Religious and other groups said the federal government did not always prevent or quell violence, often expressed along religious lines, or to protect victims of violent attacks targeted because of their religious beliefs. The government was not able to fully contain Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. Although the group changed its name to Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), it is still commonly referred to as Boko Haram, Hausa for “Western education is forbidden.” International human rights organizations reported the government utilized heavy-handed tactics, including committing extrajudicial killings of suspected terrorists, torture, and allowing detainees to die in custody. According to observers, such tactics increased the support for Boko Haram. Human Rights Watch reported that eyewitnesses saw army troops kill at least 300 members of the IMN in Zaria, Kaduna State in December and bury them in mass graves, following an altercation at a roadblock that disrupted the convoy of the COAS. The military said IMN members attempted to assassinate the COAS, that only seven IMN members died, and that it acted within its rules of engagement. In a June report, Amnesty International called for nine military officers to be investigated for war crimes related to the conduct of counter-Boko Haram operations. Security forces raided the mosques or residences of small religious groups allegedly holding arms or engaging in other illegal activity. A sharia court sentenced nine people to death for blasphemy, and the case remained on appeal.
The federal government under the administrations of both Presidents Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari stated that it made efforts to confront Boko Haram, which led to progress in containing the group. The government increasingly cooperated with neighboring countries, established a military command center in the capital of Borno State, and provided military forces with supplies and weapons to fight Boko Haram. An offensive launched in February resulted in the recapture of the majority of the territory held by Boko Haram.
While Boko Haram continued to raid small towns and villages in remote areas of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe States, religious leaders and civil society groups reported the military was more likely to respond to attacks or threats of attack by Boko Haram than in the past. The group increasingly used suicide attacks and improvised explosive device rather than raids. Boko Haram fighters continued to target houses of worship and other buildings during these attacks.
International human rights groups and domestic NGOs accused security forces of heavy handedness in dealing with minority religious movements. Human Rights Watch said eyewitnesses reported at least 300 members of IMN were killed by Nigerian Army troops in Zaria, Kaduna State, from December 12-14, following an altercation at a roadblock at the Hussainiya Baqiyatullah religious center that blocked the convoy of the COAS. The IMN subsequently released a list that contained the names of 705 IMN members the group said were missing following the incident. Human rights groups corroborated statements from the IMN that, in the days after the clashes, Nigerian soldiers destroyed religiously significant IMN sites in Zaria, including the group’s Hussainiya Baqiyatullah religious center and Darur Rahma cemetery. IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky remained in government custody while institutions including the National Human Rights Commission, National Assembly, and Kaduna State government established inquiries into the incident.
On June 25, a sharia court in Kano State announced it had sentenced eight men and one woman to death for blasphemy. During a religious gathering in honor of the founder of the Tijaniyyah group, the accused allegedly made remarks elevating a former leader above the Prophet Muhammad. Prior to the sentencing, protesters calling for the deaths of the accused burned down a court building where the trial was being conducted, and threatened violence if the court acquitted the defendants. The court conducted the trial in secret and did not release the names of several of the accused. The case remained on appeal. Authorities did not carry out any capital punishments from sharia courts or sentences such as stoning or amputation during the year.
Christian groups said the government only occasionally investigated, prosecuted, and punished perpetrators of violence or other abuses of religious freedom, following a pattern of impunity throughout the country. There were no indictments or prosecutions following fatal attacks on religious leaders and institutions. The government’s prosecution of suspected Boko Haram members was slow, and most suspects were held indefinitely. No suspected Boko Haram terrorists were reported to have been prosecuted during the year, and only eight have been prosecuted over the past five years, according to police.
During the year, the National Human Rights Commission did not release the results of the inquiry it launched into a 2014 incident in which the IMN clashed with members of the army. The conflict resulted in an estimated 35 deaths, including three of the sons of IMN leader Zakzaky. Army leadership, which stated that its soldiers acted in self-defense, also did not release the results of a promised investigation.
State and local authorities began to facilitate the return of displaced persons to towns recaptured from Boko Haram in the northeast, though humanitarian and civil society groups cautioned that security provisions were sometimes not adequate.
