Nigeria, a country with the largest population in Africa and a major political and economic force in West Africa and the continent at large, is a legacy of British colonial rule. The area which is now called Nigeria used to be controlled by various small African kingdoms before the British colonial period. The conquest of what is now Nigeria started with the annexation of Lagos as a colony by the British Crown in the 1850s which led to the establishment of further colonies and protectorates in the region. After the amalgamation of these various colonies and protectorates in 1914, the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria came into existence.

Since gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria went through a series of civilian administrations which were overthrown by the army. After sixteen years of military rule by four different generals, in which transition to democracy and civilian rule were continually postponed, the Fourth Republic was inaugurated with a new constitution in 1999. Upon the sudden death of the military dictator General Sani Abacha, General Abdulsalami Alhaji Abubakar oversaw a quick transition to civilian rule and promulgated the new constitution. However, according to a leading representative of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), “the 1999 Constitution mentions ‘Shariah’ 73 times, ‘Grand Khadi’ 54 times, ‘Islam’ 28 times and ‘Muslims’ 10 times but does not mention the words ‘Christ’, ‘Christian’, ‘Christianity’ or ‘church’ even once” (The Cable, 30 September 2017).

Since the resumption of constitutional rule in Nigeria in 1999, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) emerged as the dominant party winning all presidential elections except the 2015 and 2019 presidential elections. The country moved into a new chapter of history in May 2015 when Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat in the presidential election and passed power to the opposition, the All Progressive Congress (APC) with Muhammadu Buhari as president.

Over the past years, the country has been fighting an insurgency in parts of the Niger Delta region and Islamic militants in the northern parts of the country, which have spread to the South- West and South-East too. The administration of President Buhari officially claimed in February 2019 that Boko Haram had been defeated in military terms (Premium Times, 7 February 2019), with the Nigerian Army making the same claim one year earlier (Premium Times 4 February 2018). Nevertheless, Boko Haram still continues to be a menace to Nigerians particularly in the north-eastern part of the country, together with split-off group ISWAP since 2016. On 20 May 2021, ISWAP fighters killed rival Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in a fire-fight.

In the course of time the situation has become very complex in Nigeria’s six political zones.

  • Violence in the North-East was mainly perpetrated by Boko Haram, and after the split-off also by ISWAP.
  • In the North-West there were the armed ‘bandits’.
  • In the North-Central there were the Fulani militants.

The circles of influence of these different groups have however increasingly overlapped, including their agendas. Boko Haram’s Shekau, when still alive, was at least partly responsible for this. He had made a rigorous shift in attitude (HumAngle, 12 July 2020) and tried to forge alliances with various groups in northern Nigeria – such alliances included adherence to his radical Islamic agenda which was nothing less than to create chaos and have an ‘Islamic state’ in the North emerge from the ashes, presumably to be extended to the South too, and to parts of neighboring countries where Boko Haram and other groups are active. Many Boko Haram fighters have given up fighting, come out of their hiding places with their families and laid down their weapons. Indeed, Chief of Defense Staff, General Lucky Irabor made a public statement in March 2023, that “no fewer than 51,828 Boko Haram fighters and their family members surrendered to the Federal Government between July 2021 and May 2022″ (Vanguard, 26 March 2023). Despite this, the Islamist group is still alive and wreaking havoc in the country.

This has led to a devastating combination of violent incidents: Raids on predominantly Christian communities, sexual violence, road block killings etc. Abductions for ransom have increased considerably over recent years. Detailed research shows that this violence affects Christians in the country disproportionally (ORFA, Killings and Abductions in Nigeria, 24 February 2023). Apart from the outright violence, there are also many non-violent or ‘squeeze’ factors accompanying it, leading to intolerance and discrimination against Christians in their different spheres of life (such as education, employment, permission for building churches). At the same time, the failure of the federal government and several state governments to protect their citizens, is striking (notwithstanding the examples of certain courageous state governors who do their best to protect the citizens in their responsibility, sometimes in extremely difficult circumstances).

Violence is not limited to northern Nigeria alone but has spread to southern Nigeria too. In the three southern zones there is already violence being perpetrated by Fulani militants and ‘bandits’, including land-grabbing. According to a Nigerian analyst: “Eye-witnesses attested of the heavy presence of the Fulani migrants in Cross Rivers, Delta, Edo, Rivers, Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Imo, Ekiti, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo. The common criminal activities in the Southern States of Nigeria are killings, kidnapping, invasions and occupations of forests, massive migration and loitering with fire arms.”

