State and Non-State Violations of Religious Freedom and Implications for National Unity in Nigeria

Dodeye Uduak Williams

Picture by Faseeh Fawaz on Unsplash.

Nigeria is home to about 250 ethnic groups and culturally diverse communities with different religious affiliations, who speak over 500 different languages. The three dominant ethnic groups are the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Nigerians practice Christianity, Islam or an indigenous religion. The country is divided almost equally between the Muslims who live predominantly in the North and the Christians who live predominantly in the South. The Hausa ethnic group in the North is largely Muslim and the Igbo ethnic group in the South is predominantly Christian, while the Yoruba ethnic group in the West practices a mixture of Islam, Christianity and indigenous religions. Nigeria’s religious landscape is characterized by religious tensions and conflicts, especially in the Northern part of the country. Religion is embedded in the social and political fabric of the Nigerian state, and its ethnic and religious diversity have been a source of violent disputes over the years. 

The concept of religious freedom is central to the Nigerian political system. Religious freedom, which is both an individual and a collective right, exists side by side with other fundamental freedoms like freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly. While these fundamental freedoms are constitutionally protected, the religious freedom conditions in the country have deteriorated over the years and are characterized by both state and societally perpetrated violations. Religion is about private worship and the public expression of beliefs about social and moral issues. Hence, religious organizations and people need physical, social and legal space to practice their religions. Despite the remarkable consensus that religious freedom is a fundamental human right, religious freedom has not received the degree of protection that the law provides to other fundamental rights. 

A religiously diverse society has the potential function of ensuring that no one religion encroaches on governmental power and no one religion is imposed on a population. However, this is not the case for Nigeria, where the activities of state and non-state actors continue to undermine constitutional provisions, systematically violating the religious freedom of citizens with impunity. This essay explores the dynamics of the violations of religious freedom by state and non-state actors in Nigeria and examines the religious, cultural, legal, political, and economic factors that undermine religious freedom and that trigger and sustain these violations. It argues that these factors are closely linked and threaten national unity, and that only a holistic approach which engages them all can provide effective solutions. 

State Violations of Religious Freedom

Imposition of Sharia Law, Sharia Criminal Courts and Sharia Customary Courts

Sharia Law, a product of Islam, has been imposed on the majority of the states in Northern Nigeria, an area with a significant non-Muslim population. The inclusion of the Sharia Law in the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria was viewed by Christians as a subtle move by the government to Islamize Nigeria, an allegation that does not seem to have faded. State enforcement of religious laws presents serious challenges to the religious freedom of the large non-Muslim population in these Northern states and exposes them to all forms of persecution and inhumane treatments.

Blasphemy Laws

Nigeria has laws against blasphemy adjudicated by Customary Courts, as well as Islamic laws against blasphemy adjudicated by Sharia Courts in most of the Northern Muslim States. The prohibition against blasphemy in the Criminal Code (which is recognized under Sharia Law) is a violation of human rights and fundamental religious freedoms. Section 204 of the Criminal Code prohibits acts that publicly insult any religion and offenses attract a prison sentence of up to two years. However, Sharia Courts are exclusively concerned with acts directly involving insults to Islam and the penalty is death. Many Christians have been accused of blasphemy and killed by Muslims in recent times.

Nigerian refugees in Gagamari camp, Diffa region, Niger” by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Discrimination against religious minorities

Muslims living in Christian populated areas, Christians living in Muslim populated areas, and adherents of Indigenous religions living in Muslim or Christian dominated areas are considered religious minorities. There exist subtle, but systematic, deprivation of access to healthcare, loans, housing, education or employment on the basis of religious affiliation. This threatens peaceful co-existence as people are forced to relocate to where their religion is in the majority in order to have access to these basic amenities. Given that most of these services are provided by the state, these discriminatory practices are carried out in and by government institutions directly or indirectly.

Religious Persecution

Closely related to the discrimination against religious minorities is the issue of religious persecution. The failure of the government to provide protection for religious minorities exposes them to all kinds of persecution. Christians in Northern Nigeria, especially, experience severe hostility and threats to life and livelihood on a consistent basis. Christians pay a huge price for their faith as they are often beaten, tortured, confined, isolated, raped, imprisoned, enslaved and even killed. 