Some Christian groups reported a lack of protection by federal, state, and local authorities, especially in central regions, where there were long standing, violent disputes, many between Christians and Muslims, over land use and other political, economic, and ethnic issues. Herders, who were predominately Muslim and from the Fulani ethnic group, sometimes allowed their livestock to graze on property belonging to the farmers, who were predominately Christian and from other ethnic groups. Because of the close links among religion, ethnicity, and political and economic interests, it was difficult to categorize many of these incidents as based solely on religious identity.
In early September, religious, political, and civil society leaders organized protests in the national capital, Abuja, and Plateau State capital, Jos, to call on the federal government to take action to stop the frequent incidents of communal violence in the Barkin Ladi and Riyom areas outside Jos. The protestors said over 300 people were killed by such violence in both areas between May and August, including a May 2 attack suspected to have been carried out by Fulani herders on a Church of Christ in Nigeria church in Barkin Ladi. The attack killed the pastor and 26 others, including church members. The police said that gunmen, again described as Fulani herders, killed at least 45 people in a March 15 attack on Egba village in Benue State, whose residents are largely Christian, as part of a dispute over grazing rights. The press reported that presumed Fulani herders killed more than 100 people in the Logo area of Benue State, most of them Christian, on May 26 during a six-hour early morning attack targeting villages and camps hosting victims of earlier communal clashes in the state. No arrests related to these incidents were reported.
Following national and state elections in March and April newly-elected federal and state governments took preliminary steps to implement some of the recommendations by past government commissions for resolving disputes or reducing ethnoreligious tensions. President Buhari endorsed a Ministry of Agriculture proposal to create grazing reserves and livestock routes to mitigate clashes between Muslim herders and Christian farmers. State and federal governments cooperated to restore the presence of security forces in some ungoverned areas of the north that served as safe havens for cattle rustlers and armed robbers believed responsible for instigating some of the herder-farmer violence. The incoming governor of Kaduna State established a commission to address religiously motivated violence in southern Kaduna and implemented its recommendations, including eliminating the legal distinction in the state between “indigenes,” long-term residents of the state, often farmers, and “settlers,” more recent immigrants into the state, including most herders. Following the recommendations from religious and other leaders, the new governor of Plateau State convened a “stakeholders’ alternative dispute resolution mechanism” composed of leaders of ethnic, religious, and other groups at the heart of the conflict in the state. These steps were not able to prevent the escalation of violent clashes in the state.
The Muslim Students Society of Nigeria appealed a 2014 ruling by the High Court in Lagos that upheld a ban on wearing the hijab in public primary and secondary schools except during religious classes and times set aside for prayer. The case remained on appeal. Muslim organizations condemned a suggestion by President Buhari during a December 30 press conference that the government would consider banning the hijab for security reasons, and a presidential spokesperson later clarified that there were no plans for a ban. Muslim groups said women wearing the hijab faced additional scrutiny from private security forces. Muslim groups said public school uniforms were too revealing and thus discriminated against their standards, particularly in the south. In some states, public school authorities prevented girls from wearing the hijab as part of their uniform and sometimes harassed girls who wore it outside of school grounds.
Authorities in some states reportedly denied building permits to minority religious communities for the construction of new places of worship, expansion and renovation of existing facilities, or reconstruction of buildings that had been demolished. Christians reported local community leaders, traditional rulers, and government officials in the predominantly Muslim northern states used regulations on zoning and title registrations to stop or slow the establishment of new churches.
Church leaders said they were able to evade such restrictions by purchasing and developing land in the name of an individual member of their congregation, but this practice left the church in a tenuous legal position. National media outlets reported in early January that the Katsina State government had threatened to demolish a historic church, producing a “religious crisis” in the state. Some of those involved, however, said the press reports were greatly exaggerated, as the dispute involved only a permit for the construction of a fence. An interfaith committee appointed by the state government helped resolve the fence issue, while Christian groups and the pastor of the church in question reported that interfaith relations remained close.