A culture of violence and of impunity has been allowed to develop in Nigeria, encouraging all sorts of other criminal groups to flourish too. Sometimes it is difficult to see what is plain criminality and what has jihadi connections. However, the lack of government intervention can easily appear to observers to be pro militant Fulanis and contra Christians (and other vulnerable groups).

The presidential election held on 25 February 2023

As reported by BBC News on 1 March 2023:

“Bola Tinubu, 70, has been declared the winner of Nigeria’s most competitive election since the end of military rule in 1999. Widely credited with reshaping Nigeria’s commercial hub Lagos, Mr Tinubu saw off a divided opposition party and a youth-backed third-party candidate and is set to replace President Muhammadu Buhari in May, unless the opposition claims of manipulation lead to a rerun.”

Political and legal landscape

Ethnicity and religion play a significant role in Nigerian politics. Politicians try to mobilize support directly and indirectly by appealing to ethnic and religious sentiments. Historically, the Muslim Hausa-Fulani politicians have dominated the political field, especially due to their dominance in the army which has always been a significant player in Nigerian politics. The major bone of contention in Nigerian politics is the distribution of revenue derived from the country’s considerable oil resources. Corruption is rampant, both at state and federal level.

Christians have repeatedly been the targets of attacks and victims of severe violations of their fundamental rights. However, since the APC government came to power in 2015, the attacks have been more aggressive and daring. (In the 2015 elections, the APC defeated the PDP, a party considered more inclusive and sympathetic to Christian concerns.) Although the APC has denied being a pro-Islamic party, the fact that the situation for Christians deteriorated radically, strengthens the notion of the party supporting the Islamic expansionist agenda. Since the APC came to power, Christians have not only had to contend with attacks from Boko Haram and ISWAP, but also from militant Fulani and so-called armed ‘bandits’. The government has taken no concrete action to contain the spread of attacks carried out by Fulani militants and armed ‘bandits’ which have been devastating Christian communities, particularly in northern Nigeria. There is no doubt that Muslims also suffer in the spreading violence, but Christians in certain regions face an existential threat if this trend of attacks continues.

As stated above (in: Brief description of persecution situation), since 2015, President Buhari’s federal government has appointed Muslims to a number of significant posts and to the judiciary in Nigeria. This is not only limited to positions within the federal government, but increasingly extends to federal-controlled agencies within state governments. This is also the case in southern, Christian majority states. A disproportionate number of the directors are Muslims. This makes it increasingly difficult for Christians to defend their rights in those states.

On 25 November 2019, Tanko Muhammed, the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, a Muslim, made a public statement (published in Nigerian newspapers) to the effect that Muslims can now use their numerical strength in the judiciary and legislature to amend the Constitution and extend the remit of Sharia law. This drew intense criticism from secular and Christian commentators. In December 2019, the Chief Justice of Nigeria asked that Sharia be taught in Arabic in Nigeria’s universities (Nairaland, 11 December 2019). In June 2022, Olukayode Ariwoola, also a Muslim, replaced him.

President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020 (CAMA, 2020) into law on the 7th of August 2020. The enactment of CAMA 2020 generated a lot of controversy particularly with the provisions of Section 839 which allows the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) to take over institutions registered under the Incorporated Trustee Provisions of the Act. Several Christian denominations publicly expressed reservations since the provisions are being seen as a move to ensure government control of churches and a move to restrict Freedom of Worship as provided in Section 38 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (amended in 2011). The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) firmly rejected the law (Aciafrica, 21 August 2020), and have fought against it at the political level and legal level successfully. In March 2023, CAN issued the following communication: “Today at Federal High Court, … we have secured judgment in favor of Christianity in Nigeria to the effect that … the CAC no longer has the power to interfere, take over or close down any Church or Christian Body in Nigeria for any reason whatsoever.”

Gender perspective

The Violence against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act of 2015 is Nigeria’s first criminal legislation that recognizes a broad spectrum of violence – sexual, economic, physical, and psychological abuse – particularly against women and girls but is yet to be adopted by several Sharia-run northern states (Partners West Africa Nigeria, VAPP Tracker, accessed April 2023). Domestic violence within marriages is widespread; in the Islamic northern region, husbands are permitted to discipline their wives so long as no ‘grievous’ bodily harm is caused (CEDAW 2017), and in the South, the Criminal Code Act considers assault on a woman as a ‘misdemeanor’ as opposed to a ‘felony’ if the victim were a man (2019 OECD report). Nigeria also ratified the CEDAW Convention in 1985 and the Optional Protocol in 2004, but was criticized in a 2017 NGO Coalition Shadow Report for tacitly permitting child marriage; the report called for an overhaul of national legislation to ensure CEDAW is adequately integrated throughout laws and policies (NGO Coalition Shadow Report, June 2017, “Report of Nigeria on Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women”).

