Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with an estimated 219 million people. Of its population, an estimated 53.5 percent identify as Muslim; 45.9 percent as Christian; and 0.6 percent with other religious beliefs, including atheism, African traditional religions, the Baha’i faith, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. Religious traditions, practices, and communities play a strong role in social life across Nigeria, with religious institutions providing health and educational services and opportunities for community and civic engagement.
Nigeria’s constitution protects freedom of religion or belief and prohibits the state from establishing a state religion and from discriminating on the basis of religion. The Nigerian Criminal Code includes a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment for insulting a person’s religion. Additionally, 12 northern states use criminal and family codes based in Islamic Shari’a alongside civil and customary laws; these codes prohibit blasphemy and other offenses based on a particular state interpretation of Islamic law.
Religious Restrictions in Kano State.
In addition to the blasphemy cases discussed above, in February 2021, the Kano government sent heavily armed personnel from the DSS to prevent a local Muslim community from protesting the closure of their mosque and prohibited the community from carrying out its annual Mauqibi religious festival. This action followed Kano authorities banning Sheikh Abduljabar Nasiru Kabara from preaching in the state and ordering the closure of his mosque and schools in February, accusing him of inciteful rhetoric and sermons. In July 2021,
Kano’s Hisbah Board, which oversees a religious police force, arrested and charged five men suspected of engaging in homosexual activity. Individuals convicted of sodomy under Kano’s Shari’a Criminal Code may be sentenced to caning of 100 lashes and one year in prison if unmarried or with stoning to death (rajm) if married or previously married.
Attacks on Religious Leaders and Congregations
Throughout the year, religious leaders and congregations faced both state and nonstate violence based on their beliefs or their religious identity. State officials reportedly used violence against Shi’a Muslims during a procession marking the religious holiday of Arbaeen in September. During Ramadan, bomb blasts near a mosque killed at least 27 worshipers in Mubi, while armed assailants kidnapped 11 worshipers from a mosque in Katsina State.
In May, armed actors burned down a church during an attack in Kaduna State that killed eight people. In July, armed actors reportedly burned four churches in attacks against communities in Kaduna. In September, a violent mob in Kano State attacked and killed a local reverend in retaliation for his alleged involvement in converting a member of a Muslim family to Christianity. In October, two worshipers were killed in Kaduna State in an attack on a church during morning prayers. In November, churches in Zamfara State received threatening messages from local armed actors demanding that they close or risk ferocious attacks.
Attacks on mosques killed 18 worshipers in Niger State in October, five worshipers in Zamfara State in November, and 16 worshipers in Niger State in December. Meanwhile, criminal gangs substantially increased their kidnap-for-ransom activities and did not spare religious institutions. Attacks and abductions targeting religious institutions, regardless of their motives, infringe on Nigerians’ freedom to worship safely and impinge on their rights of religious practice.
Across the country, at least 13 religious leaders were kidnapped for ransom in 2021. While most abducted religious leaders have been released, some have died during these abductions, including a pastor in Akoko Ondo, a priest and an imam in Katsina, and an imam in Ogun. Kidnappers also targeted two religious schools, abducting hundreds of school children from Salihu Tanko Islamic School and Bethel Baptist High School.
Key Developments Regarding EPCs
Since 2002, militant Islamist group Boko Haram has operated out of northeastern Nigeria and conducted attacks on the basis of religion and belief throughout the Lake Chad Basin region. In June 2021, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau was reportedly killed. More than 6,000 Boko Haram fighters then surrendered to the Nigerian military and disarmed. Despite the loss of its top general, Boko Haram reportedly expanded its reach in northcentral Nigeria in 2021. In areas they have infiltrated, Boko Haram elements have reportedly directed residents to remove their children from formal schools and ordered both Muslim and Christian parents to marry off their daughters at the age of 12 or “face consequences.” Additionally, ISWAP continued to conduct violence in pursuit of its goals to enforce a particular interpretation of Islam, including continuing to hold Leah Sharibu hostage for refusing to convert to Islam.
Key U.S. Policy
Throughout the year, U.S.officials raised religious freedom issues, including societal abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion in the context of growing insecurity throughout the country, in meetings with key Nigerian government officials. U.S. officials in the country also frequently engaged faith leaders and stakeholders in interfaith dialogue and broader peacebuilding work, including in Kaduna and Plateau states where religious violence has historically been particularly high.
In 2021, the U.S. government paused some military sales to Nigeria in response to alleged human rights violations in the country. While in July Nigeria received six of the 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack airplanes it bought from the U.S. in 2017, Congress halted a nearly $1 billion USD arms sale that same month after allegations emerged of human rights abuses by the Nigerian military in its campaign to neutralize terrorists in its territory.
On November 15, the State Department removed Nigeria from its list of governments that engaged in and tolerated particularly severe religious freedom violations, despite the country being designated as a CPC the previous year based on conditions similar to those in 2021. Also in November, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced a $2.1 billion development assistance package during a visit to Abuja