential republic. A new civilian government took power in 1979 led by President Shehu Shagari of the northern-based National Party of Nigeria (NPN). But the next elections in 1983 were marred by violence and indications of massive vote rigging by the NPN, which had lost popularity due to corruption and economic decline. Another coup in December 1983 by General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew the Second Republic. His harsh rule was itself upended in a coup by General Ibrahim Babangida in 1985. Babangida presided over a milder dictatorship leading to a third attempt to create a constitutional republic, but the general reversed course and annulled elections held in 1993 when results favored a Muslim Yoruba promising greater democratic change. Unrest in the south forced Babangida to resign, but an interim civilian leader was quickly ousted by General Sani Abacha. Abacha’s five-year rule took Nigeria to new depths of repression and corruption. severe crack-downs on opposition . . .  civil society and political parties organized popular support for a transition to civilian rule and a more stable democracy.

The Fourth Republic: Another Turn Towards Democracy

Despite severe crackdowns on opposition by the Abacha regime, Nigerian civil society and political parties organized popular support for a transition to civilian rule and a more stable democracy. Opposition groups coalesced in the National Democratic Coalition and worked with the trade union federation and environmental groups to step up international pressure on the regime. When Abacha died suddenly in June 1998, his military successor freed political prisoners and implemented a new constitution based on the 1979 version. In national elections held in February 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, the general who oversaw the country’s transition to civilian rule in the 1970s, won the presidency by a large margin as the candidate of the ethnically mixed People's Democratic Party (PDP). He won re-election in 2003 with 62 percent of the vote, this time defeating Muhammadu Buhari, the former dictator who had emerged as the civilian leader of the northern-based All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP). Obasanjo’s PDP, representing the central and southern regions, was the winner over the ANPP in each of the parliamentary elections.

Under Obasanjo it seemed Nigeria was moving in the direction of a stable democracy. Many freedoms were restored. Independent media and NGO sectors thrived. Significantly, Nigeria became the first African country to fully repay its debt to the Paris Club of creditor nations. His record was marred, however, by corruption, an armed insurgency in the Niger Delta, and ethnic, religious, and communal violence. Obasanjo tried and failed to amend the constitution to allow him a third term, but then rigged the 2007 presidential election in favor of his hand-picked candidate, Umaru Yar'Adua, who defeated Buhari of the ANPP with an implausible 70 percent of the vote. In parliamentary elections, Obasanjo’s PDP obtained similarly inflated totals. International observers reported widespread fraud and unfair electoral conditions. Yar’Adua died in late 2009 and he was succeeded by Vice President Goodluck Jonathon. Jonathon’s first actions brought some renewed hope that Nigeria would return to a more democratic path. He appointed new heads of the security agencies amid complaints of police and military brutality. He also appointed a new chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) with a mandate to prevent further fraud. Jonathon won presidential elections in 2011 and the PDP retook the parliament, but by less questionable margins and with international observers reporting improved electoral practices. Nigeria also saw steady gains in the economy aided by regaining control of the Niger Delta from violent separatists.

President Jonathon’s government, however, was plagued by scandals and charges of corruption. Worse, Nigeria’s political stability and security situation seriously declined due to the rise of the extremist Islamist movement Boko Haram. In 2015 elections, Jonathon was defeated seeking a second full term by Muhammadu Buhari, running for the fourth time. In this instance, Buhari won substantial support not just in his native north but also in the south by promising to end corruption and defeat Boko Harem. Buhari’s All-Progressives’ Congress (a broadening of his earlier party) also gained a majority in the parliament. The elections were deemed free and fair and for the first time in Nigeria’s history there was a peaceful transfer of power between political parties occurring through elections (see Current Issues below).

Freedom of Religion

Nigeria’s kingdoms and territories had a long history of state-imposed religious practices, especially in the Muslim northern regions.  When Nigeria gained independence, however, it adopted a federal constitution declaring the separation of church and state and guaranteeing freedom of religion in recognition of its different religious and ethnic communities and their intermixture in northern, central, and southern regions. In general, the national government has protected freedom of religion for Christian, Muslim, and traditional religious communities, but the adoption of Sharia law by twelve northern states has threatened religious freedom for many non-Muslim residents. More significantly, violent attacks by fundamentalist Islamic groups demonstrate a frightening intolerance of religious differences and religious freedom. The situation is compounded by the often brutal actions taken against the terror attacks by police and security forces. At stake are Nigeria’s political stability, economic growth, and hard-won freedoms. . . Under the British practice of indirect rule, Sharia and other local customs and institutions were built into the governing system.