Three marital regimes (civil, customary and Islamic) operate concurrently and lack uniformity (OECD, 2019). The federal government has no jurisdiction over Islamic or customary marriages and as such early marriage and polygamy are widespread. Furthermore, marital laws are particularly confining for women and girls in the North and Nigeria’s plural legal system on marriage makes Christian girls vulnerable to abduction and forced marriage. This is true especially in the context of Sharia law, where girls are regularly abducted by Muslim fellow- citizens, brought, for example, to the Emir of Gashua’s palace (Yobe state), and forced into marriage with Muslims (Daily Post, 6 November 2017).

In this environment, it is useful to note that, as of 2021, just 3.6% of seats in national parliament were held by women (Index Mundi, accessed 1 August 2022).  

Religious landscape

  Nigeria: Religious contextNumber of adherents  %
OTHER includes Chinese folk, New religionist, Sikh, Spiritist, Taoist, Confucianist, Jain, Shintoist, Zoroastrian.  

Data source: Johnson T M and Zurlo G A, eds, World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed April 2022)

Nigeria is a religious and ethnically diverse nation with a religious fault-line: The southern part of Nigeria is predominantly Christian, while northern Nigeria is predominantly Muslim. This harks back to the restrictions placed on missionary activity in northern Nigeria during colonial times and the dominance of Muslim traders operating in the northern parts of the country before and during the colonial period. This regional religious divide also partly coincides with the ethnic divide in Nigeria. Among the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Hausa-Fulani of northern Nigeria are predominantly Muslim, the Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria are mainly Christian, while the Yoruba of south-western Nigeria have both a significant Muslim and Christian population.

Religion plays a pivotal role in Nigerian society. According to WCD 2021 estimates, 46.3% of the population is Muslim, while 46.4% is Christian. Even though Nigeria is constitutionally a secular state with freedom of religion enshrined in the Constitution, the northern ruling elite have been giving preferential treatment to Muslims for decades and discriminating against Christians. Since 1999, Sharia law has been imposed in 12 northern states much to the detriment of Christians, causing a very high level of concern. Also, in many parts of northern Nigeria, and increasingly in southern Nigeria too, jihad-inspired militants are killing and displacing Christians and taking over their farmland. Abductions for ransom have increased considerably over recent years. A particular focus for attacks in the reporting period have been Benue State and southern Kaduna State. Little has been done to stop the violations against Christians in these (and other) areas.

Looking at the number of Christians killed for their faith in the different geopolitical zones in the period October 2019 – September 2022, most were killed in North-Central, followed by North- West, South-East, North-East, South-West and South-South (ORFA, 27 February 2023).

Although there is a religious fault-line between northern and southern Nigeria, the situation is not as clear-cut as it first appears. There are many Christians in the north and many Muslims are living in the south. The combined total of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is 92.6% of the population. The 7.0% Ethno-religionists are spread all over the country, though somewhat unequally.

The Christian population in the six geopolitical zones

  • NORTH-WEST: These 7 states (Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara) have 6,873,000 Christians (13%) out of a population of 54,822,000.
  • NORTH-CENTRAL: These 6 states (Benue, Kogi, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau) and FCT (Abuja) have 16,641,000 Christians (51%) out of a population of 32,767,000.
  • NORTH-EAST: These 6 states (Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Taraba, Yobe) have 6,354,000 Christians (22%) out of a population of 29,419,000.
  • SOUTH-WEST: These 6 states (Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo) have 28,286,000 Christians (66%) out of a population of 42,854,000.
  • SOUTH-SOUTH: These 6 states (Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Rivers) have 23,193,000 Christians (72%) out of a population of 32,293,000.
  • SOUTH-EAST: These 5 states (Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo) have 19,073,000 Christians (78%) out of a population of 24,593,000.

The data listed above (based on WCD research) implies that religious and ethno-religious tensions can easily become a nationwide issue, as is currently happening.

According to IRFR 2021:

“Although accounting for far less than 1 percent of the population, there are also two distinct Jewish communities. The smallest of these are mostly foreigners, whom Israel and the diaspora recognize. A larger group of several thousand indigenous Nigerian Jews are not recognized internationally. There are also significant numbers of Sabbatarian groups, variously self- identifying as Christian, non-Christian, or neither. These groups include some that have adopted Jewish customs.”