Does religious freedom have a future in Nigeria?

Christmas in Nigeria - Quo Vadis Nigeria?

In our final post for this year, the nearing event of Christmas inspired us to highlight exclusion many face because of their faith again. Last year's focus was India, where worringly a trend of increasing persecution of religious minorities is continuing.

This Christmas' post focus is Nigeria which, in contrast to India, has almost a 50% share of its total population adhering to Christianity. In contrast to the joyous and openly expressed Christmas celebrations in the South, Christians in the North of the country often risk their lives when openly expressing their faith. Unfortunately, there are many other countries where celebrating Christmas will be rather restrained.


Ethnic Diversity

Nigeria's current territory is the result of the joining of two former British Protectorates, Northern and Southern Nigeria in 1914. Nigeria became independent from its British colonial power in 1960, and elected to remain a Commonwealth member. While this West African country is not the largest African country in size, it is the most populous with an estimated 200 million. Nigeria is a Federal Republic with 36 states that has a diverse geography and climate. Former colonial powers are often blamed for today's regional conflicts due to arbitrary formation of territories. Any different formation would have resulted in numerous small countries in place of today's Nigeria because of Nigeria's diverse population.

According to Britannica, there are 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria, each with its own language, traditions, and governance structures. Ethnic groups have their own territories to which they claim first occupancy and inheritance rights. Some are still considered aliens and are not permitted to acquire land. The Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo are the main ethnic groups. The predominantly Muslim Hausa-Fulani live in Northern Nigeria. Interestingly, among the Fulani, there are two main distinctions: the town-dwelling Fulani many of whom apparently run the Hausa dominated town administrations and intermarry with the Hausa ethnic group. The cattle-herding Fulani group do not generally intermarry. The Yorubas live in the South Western part of Nigeria and are often farmers but many live away from their farmlands in urban areas. Their subgroups are governed by influential chiefs. The Igbo in the South East live in smaller villages governed by elected councils. In the Middle Belt of Nigeria, more than 180 ethnic groups can be found.

Due to geographical and socio-economical differences, Nigeria is split into three main regions: the most economically developed and densely populated South, the sparsely populated and least developed central region and the North with some densely populated pockets and a population consisting in herders and farmers.


Religious freedom

Nigeria's constitution guarantees religious freedom. Its population is almost equally split into Muslims and Christians, apart from a small percentage of practitioners of traditional religions. However, there are regions where either of the two is dominant: most adherers of the Islamic faith live in the North of Nigeria and some Southern towns. Christianity is the dominant religion in Eastern Nigeria.


Christmas 2011

In 2011, Christmas day church services in Northern Nigerian Madalla, Jos, Gadaka and Damaturu were targeted with bomb blasts and shootings, leaving at least 41 dead. Boko Haram, an armed group fighting for an “Islamic State” claimed responsibility. (Source: Wikipedia). These tragic events raised international outrage due to the timing. Prior and subsequent to this, many have lost their lives in perpetrations that appear directed towards Christians living in the North and “Middle-Belt”.


The multi-faceted conflict threatening religious freedom

Since many of the violent attacks involve cattle-herding Fulani militants and Christian farmers, the fight over land use and resources plays an important role in this conflict. Droughts and a rapidly increasing population acerbating it further. One of the worst attacks in February 2019 left at least 130 dead. Human Rights Watch raises further alarm over thousands of deaths and more than 300,000 fleeing their homes. “Uncoordinated and inadequate responses by state and federal authorities deepened mistrust and perception of authorities’ bias and complicity in the violence.”


While there may also be a conflict over land and resources, Christians not only are disproportionately often victims of violent attacks and abductions in the North and Middle Belt, they also face daily-life disadvantages. In 2019, Nigeria ranked 12th on the Open Door's watch list, its annual ranking of 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution. Open Doors reports: “In some northern states, increasing numbers of Christians are dressing like Muslims to make their faith less obvious and reduce the chances of attack. Christian young people in these states are frequently denied access to higher education, and Christians have been asked to give up their faith in order to be given work. Christian women and girls are in danger of being abducted and forced to marry. When Christians are displaced by the violence in the region, they face discrimination when government aid is distributed because of their faith.”


Abductions and killings of church pastors, church bombings , and forcing abducted Christian schoolgirls to convert and/or marry Muslims are surely unrelated to conflicts over land. So far, religious leaders' intermediation contained the spread of violence and retaliation. However, the Catholic news service Crux warns of an escalation which should concern the international community. After all, Nigeria's population is almost half the size of the EU's population and the largest oil-producer in Africa. “Sooner or later, the international community will be forced to recognize that the fate of Nigeria’s Christian population isn’t just a human rights issue - though it’s certainly that - but also a major global security concern.” (John L. Allen Jr. :"Anti-Christian carnage in Nigeria could be global security nightmare",  Aug 4, 2019)



It is interesting to note that inclusion is rarely mentioned in connection with religion. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of people are being denied opportunities or even persecuted because of their faiths. Santa Claus and reindeer are not in danger in those countries but Christians who merely want to celebrate the “Christ” in Christmas are. May the freedom of religious expression granted to us fill us with special joy and gratitude this Christmas!


Christmas Break

We will be taking a break between Christmas and New Year. New posts will appear again from January 2020. In the meantime, we encourage you to ramble through our published posts and leave us a comment or two.


Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2020!


Sources and Further Reading:



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