Before Independence: A History of State Religion

Nigeria had a long history of state-imposed religion. In the south, kingdoms based on traditional indigenous beliefs often fused the roles of religious and temporal leader. With the spread of Islam in the north in the 10th century, religion and governance were also fused. The most influential rule was that of an ethnic Fulani Muslim scholar, Usman dan Fodio, who organized an army to conquer the Hausa states and took over much of northern Nigeria at the beginning of the 19th century. He declared his own Sokoto caliphate, imposed Sharia law, and exercised control over surrounding emirates. Dan Fodio’s caliphate remained intact until Britain imposed colonial control over the north in the early 1900s. Under the British practice of indirect rule, Sharia and other local customs and institutions were built into the governing system, however British administrators prohibited more severe Sharia penalties like death by stoning and amputations. In the south, the British administration directly supported Christian missionary work to provide schooling and other social services. The practice of religious institutions carrying out government functions continued after independence. As significant as its religious administration, British economic policies left the remote north undeveloped, focusing economic development on the south (where oil and other resources were discovered. The inattention to the north contributed to significant social disparities between ethnic and religious groups.

Freedom of Religion After Independence

At the outset of independence, the constitution incorporated the principle of separation of religion and state and declared that the religious freedom of both individuals and communities would be protected. This was important given Nigeria's mixed population: 50 percent Muslim; 40 to 45 percent Christian; and 5 to 10 percent followers of indigenous religious beliefs. While ethnic and religious groups dominated certain areas, there was substantial internal migration during the period of British rule and afterwards. Despite the national guarantees for religious freedom, however, it was often violated locally with religious discrimination practiced in employment, education, housing, social services, and investment. Further, after the 1967–70 war with Biafra, the federal military government took over Christian mission schools and expelled foreign missionaries who were accused of supporting separatism. In 1975, a government Pilgrim Board was established to oversee the Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca, which many viewed as state interference in religious practices. Meanwhile, many northern Muslim leaders advocated a greater role for Sharia, which had largely been confined to civil matters since independence. When General Ibrahim Babangida, a Muslim, made the country a full member of the international Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1986, the action sparked riots by those who objected to categorizing Nigeria as a Muslim nation and feared that it signaled approval of Sharia. Nigeria, there is also variation in how Sharia is interpreted and applied from state to state and among the individual courts.

The Constitution: Striking a Balance?

The 1999 constitution, like previous charters, was adopted only after much debate on the issue of religion. Some leaders sought to impose Sharia on a federal level for all Muslims, while others argued for a secular state. The result was a compromise that left the existing federal arrangement intact: "The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as a State Religion (Section 10)." But under Nigeria's federal system, the constitution also allows individual states to establish their own courts for matters not covered by federal law and explicitly allows states to institute their own Sharia courts of appeal in civil matters. Another provision, Section 38, is subject to differing interpretations. It states that "every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” as well as the “freedom . . . to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance." Advocates of Sharia claim that Islamic law is integral to Islamic "worship, teaching, practice, and observance"; many Christians and secularists argue that Sharia infringes their beliefs and practices.

Re-introducing Sharia

After the restoration of civilian rule in 1999, Sharia advocates began to assert themselves at the state level. In 2000, the governor of Zamfara, in the northwest, implemented a law that extended the jurisdiction of Sharia courts to criminal matters. When President Obasanjo did not challenge the move, eleven other northern states followed suit by adopting some form of Sharia as part of the criminal code. Within Sunni Islam, practiced by most Muslims in Nigeria, there are four major schools of Sharia jurisprudence. The Maliki School, considered a more flexible variant than others, is dominant. Still all four schools adhere, at least on some level, to the punishments for crimes described in the Koran or in the Hadith (the sayings and practices of Muhammad). These include death by stoning for adultery and amputation for theft. (Flexibility may arise from the particular circumstances of a crime.  For example, a thief who steals out of dire need may receive leniency.) While defendants tried within a Sharia court do retain their right under the national constitution to appeal to the federal courts — in two cases, women sentenced to stoning to death for adultery had the sentences overturned in federal court — even so, the introduction of Sharia in states with majority or dominant Muslim populations has fostered tension on several levels. In some cases, as in the city of Jos, this erupted into communal violence, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The U.S. State Department’s International Freedom of Religion Report indicates the breadth of the problem:

Although the jurisdiction of Sharia technically does not apply to non-Muslims in civil and criminal proceedings, certain social mores inspired by Sharia, such as the separation of the sexes in public schools, health care, voting, and transportation services, affected non-Muslim minorities in the north. Many non-Muslims perceived that they lived under the rule of a Muslim government and often feared reprisals for their religious affiliation. . . . 

