Last Updated 30 November 2020

In Nigeria, approximately half of the population are Muslims, about 40 percent are Christians, and roughly 10 percent are of traditional indigenous religions or no religion. While the Constitution guarantees religious freedom, the state endorses numerous anti-secular and theocratic policies. The government and non-state militia such as Boko Haram constantly violate the rights to freedom of thought and expression.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Nigerian Constitution1 protects freedom of religion and allows religious conversion. Section 10 of the Constitution states, “[t]he Government of the Federation of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”

This provision has however occasionally been overlooked by national leaders, with Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike pronouncing Rivers a Christian state during a speech in June 2019.2

However, Sections 275–279 of the Constitution give constituent states the power to establish their own Sharia courts on civil matters. Abiding by Sharia law is required for Muslims in some states but optional in others and enforcement differs by state. Rulings and procedures are sometimes difficult to find. Christians are not obliged to abide by Sharia law in any of the 12 states.

Proselytizing in public is illegal in some states, on the grounds that it deters ethnic conflict. Religious groups are required to have permits to build places of worship and to hold public gatherings. Christian and Islamic groups are required to register with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) to do so. Religious discrimination is prohibited by law, but there are significant inter-religious social tensions.

In several instances, politicians have been reported to refer to religion when justifying their stance on legislative proposals and in other political contexts: in 2017, the MP Gudaji Kazaure declared himself to be against family planning as the latter is against Islamic doctrine, and cited Prophet Muhammad’s words “Marry and have children so that I can be proud of you on the day of judgement’”. In 2019, a video began circulating on social media showing Senator Dino Melaye campaigning in his home state and reciting the first chapter of the Quran to a roaring Muslim campaign;

Education and children’s rights

Under Article 38 of the Constitution of Nigeria, it is a requirement for all students in the public education system to receive instruction either in Christianity or Islam, though the Constitution states that institutions cannot subject students to instruction in a religion other than that inherited from their family.4 In practice, Christian education classes are not offered in many Northern states and Muslim education classes are not always provided in Southern states.

The Constitution states:

“Section 38:2 No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in, or attend any religious ceremony or observance if such instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion not approved by his parent or guardian.”

“Section 38:3 No religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of that community or denomination in any place of education maintained wholly by that community or denomination.”

On 8 September 2018, the 52nd anniversary of Literacy Day as declared by UNESCO, the Nigerian Minister of Education Adamu Adamu declared that Nigeria has about 60 million illiterate youth and adults (about one third of the entire Nigerian population), 60% of whom are female. He also underlined that 11 million children are out of school, and he called for urgent attention to this matter as the country strives for the attainment of the SDGs by

In the same year, the Minister also brought forward a reform to the school curriculum, introducing an umbrella subject called ‘Religion and National Values Curriculum’, which includes five subjects, taught separately: Civic Education, Social Studies, Christian Religious Knowledge, Islamic Studies and Security Education. The reform also made Civic Education a compulsory

In 2019, a number of Islamic rehabilitation schools (Almajiris) across northern Nigeria were discovered to be  abusing hundreds of children. The Nigerian police freed more than 1,000 people from these centres in October 2019 alone, but thousands of other children could be at risk as some 10 million children are estimated to attend Almajiris schools across the country. President Buhari has ordered the police to search for these abusive centres and disband

Family, community and society

Nigeria is a religiously pluralistic country in which an individual’s ethnicity has a bearing on religious demographics. The Hausa-Fulani ethnic group, which is most populous in northern Nigeria, are predominantly Muslim while the Igbo, a major ethnic group in the south, is predominantly Christian. Meanwhile no single religion is in the majority throughout the country. Muslims, who are in the majority in the north are in the minority in Southern Nigeria. Whilst Christians, who are in the majority in southern Nigeria, are in the minority in the north. Nigeria has a volatile ethno-religious mix and ethno-religious violence often erupts.8

Islam is often regarded, and is in effect, the de facto state religion of numerous northern states due to: the introduction of criminal law aspects of Sharia, the continued state use of resources to fund mosque construction, the education of Kadis (Muslim judges), pilgrimages to Mecca (Hajj), and religious instruction in schools. Some states have also used government funds to pay for Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem. In general, states with a Christian or Muslim majority favour and give privileges to the majority faith to the exclusion of religious or belief minorities.

Sectarian divide

Muslims in some predominantly Christian states have complained about being denied permission to build mosques in predominantly Christian southern states. Christians in the predominantly Muslim northern states have claimed that local government officials used zoning laws to delay or prevent the establishment of new churches. Some have made claims that the enforcement of zoning laws was selective. Government officials have been commonly reported to have discriminated against people whose religious beliefs are different from their own, notably in hiring or contract awarding. Religious and ethnic discrimination also exists in private businesses’ hiring practices and purchasing patterns.

The deep entanglement of religion and state perpetuates parallel legal systems for different religious and ethnic groups.

Boko Haram

The country has been afflicted in recent years by the terrorism of Boko Haram, with abductions, massacres and bomb blasts in Abuja. Boko Haram has deliberately attacked Christians and moderate Muslims during its armed campaign, along with their respective houses of worship.9

The abduction of around 200 school girls early in 2014 by Boko Haram prompted the sharing of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag around the world, but most abductees from Chibok and other towns remain lost. The government and armed forces were accused of hesitation, inaction and incompetence in addressing the terrorist threat; and deaths and kidnappings number in the thousands. Sectarian tension was on the rise in 2014 and attacks continued in 2015. Boko Haram caused more deaths in terror attacks in 2014 than ISIS. A more concerted military response in 2015 and 2016 appears to have diminished Boko Haram’s strength.

