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 qualities, as a distinct component of the “national ethic.”
The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law civil courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts. Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts. In addition to civil 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 noncriminal proceedings; such courts do not have the authority to compel participation by non-Muslims or Muslims. At least one state, Zamfara, requires sharia courts to hear noncriminal 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 civil or sharia courts.
In addition to noncriminal matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both the complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue. Despite constitutional language supporting only secular criminal courts and the prohibition against involuntary participation in sharia criminal courts, a Zamfara State law requires a sharia court hear all criminal cases involving Muslims in that state. Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide hudud 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. Included in the sharia laws are blasphemy laws which can carry sentences up to and including the death penalty, though the secular court system has historically vacated such sentences on appeal.
In the states of Kano and Zamfara, 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.
On August 7, President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Companies and Allied Matters Act of 2020 (CAMA), which streamlines procedures for and increases the ease of doing business in the country by outlining management responsibilities of businesses and organizations. The law contains provisions that, according to some legal scholars, could place some smaller religious organizations under the administrative control of the government.
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 stated that 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 states that no religious community shall 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 of registered religious groups. In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including by issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison, a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,300), or both for operating without a license.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Numerous fatal intercommunal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim Fulani herders. The government undertook 20 targeted military operations whose aim it stated was to root out bandits and armed gangs in the region and to arrest perpetrators of communal and criminal violence, but multiple sources stated that the government measures were largely reactive and insufficient to address the violence.
According to multiple academic and media sources, banditry and ideologically neutral criminality was the primary driver of violence in the North West region, although religious figures and houses of worship were often victims. The government launched additional security operations in the North West region that it stated were meant to stem insecurity created by armed criminal gangs and violent conflict over land and water resources, which frequently involved predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian.
Various sources stated the government did not take significant measures to combat insecurity, including ethnoreligious violence, throughout the country. The NGO International Crisis Group said in a report released during the year, “A further factor that has exacerbated violence in the North West is the state authorities’ negligence in dealing with the crisis.” The report said that many state governments relied primarily on arming vigilante groups to counter the violence, which it said was counterproductive. An ACLED report stated, “Responding to communal violence is not a priority of Nigeria’s state forces. A lack of government engagement leads to an increased reliance on local vigilante groups, and in turn, an increased accessibility to arms. Despite increasing their activity substantially since 2015, the overall presence of state forces is too inconsistent and limited to protect or support communities or mitigate and suppress violence.”
In a speech given at the funeral of Michael Nnadi, a Catholic seminary student killed by gang members in Kaduna State on January 31, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Kukah commented on the situation in the northern part of the country, saying the government and what he called “the northern Muslim elite” was largely to blame for violence and poverty, especially affecting Christians. In his address he said, “We are being told that this situation has nothing to do with religion. Really? It is what happens when politicians use religion to extend the frontiers of their ambition and power…By denying Christians lands for places of worship across most of the northern states, ignoring the systematic destruction of churches all these years, denying Christians adequate recruitment, representation and promotions in the State civil services, denying their indigenous children scholarships, marrying Christian women or converting Christians while threatening Muslim women and prospective converts with death, they make building a harmonious community impossible.”
On March 19, Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar III stated at a Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC) meeting, “We have been reading and hearing reports about the persecution of Christians in Nigeria and I keep asking myself how? Christians are being killed, Muslims are also being killed and they are all lives created by God. For me, there is no persecution of anybody in this country. If you claim there is a persecution of Christians in Nigeria, there would also be claims of persecution of Muslims, but that would not solve the problem. People claim they are denied places to build mosques, churches in some parts of the country. But the right thing to do in such cases is to approach relevant authorities and not to make claims of persecution. I can quote from now till the next 100 years of things that have been done or not done to Muslims, but we usually approach relevant authorities in ways that we believe would bring solutions to the problems.”
Some religious freedom activists said the Buhari administration was sympathetic to foreign Fulanis and that many state governors made it easy for foreign Fulanis to receive documents referring to one’s ancestral home that could facilitate access to government services or certain privileges, which compounded resource disputes and sectarian conflict. Some civil society representatives protested President Buhari’s appointment of primarily Muslim northerners to high-level positions. They said there was a culture of impunity in the country and a lack of accountability for those who commit mass civilian killings.