Non-State Violations of Religious Freedom

Targeted abduction and kidnapping of individuals

Terrorism, radicalization and violent extremism by groups with underlying religious agendas have made the country a haven for criminal activities like kidnappings, abductions, raiding of communities and even killings, with government forces offering very little (or no) protection to civilian communities. Groups like Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), ‘Unknown Gunmen,’ bandits, cattle herders and all kinds of armed groups take advantage of the religious climate. The Office of International Religious Freedom in 2021 reported several cases of Muslim men kidnapping young Christian girls and forcing them into marriage and conversion to Islam.

Arbitrary execution of individuals by armed groups

The arbitrary execution of individuals on religious grounds has become very common in Nigeria. In December 2019, the British Broadcasting Network (BBC) reported that the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) released a video claiming to have beheaded eleven Christians. The Office of International Religious Freedom released a report this year detailing cases of executions. Some of these instances include: August 2021, Christian youths killed twenty-seven Muslims on a bus in Plateau State, Nigeria; September 2021, Muslim cattle herders killed at least forty-nine people, mostly Christians and abducted twenty-seven in several attacks on communities in the religiously mixed Southern Kaduna state, Nigeria; January, 2021 suspected Fulani Herdsmen kidnapped and killed Reverend John Gbaakan Yaji, a Catholic Priest of the Minna Diocese. These executions are commonplace in Nigeria today, and the perpetrators are rarely apprehended or punished.

Extrajudicial Killings on religious grounds

In May 2022, student Deborah Yakubu was murdered by her colleagues on the grounds of blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed and Islam. Her colleagues beat her repeatedly with stones and clubs before finally setting her on fire while shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) as she lay lifeless on the ground. In 2007, a school teacher in one of the local communities in Gombe State was beaten and stabbed to death after being falsely accused by one of her students of tearing a copy of the Quran. These are just a few examples of extrajudicial killings carried out on religious grounds and more often than not the perpetrators are not penalized by the law; even if they are arrested, they are released with no charges. 

Attacks on houses of worship (Churches or Mosques)/religious gatherings

Attacks on houses of worship are very common in Nigeria today. In October 2021, gunmen killed at least eighteen worshippers and abducted eleven during early morning prayers at a mosque in a local community in Niger State. Just last month, in a community in Ondo State, South Western Nigeria, gunmen brutally murdered about forty worshippers, including children, at a Catholic Church during a service. The gunmen attacked the church, opened fire on the unarmed worshippers and left the premises without being apprehended by security forces. In June 2022 Reuters reported that gunmen killed eight people and kidnapped about thirty-eight others in an attack on two churches in Kaduna State, Nigeria. Again, these attacks are fairly common and are followed by heavy media publicity with little or no arrests made at the end of the day.

Factors that enable violations of Religious Freedoms in Nigeria

Political Factors

Constitutionally, Nigeria is a secular state and religious communities are not supposed to have a recognized role in politics and no formal relation to the state. Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution provides that “the government of the federation shall not adopt any religion as State Religion,” but in practice religion has been a very potent factor in Nigerian politics because of the instrumental role of religion: politicians campaign for office along religious lines. This often polarizes the electorate and sometimes leads to electoral violence. In a bid to satisfy their supporters, politicians refuse to deal with the many violations of religious freedom. This is one of the reasons why Sharia Law was implemented — to score political points. The failure of government to protect religious freedoms emboldens violators and creates an environment that is conducive for terrorism, criminality, radicalization and violent extremism. The current state of affairs in Nigeria is the result of years of bad governance and corruption. Where leaders are lackadaisical about insecurity and are slow to punish offenders, a lawless society is bound to emerge. The political landscape in Nigeria is fraught with ethno-religious loyalties along party lines, nepotism, corruption and lack of interest in good governance. Years of neglect, unemployment and extreme poverty among the masses have resulted in large numbers of ungoverned spaces taken over by criminal groups and religious extremists. 

Legal Factors

Constitutionally mandated freedom of religion bridges human and divine law, and implies that the two share overlapping jurisdiction and are bound to clash where they do not agree. Ali Mazrui rightly observes that the Nigerian legal system, which is composed of a blend of community customs, Islamic law, and English law, epitomizes Africa’s triple heritage of culture, religion and Western civilization. These laws are not effective in dealing with challenges of religious freedom in Nigeria, largely because of the lack of an independent judiciary. The problematic interpretation of the law and rulings of Nigerian courts in cases of religious freedom epitomizes the challenges of religious diversity in Nigeria; a ruling in favor of one religious community directly affects the religious rights of the other community. For instance, the recent ruling of the Supreme court upholding female students’ rights to wear Hijabs, the traditional Muslim head covering for girls, in Lagos schools in the name of freedom of religion has been met with stiff opposition by Christians in Lagos State given that the ruling means that the Hijab can be worn even in Christian schools.

Cultural Factors

While the promotion and protection of fundamental human rights in any society are determined by several factors such as customs, prevailing traditions as well as the religious laws that undergird behavioral patterns in that society, unbridled cultural expression often leads to situations where culture, as ideas, norms and belief systems, can be religionized leading to violations of the religious rights of others. Culture can give an idea of what the manifestation of freedom of religion looks like as a lived experience, and a lack of cultural expression can serve as an indication of the subtle ways freedom of religion can be restricted. There are certain cultural practices that are particularly unfavorable to women in Nigeria, most notably the customary religious laws that uphold practices which discriminate against women and undermine gender equality, leading to high rates of child marriages, decreased female autonomy and limited access to justice particularly in the area of religious freedoms. Nigeria is a highly patriarchal society where religion and politics are deeply intertwined in public and private life and this makes it particularly challenging for women’s religious rights to be upheld, as in most cases decisions are made without their consent. 

Economic Factors

Societies with large populations of poor people tend to motivate a particular political behavior which sometimes do not reflect their preference but the preference of those they tend to benefit from economically. Also, high levels of social inequality produce social and political conflicts, or exacerbate existing tensions among different religions. Poverty and extreme deprivation in many parts of the country expose the youth of Nigeria to all kinds of social vices and makes them vulnerable to being recruited by violent armed groups and religious extremists. Sometimes, attacks on other religious groups are a by-product of resource conflicts, as demonstrated by the conflict between the cattle herders and crop farmers. The Fulani herders are predominantly Muslim and the farming communities are predominantly Christian, and while their conflict stem from a need for grazing lands and water, the religious components quickly escalate the conflicts. While many may not agree, the principal driver of conflicts between farmers and herders in Nigeria is economic in nature, as the herders and farmers both seek access to land and water resources. However, when the President is a Fulani-Muslim, as is the case in Nigeria, and government policies support open grazing for the herders, in response to conflicts of this nature, favoring the Fulani Muslim herders and protecting attackers rather than prosecuting them, it leaves the farmers exposed and allows the situation to be construed in religious terms, leading to religious conflicts.

Religion is embedded in the social and political fabric of the Nigerian state, and its ethnic and religious diversity have been a source of violent disputes over the years. 

Implication for National Unity

Suspicion and mistrust

Nigeria is a multi-religious and multi-ethnic polity. Suspicion and mistrust are the consequences of decades of violent religious conflicts, religious intolerance and poor governance. When places of worship are attacked and burned down, people maimed and killed by their own neighbors, community life is destroyed, which negatively impacts national integration. Recent events in Nigeria, for instance, have challenged the notion of national unity as various ethno-religious groups called for secession from the Nigerian State. Continued suspicion and mistrust arising from violations of religious freedom poses a significant threat to progress and national cohesion in Nigeria. The citizens do not trust the government to protect them and it is becoming increasingly difficult to trust anyone from a different ethnic or religious group.

Political tensions

State-sponsored violations of religious freedoms force religious communities to question the intentions of the state. In Nigeria, the rising number of incidences of religious violence has led to accusations that the Government has pursued a strategic agenda to systematically Islamize the whole country. Elections in Nigeria, especially presidential elections, are always eventful, and since 1999, when military rule ended in Nigeria, the presidency has alternated between Southern Christians and Northern Muslims, although the latter have occupied the position longer. Against the background of heightened insecurity and religious conflicts, the ruling party, the All Progressive’s Congress (APC), recently presented a Muslim-Muslim ticket for the upcoming 2023 presidential election. The choice to run both a Muslim presidential candidate and vice-presidential candidate angered the Christian community, who  cited the Islamic agenda as the reason for the actions of the ruling party. Traditionally in Nigeria, to appease all the major religious communities, where the presidential candidate is Muslim, the vice president must of necessity be a Christian. 

