Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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.