In June, the UK Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief released a report, Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?, in which the group stated, “Another of the main drivers of the escalating violence is the Nigerian Government’s inability to provide security or justice to farmer or herder communities.” The report stated the parliamentary group agreed with Amnesty International’s conclusion that “failure to protect communities, as well as cases of direct military harassment or violence, combined with an unwillingness to instigate legitimate investigations into allegations of wrongdoing, ‘demonstrate, at least, willful negligence; at worst, complicity’ on the behalf of some in the Nigerian security forces.” The government responded in August by welcoming the report as well as “inputs that would help any peaceful coexistence of Nigerian citizens,” although it said it was “incorrect to assert that the government was doing nothing to address the intertwined threats” of farmer-herder clashes and Boko Haram terrorists. It also urged the authors of the report “to visit Nigeria, whether formally or informally, to discuss the points raised” in it.
According to media reports, Operation Sahel Sanity, one of multiple government paramilitary operations in the north, destroyed 197 of what it termed bandit hideouts, killed 220 bandits, arrested 892 suspects, and rescued 642 kidnap victims in the North West region during the second half of the year. Despite this, the reports said that government was unable to keep pace with the growing number and frequency of attacks, saying this was mostly because the security forces in the country were too few and spread too thin and bogged down in the northeast fighting Boko Haram and ISIS-WA. In November, President Buhari asked his chief of staff, Ibrahim Gambari, to engage with political, traditional, and religious leaders throughout the areas of the country that had seen outbreaks of violence to combat insecurity and engage with the country’s significant youth population. Following the National Governors’ Forum meeting on November 5, the 36 state executives committed to guidelines to engage with religious, traditional, and civil society leaders to “drive a common agenda and generate…support for security personnel who ensure the safety and wellbeing of all Nigerians.”
The government’s proscription of the IMN remained in place throughout the year, following a Federal High Court ruling in 2019 and the government’s subsequent banning of the IMN as an illegal organization. The government continued to emphasize that the IMN’s proscription “has nothing to do with banning the larger numbers of peaceful and law-abiding Shiites in the country from practicing their religion.”
Shia Rights Watch reported on January 23 that government forces used tear gas and firearms against protesters calling for the release of IMN head Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, and authorities killed one protester and severely injured another.
Shia Rights Watch reported in June that the Federal High Court in Abuja awarded five million naira ($13,000) each for wrongful death to the families of three IMN members whom the police allegedly killed in July 2019. The judge also ordered the National Hospital to release the bodies of the three men. The body of a fourth individual, whom police also allegedly killed the same day, was not released but was kept in a different hospital.
An IMN spokesperson said police killed three IMN members during the group’s annual Ashura procession in Kaduna on August 24 and a further two died in clashes with police on August 30.
On August 24, an IMN spokesperson confirmed that all IMN members arrested in the 2015 Zaria clashes with the army except Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife had been released by February, despite a December 2016 court ruling that El-Zakzaky and his wife be released by January 2017. 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. The Kaduna State High Court rejected El-Zakzaky’s motion to dismiss his and his wife’s case on September 29. On October 19, IMN members protested El-Zakzaky’s continued detention on the fifth anniversary of the violent clash with police in Zaria. On November 28, the High Court adjourned the case of El-Zakzaky and his wife to January 2021.
Blasphemy laws were part of the expanded sharia laws introduced between 1999 and 2000 in 12 Muslim majority states in the northern part of the country. Although in past years blasphemy laws were rarely, if ever, implemented, authorities arrested two individuals for blasphemy during the year. In September, a Kano State sharia court convicted and sentenced 16-year-old Farouq Omar, who had no legal representation at the time, to 10 years in prison and menial labor for committing blasphemy during an argument with a friend; after his case was reported in the press, Omar gained volunteer legal representation and his lawyers appealed the ruling. Various human rights groups and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) condemned the judgment and called for its reversal. The same Kano State sharia court in August convicted and sentenced 22-year-old Yahaya Aminu-Sharif to death for blasphemy after he allegedly elevated a Tijaniyyah saint above the Prophet Mohammed in lyrics for a song he had written. Aminu-Sharif’s lawyers appealed the court’s decision. On April 28, authorities arrested Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, without charge. His attorneys said they believed it was related to Bala’s alleged insulting of Islam on social media. Bala was detained in a Kano prison without formal charges but was granted access to his lawyer in October. On December 21, the High Court ordered the police and other federal authorities to release Bala; however, because he was in Kano State custody, he remained in detention at year’s end.
