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By Paul Otakagu



The 1914 amalgamation of northern and southern “protectorates” of Nigeria by the British Colonial Administrator, Sir Frederick Lugard saw many diverse ethnic groups (more than 200) and the two separate provinces amalgamated as one. Edward Azar (1990) was very right to observe that “the communal content of a society vis-à-vis colonial legacy of formation of communal groups whose cultural, religious and ethnic values vary and are usually incompatible” is a plausible background point to reckon with in the current situation of affairs in Nigeria especially as it concerns the respect of the fundamental universal human rights to be examined in this tract.

It is the writer’s quest to determine the extent the respect of religious freedom has been tolerated and as well undermined in Nigeria and to seek solutions towards restoring the peace and stability of a continuously conflict prone nation. Profound insights as it concern the quest of establishing those ‘inalienable” human rights values in the mindset of all Nigeria will be sought after through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination and Discrimination based on Religions or Beliefs, the African Charter of Human Rights (1986), the Vatican Document on the Dignity of Human Person (DignitatisHumanae) and the Provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The Islamic religion’s writings and teachings embedded in the religion’s holy book, the Koran and the Sharia Law presents a very concerning challenge in a nation with its legitimate Constitution, democratic government and the rule of law. The idea of the dominant religious group and politically favored region’s Islamic agenda of the imposition of Sharia law in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria should be reversed and eradicated in the mindset of all Nigerians. Islamic religion which is premised and predicated on “peace” (salam) should not by any means of intent and purposes be self-contradictory and hypocritical when it encourages the extermination of the lives of those who do not believe nor practice what the Muslims believe and practice and when it keeps encouraging radical Islamic extremist activities and gross disrespect of the fundamental human rights and religious freedom.


The Federal Republic of Nigeria is the most populous black nation in the world with a population of over 211 million black people occupying a territorial land mass of 923,769 square kilometers and geographically situated in the Western part of Africa. Nigeria borders Niger in the north, Chad in the northeast, Cameroon in the east and Benin in the west. It is a multi-ethnic nation with 36 states and over 200 ethnic groups with different socio-cultural, tribal, political and religious affiliations. Among these multi ethnic groups are three dominant ones among which total up to 65% of the whole nation’s population. These three dominant ethnic groups include the Hausa of the northern extraction of Nigeria (with 25% of the nation’s population), the Yorubas of the southwestern part of Nigeria (with 21% of the nation’s population) and the Igbos in the southeastern part of Nigeria (with 18% of the nation’s population). (WorldAtlas, 2022).

Since its Independence in October 1, 1960, Nigerian history could be said to have been replete with socio-cultural, economic, political and religious challenges until date. The military has ruled Nigeria for about 70 percent of its independent history and at the times of civilian transition to power they come to hold power again in civilian clothing even with the present administration of President MuhammaduBuhari. As long as they remain in power, it can be argued that democracy and the rule of law will continue to be jeopardized. (Welch, 1995). Nigerian political history has been littered with coups and counter-coups, some of them bloody and fatal. Most of the political tension and crisis that started with the first coup in January, 1966 that installed Brigadier AguyiIronsi as Welch, E. W. Jr. (1995) observed continued with his successor, General Yakubu Gowon’s regime that lasted until mid-1975 with a bloody civil war between 1967 and 1970 (the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War). The people of the southeastern extraction of Nigeria, right from the time of the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria into one by Sir Fredrick Lugard has been economically marginalized, politically excluded and unjustly treated when it comes to the equitable distribution of the nation’s resources. With the successive governments that followed the assassination of Colonel Murtala Mohammed in February, 1976 beginning with Brigadier OlusegunObasanjo as his successor and the Nigerian Republics (1963, 1979, 1983 and 1999) that were short-lived with intermittent return to power by the military rule that ended with the fourth Republic of 1999, the grievances and animosities flowing from the unmet economic and politically “non-negotiable” needs of the Igbos still persists.