In spring 2018, Boko Haram took about one hundred more girls from a secondary school in the town of Dapchi, just south of the Sahara, in the state of Yobe. The convoy took them to the edges of lake Chad, where the splinter group loyal to ISIS in Syria-Iraq resides. After more than a month, the terrorist group eventually returned the girls, in broad daylight, to their parents, declaring, as one parent reported: “We have now returned your children to you but make sure you don’t enrol them in western education again because if you do we will come back and take them away”. Some youths, soon after the sermon in the middle of the town, joined the convoy and swore fealty afterwards, going back to their base, where they keep territory and receive IS runaways from the Middle East and

LGBTI+ rights

Same-sex relationships were criminalized and LGBTI+ advocacy groups were banned in 2014, when former president Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act.11 The law made same-sex relationships punishable by up to 14 years in prison. In October 2020, a judge in a Nigerian court threw out a case against 47 men charged with public displays of affection with members of the same sex after the prosecution failed to attend or present evidence.12 The case has widely been seen as a test case for the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, as the men were the first to face charges under the act.13

According to Freedom House, LGBTQ+ people are deterred from openly running for office or working to advance their political interests.14

Women’s rights

According to Amnesty International, “[d]espite the passage of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act, violence against women remains prevalent in Nigeria. The VAPP Act, a law which criminalizes acts that are harmful to and discriminatory against women, is applicable in Abuja and has been domesticated in less than 10 states across Nigeria.”15

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Constitution, however, this right is restricted in practice by both state and non-state actors. A series of laws prohibiting sedition, criminal defamation, and publication of false news are regularly used by the government to crack down on dissent. Further northern states that have adopted the Sharia court system apply severe penalties for alleged press offences.16

In November 2019, Nigeria’s National Assembly considered two draft legislations: Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences Bill 201917 and the Bill to establish a National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech.18 If passed into law, the bills will give authorities arbitrary powers to shut down the internet, make criticizing the government punishable with penalties of up to three years in prison, a life sentence and a maximum of death penalty.19 Following public outcry, the decision to pass the bills was suspended, but the Bills themselves had not been formally withdrawn as of July 2020.20

Media freedom

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Nigeria is now one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often spied on, attacked, arbitrarily arrested or even killed. Two journalists were shot dead while covering Islamic Movement in Nigeria – a banned Shiite Muslim organization – protests; one in July 2019 and the other in January 2020 – without any proper investigation with the aim of identifying those responsible.21

Journalists often face harassment, intimidation and arrest especially when they cover corruption scandals, human rights violations, separatist and communal violence, or other politically sensitive topics.22 According to RSF, “[j]ournalists are often denied access to information by government officials, police and sometimes the public itself. The all-powerful regional governors are often their most determined persecutors and act with complete impunity.”23 Two pieces of legislation commonly used against journalists by the authorities are the Cybercrime Act of 201524 and Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act of 2013.25;


Under the Customary system, applicable nationwide, ‘blasphemy’ is prohibited under section 204 of the Criminal Code.26 Section 204, “Insult to religion”, states:

“Any person who does an act which any class of persons consider as a public insult on their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.”

States subject to Shariah courts can and do implement severe punishments for crimes such as ‘blasphemy’, including execution. In August 2020, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, described by the BBC as a little-known Islamic gospel musician was sentenced to death by hanging by an upper Shariah court in Kano state.27; Sharif-Aminu was arrested in March 2020 after allegedly saying that Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse, the Senegalese founder of the Islamic Tijjaniya sect, which has a large following across West Africa, “was bigger than Prophet Muhammad”. On 4 March 2020, protestors reportedly burned down Sharif-Aminu’s home and demanded that the Islamic police, Hisbah, take action against him.28 It is understood that Sharif-Aminu has filed an appeal against his conviction and sentence.29 The same Shariah court in Kano state sentenced 13-year-old Umar Farouq in August 2020 to 10 years in prison with menial labor for ‘blasphemy’.30 Farouq was found guilty of offending God, as he had used “foul language” against God during an argument with a friend.31 Farouq has appealed the judgment.

In addition to handing down executions, predominantly Muslim states have frequently seen riots, violence and murder after ‘blasphemy’ accusations, sometimes against individual Muslims accused, but with potential for wider violence when the accused is Christian.

Highlighted cases

Nigerian human rights activist and President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria Mubarak Bala was arrested by Kano State Police Command on 28 April 2020 following a petition filed by a law firm alleging that Bala had insulted the Prophet Muhammad in his Facebook posts.32 Bala was held without access to his lawyers until October 2020.33 He remains held without charge in Kano state; successive court hearings have been subjected to adjournments. Bala has been the victim of death threats and harassment since he renounced Islam in 2014.34 In June that year, he was assessed as needing psychiatric help because he was “an atheist” and was held against his will at a psychiatric ward in Kano, northern Nigeria. His father, formerly a senior member of the Islamic religious authorities, had orchestrated Mubarak’s detention after Mubarak had refused to keep quiet about his atheistic views on religion. Bala was freed after nearly three weeks due to a strike at the hospital.

The Humanist Association of Nigeria was denied registration as an organization for many years. Antagonists linked the group to the promotion of gay rights, presuming this to stand against its merits (and in reality it may well contribute to authorities’ refusal to progress a registration).35; In 2017, the Humanist Association of Nigeria was eventually granted formal recognition after 17 years of campaigning, together with other humanist/atheist groups, including the Northern Nigeria Humanist Movement, the Atheist Society of Nigeria and Lagos


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