Criminal groups committed crimes of opportunity, including kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, and banditry in North West and South East regions. According to security experts, this criminal activity increased in volume, geographic scope, and attendant violence during the year. Clergy were often targeted as victims of these crimes, according to Christian organizations, because they are viewed as soft targets who often travel conspicuously without security in the evenings, are typically unarmed, have access to money, and generate significant media attention. While many churches, including the Catholic Church, formally refused to pay ransom, some communities raised money to ensure the return of their religious leaders. Family members of kidnap victims also sometimes paid ransom. Federal and state governments responded to increased criminality in the region with new security initiatives. The Nigerian Police Force increased the number of police checkpoints on major road networks. State governors across the regions ran local “community policing” operations to combat kidnappings, primarily through state-supported vigilante groups such as neighborhood watch groups, the Enugu Forest Guard, and the Abia State and Anambra State Vigilante Services. Media reports often said Fulani herdsmen were responsible for these attacks, particularly those in the South West region, but, according to analysts, most incidents were perpetrated by local armed criminal groups.
According to Muslim leaders in Nasarawa State and Benue State governor Samuel Ortom, there were groups of foreign Sahelian nomadic Mbororo pastoralists present in the country since 2017 who were often mistaken for indigenous Nigerian Fulani herdsmen. Christian leaders throughout the country criticized what they stated was a formal role that state governments played in welcoming the influx of these foreigners in a situation of increased levels of poverty and reduced job opportunities for permanent residents. Yoruba sociocultural groups, community leaders, and politicians in Oyo, Osun, and Ekiti States increasingly employed what sources stated was incendiary speech against the Mbororo, blaming them for a rise in crime and accusing the “invading herdsman” of looking to “Fulanize the south.”
The government at both the federal and state levels put temporary limitations on public gatherings, including religious services, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most churches and mosques throughout the country closed, but state governments arrested both Christian and Muslim leaders for violating lockdown orders. In March, both Christian and Muslim communities quickly complied when the government imposed quarantine measures; religious leaders said they underscored the necessity of staying home during Holy Week, including Easter, and the run-up to Ramadan. In Kaduna State, authorities arrested and arraigned two Christians on criminal disobedience charges on March 27 for attempting to hold church services, while three Muslims were charged with similar offenses on March 30 for holding congregational services in a mosque. Abuja officials arrested a prominent imam for violating stay-at-home orders but refrained from arresting a pastor who was preaching alone on camera at the Christ Embassy Church to worshipers online on Easter Sunday, April 12. In predominantly Christian Delta State, authorities arrested three pastors on Easter Sunday for violating lockdown orders issued the previous day. In Benue State, security personnel forcefully dispersed church services in remote areas where clergy disobeyed lockdown orders, although churches within city centers complied with the lockdown.
On July 8, police in Ohafia, Abia State, arrested Ifekwe Udo, the founder of the Assemblies of Light Bearer Greater Church of Lucifer, popularly known as the Church of Satan, for violating coronavirus pandemic lockdown directives. The following day, Christian youths stormed the church and demolished it. The town banished Udo in August after authorities released him from detention. At year’s end, he remained in exile in neighboring Imo State.
Beginning in June, the government’s easing of lockdown restrictions included reopening religious houses of worship that had pandemic prevention measures in place. In September, federal mandates limited public gatherings to no more than 50 persons in enclosed spaces. State-level mandates varied on the reopening of religious services as the pandemic progressed. In September, the Delta State government urged churches to hold multiple services to reduce the numbers of congregants at any one time in their buildings in compliance with modified coronavirus pandemic protocols. Due to the pandemic and Saudi Arabia’s closure of the Muslim holy places to international Hajj pilgrims, in August the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria announced that 90 percent of intending pilgrims declined a refund of their Hajj fare in lieu of a prepayment for the following year’s pilgrimage. The government similarly curtailed its sponsorship of Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem in response to the pandemic.
On August 20, Jigawa State Hisbah authorities announced they had destroyed approximately 600 confiscated bottles of beer in Tundun Babaye village. In October, the Kano State government called for the arrest and prosecution of officials of the Nigerian Breweries company for arranging for the secret importation of beer, which is banned in the state on religious grounds.
Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and federal government laws discriminated against them. In August, the Anglican Church spoke against a newly enacted Anambra State law on burials that dictated the type, manner, and time of the religious service or rites and how they would be performed. The law was passed without the Church’s input, which it said violated the country’s constitution.
While CAMA, which President Buhari signed into law on August 7, neither specifically addresses nor exempts nonprofit, nongovernmental, or religious organizations nor contains language about religion, some NGOs and religious organizations raised concerns about the law. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the prominent umbrella organization of the country’s Christian groups, and NIREC criticized CAMA as possibly unconstitutionally infringing on freedom of association and religion by placing some smaller religious organizations under the administrative control of government. Under the new law, the federal government has broad and discretionary powers to withdraw, cancel, or revoke the certificate of any business or association; suspend and remove trustees (and appoint any one of their choice to manage the organization “in the public interest”); take control of finances of any association; and merge two associations without the consent and approval of their members. On August 31, Buhari denied CAMA had any intentional religious discrimination and called on CAN to propose amendments to the law. On October 5 he appealed to those who were aggrieved with some laws to be patient and seek reforms in line with democratic practices.
NIREC, headed by the Sultan of Sokoto and the president of CAN, met in March to discuss insecurity and the rise of crime in the country as well as the probable impact of COVID-19 on the lives of citizens. NIREC called on people of all religions to follow government health regulations and maintain calm.
State-level actors, including government, traditional, religious, and civil society organizations, regularly negotiated resolution of disputes. In September, religious and community leaders in the ethnically and religiously diverse Jos North Local Government Area in Plateau State pledged to live in peace and enhance economic development and tranquility following a two-day workshop organized by the African Initiative for Peace Building and Advancement. On October 14, Nasarawa State governor Abdullahi Sule, a Muslim, inaugurated the headquarters of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Christ in Alushi, calling on all Christians and Muslims in the diverse state to support his efforts to enhance peace, unity, and the development of Nasarawa.
Due to what sources stated was the promotion of peaceful coexistence by Plateau State governor Simon Lalong, in October, the Islamic Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna (JIBWIS) began reconstruction of a mosque that had been demolished during sectarian riots in 2004 in the predominantly Christian state.
Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
According to estimates from the Council on Foreign Relations online Nigeria Security Tracker, Islamist terrorist violence killed 881 persons (including security forces and civilians) during the year. More than 22,000 persons, most of them children, remained missing as a result of the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, according to an International Committee of the Red Cross statement in September.
Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-WA attacked population centers and religious targets and 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. The groups continued to carry out suicide bombings – many by drugging and forcing young women and girls to carry out the bombings – targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques. According to local media, on January 26, two girls blew themselves up outside a mosque in Borno State, killing two others and injuring 14 persons praying at the time. Local media further reported that on Christmas Eve, Boko Haram terrorists killed seven persons in a raid on a Christian village in Borno State and torched homes and a church.
In January, members of Boko Haram kidnapped, held for ransom, and later beheaded Reverend Lawan Andimi, a Christian pastor and chairman of a local chapter of CAN. Following the Andimi killing, President Buhari released an op-ed entitled, Buhari: Pastor Andimi’s faith should inspire all Nigerians. In January, Boko Haram released a video in which a child soldier shoots a prisoner identified as a member of the Church of Christ in Nations. In the video, the shooter said the killing was in retaliation for Christian atrocities against Muslims in the country. According to media reports in February, more than 100 Boko Haram militants opened fire on civilians, set fire to houses, and burned down at least five churches in Garkida, Adamawa State. At a press conference in February, Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed said of Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, “They have started targeting Christians and Christian villages for a specific reason, which is to trigger a religious war and throw the nation into chaos.”
ISIS-WA activity along the Maiduguri-Damaturu highway, the main humanitarian artery from neighboring Yobe State into Borno, included screenings at illegal checkpoints in Borno with the purported aim of detaining Christians, off-duty security force personnel, and humanitarian workers. On October 29, a security-focused NGO stated that suspected ISIS-WA operatives abducted three passengers they reportedly identified as Christians. Two of the three individuals were local NGO staff workers who were believed to remain in captivity at year’s end.
On the sixth anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 pupils from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in April 2014, 112 remained in captivity, according to government and media reports.
At year’s end, Leah Sharibu, captured by ISIS-WA in February 2018, remained a captive, reportedly because she refused to convert to Islam from Christianity.