Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others. The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.” It prohibits political parties that limit membership based on religion or have names that have a religious connotation. The constitution highlights religious tolerance, among other virtues, as a distinct “national ethic.”
The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law courts. Sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory. Customary courts function in most of the 36 states. The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction. The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for “civil proceedings”; such courts do not have the authority to compel participation, whether by non-Muslims or Muslims. At least one state, Zamfara, requires sharia courts to hear civil cases in which all litigants are Muslim and provides the option to appeal any decision to the common law court. Non-Muslims have the option to have their cases tried in the sharia courts if they wish.
The constitution is silent on the use of sharia courts for criminal cases. In addition to civil matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue. Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for hudud (serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide punishments such as caning, amputation, and stoning). Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal statutes through common law appellate courts. The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who, while not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code, may seek advice from sharia experts.
Kano and Zamfara’s state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, license imams, and attempt to resolve religious disputes between Muslims in those states. The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs ministries or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.
To build places of worship, open bank accounts, receive tax exemptions, or sign contracts, religious groups must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission as an incorporated trustee, which involves submitting an application form, proof of public notice, a copy of the organization’s constitution, a list of trustees, and a fee of 20,000 naira ($55).
Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution prohibits schools from requiring students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own. State officials and many religious leaders have stated students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own. The constitution also says no religious community will be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place that community wholly maintains.
Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools for registered religious groups. In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,400) for operating without a license.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Throughout the year, Shia Muslims, under the auspices of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), conducted a series of demonstrations, some of which resulted in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces. IMN was the largest Shia organization in the country and was led by Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky who, according to his writings and online communications, draws inspiration from the Iranian revolution and from the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Between March and July, members of the IMN conducted daily protests in Abuja to contest the continued detention of El-Zakzaky, despite a December 2016 Abuja High Court ruling that he be released by January 2017. The protests continued until his temporary release due to illness in August. During an initially peaceful IMN demonstration in Abuja on July 9, an IMN member sparked an exchange of gunfire between police and IMN protestors when he grabbed an officer’s holstered pistol, resulting in the deaths of the officer, 15 IMN members, and a security guard, according to press reports. IMN members also broke through police barricades at the National Assembly and police dispersed the crowd with tear gas. Following the July 9 events, the Senate called for the arrest of IMN members involved in the violence, while the House of Representatives called on the government to urgently engage the IMN to resolve the conflict and expressed fears the Shia group was fast evolving “the way Boko Haram started.”
Human Rights Watch reported that on July 22, police opened fire on peaceful IMN protesters and killed 11 protesters, a journalist, and a police officer, while dozens of others were wounded or arrested, according to witnesses and authorities. On November 27, police arraigned 60 IMN members arrested at the July 22 protest on charges of culpable homicide, destruction of public property, and public disturbance.
On July 26, the Federal High Court ruled IMN’s activities amounted to “acts of terrorism and illegality” and ordered the government to proscribe the “existence and activities” of the group. On July 28, the government complied, officially banning the IMN as an illegal organization and thereby prohibiting its meeting or activities. In its announcement, the government emphasized its proscription of the IMN “has nothing to do with banning the larger numbers of peaceful and law-abiding Shiites in the country from practicing their religion.” Following the ban, then-Archbishop of Abuja Cardinal Oneiyekan defended the country’s Shia Muslims and criticized the government’s action banning the IMN as a threat to religious freedom for all believers, according to Catholic media. On September 10, despite the government prohibition, the IMN sponsored Ashura religious processions in Bauchi, Kaduna, Gombe, Katsina, and Sokoto States. The IMN reported as many as 12 participants in the processions died in clashes with security forces, with media sources reporting between three and nine killed.
In August the government granted El-Zakzaky temporary release to seek medical treatment in India; he traveled but reportedly refused treatment in India after stating armed Indian guards had been posted in his room during his medical treatment. Upon his return home the government returned him to custody, where he remained through the end of the year.
On November 27, police broke up an IMN protest and arrested 12 members and two journalists. The journalists later were released.
Local and international NGOs continued to criticize the lack of accountability for soldiers implicated in a December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. Approximately 100 IMN members arrested after that clash remained in detention.
In June the Kaduna state legislature approved a bill to regulate religious preaching. While the government said the new law would protect against “hate speech,” religious leaders said it infringed on freedom of speech and the rights of Christians and Muslims. The law required all preachers to be licensed by a state-level body composed of religious leaders, government officials, and security agencies. Later in June Kaduna’s highest court nullified the law, stating that it was inconsistent with the constitution’s guarantees for freedom of expression, association, and religion. The state government announced it would appeal the decision at the federal level.