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The Nigerian political history as has been observed is aligned to inseparable religious, socio-cultural and ethnic alliances and affiliations. The Hausa-Fulanis of the northern extraction of Nigeria who fought with the Igbos of the southeastern extraction of Nigeria during the civil war (1967-1970) vowed to remain in power until date having been seen to have won the war that was purportedly claimed to have ended with “no victor, no vanquished” slogan. For the most part of Nigerian political history, the Hausa-Fulanis have held up to 70 percent of the leadership position of Nigeria until date. One could ascribe part of the reason to their population and the British colonial “direct rule” style of leadership that found favor with the Hausa-Fulani hierarchical political structure against those of the southeasterners that were mainly non-hierarchical and not reliant on a centralized society. (WorldAtlas, 2022). The Hausa-Fulani who are ironically the less educated of the whole nation, continue to hold on to power while the southerners (the Igbos and Yourbas) in order to survive in a country where the wealth and resources of the nation are unfairly and unjustly maligned and marginalized resorted to business enterprises and education. It is interesting to note that Hausa-Fulanis are mainly Muslims while the Yorubas and the Igbos are mainly Christians. The challenge of living side by side with an incompatible group of people of both ethnic, political and religious divides even after the end of the civil war until date is an issue that this paper wishes to address in a nation with its own territorial boundary, constitution, democratic government and the rule of law.


  2. The Concept of Religious Freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999).

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) made it clear from the onset that, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This declarative provision already sums up the foundation of human rights as it applies to the interpretation of religious freedom. Chapter Four of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) spells out a wide range of fundamental human rights that the citizens of Nigeria are to be accorded. They range from right to life, right to freedom of expression, right to freedom from discrimination, right to dignity of human person, right to peaceful assembly and association to right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Article 38, paragraph 1 of chapter 4 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria notes that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion including freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” The provision of this Article of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) are the exact word to word adoption of what the Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) has already stipulated. The fundamental and universal importance of religious freedom to humanity ensure that the two major religions’ perspectives (Islam and Christianity) on the issue of religious freedom in Nigeria will be examined. However, before engaging on these two major religions’ understanding of religious freedom, it suffices that an understanding of religious freedom in the context of Nigeria’s Constitution will be necessary in the foregoing discourse.

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is the right to think, express and act upon what one deeply believes in accordance to the dictates of one’s conscience without any external interference. It equally includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the right to refrain from professing or practicing any religion or belief. Klaus Kramer et al (2014) noted in this regard that, “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief applies to all persons. It is a universal human right that needs to be protected everywhere and for everyone, regardless of who they are, where they live and what they believe or do not believe.” The states therefore, have a primary duty to protect all individuals living in their territory including persons who are holding non-theistic beliefs, persons belonging to other socio-cultural, religious and ethnic affiliations. It is the primary duty of the state to protect, safeguard these categories of people’s rights without exclusion nor discrimination. (Mikulaschek, 2010).

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The 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on religious beliefs and practices took the issue of respect of religious freedom to another level with its eight articles that identified the rights the states, religious institutions, parents and legal guardians ought to have on those under them. Its Article 3 states that discrimination against people because of their religion or belief “constitutes an affront to human dignity and a disavowal of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” What is particularly revolutionary in all these Declarations and Constitutional provision of the respect for religious freedom is the fact that these rights are “inalienable”. They did not have to be granted by any state or a community and therefore cannot be taken away by a state or a community. (Morsink, J. 1999).

  1. The Christian notion of Religious Freedom.

The Christian understanding of religious freedom as seen in one of the Second Vatican Council most important documents, DignitatisHumanae” observed that, “this freedom means that all human beings are to be immune from coercion on the part of the individual or of the social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” On January 1, 1999, Pope JohnPaul II on the World Day of Peace dwelt at length on the fact that religious freedom is the very heart of human rights. He said that, “religious freedom therefore constitutes the very heart of human rights. Its inviolability is such that individuals must be recognized as having the right even to change their religion. If their conscience so demands. People are obliged to follow their conscience in all circumstances and cannot be forced to act against it. (Kramer et al. 2014).

The following provisions in the two Declarations under consideration in this paper and the provision of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria laid emphasizes on the promotion of freedom of speech, prevention of violence, right to life, promotion and respect for diversity and tolerance, protection of everyone against discrimination and the right to change one’s religion or religious beliefs. These fundamental human rights provisions interestingly complement with the teachings of Christian religion on the respect of religious freedom which “subsists in the Catholic Church.”