Ethno-Religious tensions

In 2017, fourteen youth groups in Northern Nigeria demanded that all members of the Igbo tribe move out of all northern states or face dire consequences. There was very little condemnation for this action by the Northern elite. In the South-East of Nigeria, predominantly made up of the Igbo ethnic group, political, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions have reawakened the demand for a secessionist State of Biafra, the cause of the Nigerian Civil war of 1967-1970. Ethnic and sectarian crises in Nigeria create insecurity and pull at the fragile seams of National Unity and deepen instability.

The violations of religious freedom are an infringement on fundamental human rights of any section of the country and feed multiple dimensions of instability in Nigeria with consequences for national unity.

Proliferation of armed groups

The chronic and intensifying insecurity that Nigeria continues to experience has given rise to the formation of several militia groups known as vigilantes. The emergence of vigilantes is due to the shortcomings of the Nigerian police and security forces and their failure to respond to the challenges of crime and insecurity. These extralegal forces (sometimes also referred to as anti-crime-militias, community defenders and auxiliary paramilitary forces) exist at the level of the State and can develop various forms of co-existence with formal security actors. The challenge here is that State-level politicians, especially governors tend to use these groups for their own political agendas; sometimes, these groups take on a life of their own and become a threat to national security. One example is the Eastern Security Network (ESN), a vigilante group in the South-East set up by the secessionist group Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). While the stated goal of the ESN is to combat Fulani herdsmen/raiders in the South-Eastern region of Nigeria, it has been accused of extreme violence and creating more insecurity in the area.

Heightened insecurity and the breakdown of law and order

In Nigeria, there is daily news of attacks by “unknown gunmen,” bandits, terrorists, and other armed groups. On June 6, 2022, the President’s convoy was attacked by unknown gunmen in Northern Nigeria but the attack was repelled by security forces. The attack came on the same day that suspected members of the Islamist group Boko Haram invaded a medium-security prison in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory and seat of government, releasing about 200 prisoners. The inability of the government to stem the tide of religious violence and intolerance has created an environment where violent extremist groups and criminal elements are only creating more insecurity. The already fragile unity of Nigeria is threatened by the growing insecurity and threat to lives and property as it seems the government and its security agencies are unable to deal with the challenge. A situation where religious fanatics take laws into their hands and kill fellow citizens in gruesome acts of murder, or infringe on the fundamental rights of others under the guise of practicing ones’ religion is unlikely to breed unity.

Economic Underdevelopment

The activities of religious extremists and insurgents tends to reduce economic activity in Nigeria. The wanton destruction of lives, livelihood and property that takes place in violent attacks by one group on the other affects economic development. The violent activities of herders on the farmland of farmers and the farmers themselves has led to food shortages in Nigeria and this threatens food security in the long run. For instance, in November 2020, forty-three farmers were killed in a Borno State community. The attackers tied up agricultural laborers working in rice fields and slit their throats. Insecurity and instability resulting from violations of religious freedoms manifesting in religious intolerance continues to hinder efforts channeled at meaningful growth and development. Groups like Boko Haram and ISWAP raid whole communities, burn them to the ground, and kill and kidnap men, women and children, leaving survivors to attempt to rebuild their lives in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.


In recent years, the tensions around religion have been heightened in Nigeria manifesting in ethnic tensions, terrorism, proliferation of secessionist movements, mass protests and violent conflicts. Christians in Nigeria, particularly in Northern Nigeria where the majority of the population is Muslim have borne the brunt of systematic religious discrimination and persecution, although Muslims are also victims in some cases. The violations of religious freedom are an infringement on fundamental human rights of any section of the country and feed multiple dimensions of instability in Nigeria with consequences for national unity. Violations of religious freedoms by state and non-state actors pose a serious threat to peaceful co-existence of the various faith traditions in Nigeria and political, legal, cultural and economic factors continue to enable these violations. ♦

Dr. Dodeye Uduak Williams is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Calabar, Nigeria, a former Commonwealth Scholar (Center for African Studies, University of Edinburgh, UK, 2008-2009) and currently, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Gender Studies, College of Human Sciences, University of South Africa, UNISA. Her research interests interrogate the complexities of the phenomena of politics, terrorism, violent extremism, counterterrorism, and counter-extremism, particularly religious terrorism and extremism in Africa.

Recommended Citation

Williams, Dodeye Uduak. “State and Non-State Violations of Religious Freedom and Implications for National Unity in Nigeria.” Canopy Forum, August 5, 2022.