Some non-Muslims stated that government-funded sharia courts amounted to the adoption of Islam as a state religion, while the state governments maintained no person was compelled to use the sharia courts, citing the availability of a parallel common law court system. Christian groups stated non-Muslims were pressured to file cases in sharia courts and were more likely to receive unfavorable judgments in those courts.
In some states, sharia-based practices, such as the separation of the sexes in public schools and in health care, voting, and transportation facilities, affected non-Muslim minorities.
State governments in Bauchi, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Niger, and Zamfara funded sharia law enforcement groups called the Hisbah, which Christian groups said enforced sharia inconsistently and sporadically, sometimes targeting Christians or residents of other states. While Hisbah groups were generally more lenient in areas set aside for Christians, visitors, or residents of other states, homes and businesses in predominantly Christian neighborhoods were sometimes raided as well. The Kano State Hisbah periodically arrested residents for alcohol consumption, begging, prostitution, and other purported violations of sharia.
On January 27, the Kano State Hisbah Board said it had arrested 12 young men who were planning what the board called a gay wedding in Kano, which the detainees said was a birthday party. On July 27, the Kano State Hisbah Board said it arrested 20 youths for misconduct including dressing “indecently” and having “long hair,” releasing them after scolding them and cutting their hair.
The Kano State Hisbah Board enforced sharia statutes banning public consumption and distribution of alcohol, particularly around Islamic holidays. On January 10, the Kano State Hisbah Board reported it had destroyed over 300,000 confiscated bottles of beer during the previous three years. Hisbah boards regularly sponsored mass wedding ceremonies for widows and divorcees. The Kano State Hisbah Board said in May that it had conducted nearly 5,000 weddings since 2012 and that the men were told they were not permitted to divorce their wives without permission from the Hisbah Board.
In advance of the March presidential elections and April National Assembly elections, civil society and religious groups expressed concerns about politicians exploiting religion for political gain. Then-Vice President Namadi Sambo sparked controversy at a February campaign event when he said his party had more Muslims in key posts than the All Progressives Congress party.
In January the leading candidates in the presidential election, Jonathan and Buhari, signed a nonviolence pledge known as the Abuja Peace Accord, which was organized by religious leaders, and the candidates reaffirmed it at a joint ceremony two days before the election. Responding to accusations that he would “Islamize” the country or express favoritism towards Muslims, Buhari spoke at several interfaith events to clarify that he supported sharia in matters of personal status only and pledged to protect religious freedom if elected. Buhari followed political convention by choosing a running mate who was not a member of his own religion, Evangelical Christian Pastor Yemi Osinbajo. Political opponents and some Muslim groups criticized then-President Jonathan for visiting churches to make policy announcements and campaign appearances in the weeks before the election. Commentators singled out some prominent clerics who appeared to endorse specific candidates in their sermons. Media reports indicated fewer people were killed during the year’s elections than any since 1999, including the aftermath of the 2011 elections, when Human Rights Watch reported more than 800 people were killed, some apparently targeted for religious reasons.
Christian groups reported individual administrators of government-run universities and technical schools in several northern states refused to admit Christian students or delayed the issuance of their degrees and licenses. Muslim and Christian groups said administrators blocked the construction of houses of worship for the nondominant religion on the campuses of public universities.
Prisoners were able to attend religious services and outside clergy and religious organizations constructed chapels or mosques in some prisons, but prisons reportedly did not have equal facilities for Muslim and Christian worship.
The federal government approved the use of air carriers for religious pilgrimages to Mecca for Muslims and to Jerusalem, Rome, or Greece for Christians, and subsidized both types of pilgrimages. It established airfares and negotiated bilateral air service agreements with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Italy to support pilgrimages. The National Hajj Commission provided logistical arrangements for approximately 85,000 pilgrims to Mecca. The Nigerian Christian Pilgrims Commission provided logistical arrangements for the travel of as many as 30,000 pilgrims to Jerusalem, Rome, and Greece. Multiple state governments ended their sponsorship of pilgrimages, due to budget constraints.