  1. The Muslim notion of Religious Freedom: The Sharia Law Connection.

Islamic religion has been ascribed by most Muslim scholars as a religion of peace owing to the root of its name, Islam (salam) which means “peace”. Some of these scholars believe that the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is defined by the fundamental principle of “tolerance”. According to Salman al-Ouda in Kramer et al (2014) “Islam has never forced anyone to convert. It is easy to become a Muslim. Islam is a tolerant religion. Anybody can embrace Islam. You don’t need anybody to do so. All you need to do is to say and believe that there is no God apart from Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger. Once you have said those words you automatically becomes a Muslim”. The implications of saying those words and becoming a Muslim in the Nigerian context remains to be examined in this paper.

The Sharia Law is basically the codified teachings of the Islam’s holy book, the Koran. On the first count, the Sharia’s scheme of religious rights provides that a person is essentially “free” to adopt or reject Islam, but certain consequences will follow from such a person’s choice. The consequences of such choices have been observed at length by Annaim, A. (1996) as follows:


1.) If a person chooses to become a Muslim, or is born and raised a Muslim, then he or she will have full rights of citizenship in an Islamic state. However, once a Muslim, a person will be subject to the death penalty if he or she becomes an apostate, which is one who persists in repudiating his or her faith in Islam.

2.) If a person chooses to remain a Christian, Jew or believer in any other religion as defined by the Sharia law, he or she will suffer certain limitations of rights such as legal equality in an Islamic state when compared to those who are Muslims.

3.) If a person is neither a Muslim nor does not belong to any of the religions defined by the Sharia law, then that person is deemed to be an unbeliever. An unbeliever is not permitted to reside permanently or even temporarily in accordance with stricter interpretations, in peace as a free person within the territory of an Islamic state except under special permission for safe conduct. In theory, unbelievers should be offered the choice of adopting Islam and if they reject it they may either be killed in battle, enslaved or ransomed if captured. (Annaim, 1996).

The implication of the free choice to either become or not become a Muslim in a “free” Islamic state is no doubt following the above provisions of the Sharia scheme of religious rights, is to the individual’s choice own risks. It is not hidden to see why the Sharia law is objectionable not only because of its limitations on religious freedom and beliefs of some Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but also with its inconsistencies with the basic foundations of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights etc. Witte, J. Jr. (1996) argued in this regard that human rights can only exist within a secular context and not within the frame work of religion. So it becomes tragic to imagine what the fate of an apostate or an unbeliever will become in an Islamic “free” state if judged with religious prism as prescribed by Islamic religion. It also becomes all the more troubling to imagine what the fate of Christians living side by side with Muslims will become, in a country that is politically advocating for the imposition of Sharia law in its Constitution.

There is no doubt that both the Koran and the Sharia law identified a good number of human rights enjoined on all Muslim to respect namely the right to life, right to justice, right to freedom, right to work, right to leave one’s own homeland under oppressive conditions and so on. However, when it comes to rights of women within Islamic communities it becomes clear that women who belong to the universal corpus of the notion of humanity are unfortunately discriminated in Islamic religion. In a male dominated religion such as Islam, women are not to be seen not covering their whole face, they are not allowed to participate in major socio-political and religious discussions of Islam in some Islamic states, women are not allowed to perform some social responsibilities like car driving etc. This is another instance of a repressive anger and bitterness this religious ideologies can have in the psycho-social lives of some Muslims, especially their women folk.

…to be continued in the next edition

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The Choice Flame Newspaper is geared towards blazing the trail in modern journalism, committed to smart, truth-centered, in-depth and objective reporting on the Church and society through quality contents that empower and elevate the human spirit. It is the publication of the Catholic Diocese of Enugu with the aim to dispel darkness.
Admin Administrator
The Choice Flame Newspaper is geared towards blazing the trail in modern journalism, committed to smart, truth-centered, in-depth and objective reporting on the Church and society through quality contents that empower and elevate the human spirit. It is the publication of the Catholic Diocese of Enugu with the aim to dispel darkness.

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