Growing Fundamentalist Threats

The rise of the fundamentalist Boko Haram has posed a much greater challenge to Nigeria’s religious freedom. The name in the Hausa language means “Western education is sinful.” The group’s founder, Muhammed Yusuf, declared it a religious duty of all Muslims to reject heliocentrism, evolution, and other widely accepted scientific concepts as contrary to Islamic teachings. He also insisted on the strictest interpretation of Sharia and its universal application to Muslims and non-Muslims. The group, initially centered in the northern province of Borno, expanded its territory following sectarian fighting and attacks by security forces in 2009. After Yusuf was killed while escaping police custody, Boko Haram became even more fanatical, violent, and widespread under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau. Boko Haram has terrorized northern regions and cities with attacks on government, civilian, and religious targets (both Christian and Muslim). In 2012, it attacked a U.N. headquarters (killing 25 people). A high proportion of its attacks were directed at “apostate” Muslims, including two of Nigeria’s most respected Muslim clerics. Police and security forces compounded the security problem by responding brutally and indiscriminately to Boko Haram attacks. Government security tactics included sweep searches, mass arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings, and constant harassment and intimidation of communities suspected of harboring militants. In one incident in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, 180 people were killed indiscriminately. 

Current Issues

In April 2014, Boko Haram sparked international outrage when it abducted nearly 300 girls in a northern village and threatened to sell them into slavery for having attended school. Nearly a hundred of the girls escaped, but the rest were forced into sexual bondage or to marry Boko Haram militants. Since that abduction, Boko Haram carried out a spree of kidnappings and vicious attacks and bombings in both the north and south on police and army units, villages allowing the education of girls, and civilian and religious targets, both Christian and Muslim. By the end of 2014, Boko Haram was the world’s most deadly terrorist group. (According to tracking by the Institute for Economics and Peace, Boko Haram attacks were responsible for 6,664 deaths while Islamic State attacks murdered 6,063 persons. In 2015, Boko Haram remained as deadly, but Islamic State greatly surpassed it in numbers of persons killed.)

President Jonathon presided over a number of government scandals and suspicions that he was tolerating graft at the highest levels increased when he fired the head of the Central Bank in mid-2014 for publicly stating that widespread siphoning of oil revenues was taking place. Mostly, however, President Goodluck Jonathon’s government came under increasing criticism for the ineffective military efforts to stem Boko Harem’s terror campaign and prevent its expanding control over northern regions. From its strongholds in Nigeria, Boko Haram had even begun attacking targets of Nigeria’s neighbors, especially Chad but also Niger and Benin. In addition, military forces continued to be accused of heavy-handed tactics and carrying out recrimination attacks on villages held by the terrorist group.

After running unsuccessfully for president three times previously in 2003, 2007, and 2011, Muhammadu Buhari mounted a fourth campaign for president as the candidate of a renamed and reconstituted party, the All-Progressives Congress. A former general and dictator in 1983–85 who was overthrown due to the harshness of his rule, Buhari pledged to uphold Nigeria’s democratic constitution, end corruption, and defeat Boko Harem. The elections were postponed six weeks by the security forces out of concern for terrorist attacks, but international observers indicated that the delay did in fact help the Election Commission ensure fairer elections. Buhari won the elections on March 31 with 55 percent of the vote and his All-Progressives Congress won a large majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate. The elections were seen as significant both for Nigeria and also for Africa. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, there was a transfer of civilian power through elections.

After taking office in May, Buhari fired two heads of the military services and a number of other top officials. He moved the military headquarters to the northern capital of Borno, Maiduguri to begin a renewed campaign against Boko Haram. Assisted by a Multinational Joint Military Task Force spearheaded by Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, the military campaign began to retake a number of cities and villages under Boko Haram’s control. By December 2015, President Buhari declared the “technical” defeat of Boko Haram in fulfillment of his campaign pledge, although the group continued to hold significant territory and mount deadly terrorist attacks on a regular basis in both the north and south. In a new tactic, Boko Haram began deploying women and children wearing suicide bomb vests to carry out the attacks. At the end of 2015, it was estimated that 2 million people were displaced and 15,000 people had been killed from the overall conflict involving the terror group.

Buhari began to crack down on corruption as well, ordering national projects to be suspended pending review of all contracts. A former national security adviser was arrested in relation to a reported $2.1 billion in funds siphoned from the military.  In October 2015, the government arrested the former oil minister and the chairman of a Nigerian oil company on charges of corruption and money laundering. The central bank governor testified that billions of dollars had disappeared “from activities related to the oil industry,” the source of 80 percent of all government revenues. The amount, he said, could be from “10.8 or $12 billion or $19 billion or $21 billion — we do not know at this point.”