In May the Kano state Hisbah Board arrested 80 Muslims accused of eating in public rather than fasting during Ramadan. The Kano hisbah spokesman said they were all eventually released since it was their first offense but noted they would be taken to court if detained again. In October the Kano state hisbah arrested four men for organizing a false online wedding to a young woman over Facebook, stating it “mocked Islam” as well as demeaned the “sanctity of the institution of marriage.”
Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.
Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized the government’s perceived inability to prevent or effectively mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities in the Middle Belt region.
In June some ethnoreligious organizations in the South West and South East reacted with threats of violence to news of a government plan to resettle predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country. In the South West, both Muslim and Christian groups threatened violence against members of the Fulani ethnic group. The government later abandoned the plan.
In June President Muhammadu Buhari announced plans for the eventual ban of Almajiri Quranic schools due to their reported practice of forcing students to beg in the streets and their perceived association with urban crime and violence; he said the government first would consult with states, which have jurisdiction over the schools, and others in the education community. In July the Kaduna State Commissioner for Education announced that Quranic schools would be integrated into the formal education system. In October the Kano state government announced a “free and compulsory education initiative” that would abolish the payment of school fees and integrate all Almajiri pupils into the formal education system in 2020.
In October police raided four Islamic schools in Kaduna and Katsina States and freed over 1,000 men and boys living in “inhumane and degrading” conditions, including being chained and physically abused, according to international media. In November police freed 259 men, women, and children from an Islamic school in Oyo State and rescued 15 people chained in a church in Lagos. In November Human Rights Watch reported its investigators found individuals chained in 27 of 28 institutions they visited, which included psychiatric hospitals, general hospitals, traditional healing centers, Christian churches, and both Islamic and state-owned rehabilitation centers. Following the raids, President Buhari issued a statement saying, “No responsible democratic government would tolerate the existence of the torture chambers and physical abuses of inmates in the name of rehabilitation of the victims.”
In January Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar III and then-Archbishop of Abuja Onaiyekan organized a conference with religious leaders from throughout the country to promote peaceful elections.
In September the Kaduna State Urban Planning Development Agency served the 110-year-old St. George Anglican Church a notice to vacate its premises within seven days on the grounds that the church did not have a certificate of occupancy. A week later the Kaduna state government issued a statement saying the church would remain because of its historical value.
Although the U.S.-designated terrorist organization Boko Haram split into two factions in 2016, one called ISIS-WA and another, headed by Abubakar Shekau, that retained the traditional name of Boko Haram, most residents and government officials continued to refer to both groups collectively as Boko Haram.
Boko Haram and ISIS-WA attacked population centers and religious targets in Borno state. The two insurgencies maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. In July ISIS-WA abducted six Action Against Hunger (AAH) aid workers when a convoy led by the agency was heading to a remote town in Borno State to deliver food. In July 65 persons returning from a funeral in a predominantly Muslim community were killed by Boko Haram. In September ISIS-WA released a video depicting the beheading of two Christian aid workers, Lawrence Duna Dacighir and Godfrey Ali Shikagham, according to media reports; in the video one of the killers vowed to kill every Christian the group captured in revenge for Muslims killed in past religious conflicts. In October ISIS-WA filmed and publicly released the video of the killing of one of the six abducted AAH aid workers, who was Muslim. On December 24, Boko Haram killed seven people and abducted one teenage girl in a raid on a Christian village in Borno State. On December 26, ISIS-WA released a video of the execution of 10 Christian and one Muslim to avenge the death of ISIS leader al-Baghdadi.
Boko Haram continued to carry out person-borne IED bombings – many by young women and girls drugged and forced into doing so – targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques. In February and March Boko Haram carried out four attacks on EYN Church of the Brethren villages in southern Borno State, killing one, abducting three children and burning over 30 homes and several church buildings, according to international media. On February 16, Boko Haram killed 11 people during a suicide attack inside a mosque in Gwozari/Kushari area of Maiduguri.
According to 2018 estimates from the NGO Nigeria Watch, which did not appear to differentiate between Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, 2,135 persons, including Boko Haram members, died due to insurgent violence during that year, compared with 2,829 killed in 2017. More than 22,000 persons, most of them children, remained missing as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency, according an International Committee of the Red Cross statement in September.
On the fifth anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 pupils from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School on April 14, 2014, 112 remained in captivity, according to government and media reports. Leah Sharibu remained in ISIS-WA captivity since February 2018, reportedly because she refused to convert to Islam from Christianity. According to the Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker, Boko Haram has destroyed 59 churches and 22 mosques since 2010.