Nigeria for all intents and purposes should be a country where the freedom of religion is protected. Besides, the right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Also, Nigeria is a Member State of the AU and has ratified some regional human rights treaties including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which places an obligation on Nigeria to promote and protect human and peoples’ rights. But that is all castles in the air for religious minorities across the country.
The plight of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim Northern Nigeria is well documented. While Boko Haram terror has not spared any religious group, minority Christian communities in the terror-ravaged region of the North-East have taken the brunt of the violence dished out by the terror group. And that is far from all their plight.
State-sponsored evangelism is ripe in the core North, with missions swooping into neglected communities with goodies and a message of the ‘right religion’ in exchange for basic healthcare and a set of new clothing or two, some detergent, and flip-flops. This seemingly unlawful use of state funds is actually lawful, backed by what can be considered as a loophole in the same constitution that protects religious freedom.
The right to freedom of religion is not absolute, the Constitution gives the state power to derogate from it through laws that ‘are reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.’ Specifically, Section 45(1) provides that ‘nothing shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons.’
This allowance is why the Akwa Ibom government could earmark billions in taxpayer monies to build worship centres. It is why Kano can include a budgetary provision for Ramadan feeding, and why the same State among other core North states can ban the importation of liquor in the state despite having a sizeable population of non-Muslims and non-conformist Muslims who willingly imbibe.
Despite these glaring inconsistencies Nigeria has passed itself off as a progress-driven nation committed to the rights of its citizens to the freedom of religion, which by its nature includes freedom from religion.
But with blasphemy laws encoded in the customary laws of many states, the act has been up for Nigeria for a while now. The recent United States designation of Nigeria, along with North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as countries of concern under the International Religious Act of 1998 for engaging systemic, ongoing, egregious religious freedom violations, is no surprise to anyone who knows the inner workings of the Nigerian society.
It is unclear what Nigeria needs to do to rectify its standing in the international community. The rot, as is clear from the aforementioned constitutional allowance, is deep. A constitutional amendment might help rectify the legal backing of a harmful social practice, but the culture will take more than a legal provision to correct. It is however a good place to start.
The Presidency has already reacted: