The response of the government of Nigeria to persistent religious freedom concerns in Nigeria continues to be inadequate. These concerns include an on-going series of communal conflicts along religious lines; discrimination against minority communities of Christians and Muslims; and the controversy over the expansion of Islamic law (Sharia) into the criminal codes of several northern Nigerian states. Nigeria remains on the Commission's Watch List and the Commission continues to monitor the actions of the Nigerian government to determine if the situation rises to a level warranting designation as a "country of particular concern," or CPC.
In the last year, Nigeria continued to suffer from outbursts of violent communal conflict along religious and ethnic lines, pervasive mistrust among religious and ethnic communities, and serious lapses in the protection of human rights generally. The popular movement in several northern Nigerian states to expand the legal application of Sharia to criminal matters has sparked communal violence and is a source of continuing volatility and tension between Muslims and Christians at both the national and local levels. Serious outbreaks of Muslim-Christian violence in the last few years threaten to divide further the populace along religious lines and undermine the foundations of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief in Nigeria. Social, economic, and political conditions have deteriorated in the country, fostering a climate of increased tension.
Several thousand people have been killed throughout the country since 1999 in a cycle of attacks or reprisals. Ethnic, religious, and sectarian violence continued in 2003 and the early part of 2004. In February and March 2004, religious violence and reprisal attacks between Christians and Muslims in Plateau state in the Middle Belt reportedly resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people.
President Olusegun Obasanjo has been criticized both inside and outside Nigeria for not responding more decisively to the religious violence and communal tensions brought about by the Sharia controversy. He has primarily played a mediating role, stressing political negotiations rather than ordering the government to intervene. Many Christians and Muslims have been identified as perpetrators of violence over the years, but very few, if any, have been prosecuted or brought to justice.
Since October 1999, twelve northern Nigerian states have extended or announced plans to expand the application of Sharia. Although the particulars vary from state to state, each has adopted, or reportedly plans to adopt, a Sharia-based penal code and provisions to extend the jurisdiction of Sharia courts beyond personal status matters to include Sharia crimes and punishments. Punishments include amputation, flogging, or death by stoning, oftentimes after trials that fall short of basic international legal standards. Defendants have limited rights of appeal and sometimes no legal representation. These new codes also generally ban the sale and distribution of alcohol and criminalize adultery and gambling. Although it is permitted by the Constitution, several northern states continue to ban some public religious activities. A 2003 ruling in Kano state in northern Nigeria imposes the wearing of headscarves on all females, both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Two women facing death sentences under Sharia criminal codes for adultery were acquitted on appeal, following intense international pressure: One woman in Sokoto state won her appeal in March 2002; another, who lives in Katsina state, after her first appeal was denied in August 2002, was acquitted in September 2003 by a higher Islamic appeals court. Other cases are pending appeal after Sharia courts have handed down sentences of death by stoning to Muslims for various offenses. No stoning punishments have been carried out as of the time of this report. However, sentences involving amputation and flogging have been carried out in recent years.
In November 2002, following controversy around the Miss World beauty contest held in Lagos, violence between Muslims and Christians broke out in the northern city of Kaduna, resulting in more than 200 deaths, most of them Christians. The violence occurred after the publication by a Lagos-based journalist of a newspaper article that some Muslims declared to be blasphemous. An attack by Muslims on a Kaduna newspaper office gave rise to a cycle of violent reprisals by both Muslims and Christians. Nigerian security forces reportedly failed to intervene in a timely manner; some reports indicated that the security forces contributed to the violence by injuring and even killing people who were not directly involved in the violence. A few days after the violence, the Deputy Governor of Zamfara state publicly endorsed a fatwa calling on all Muslims to seek the death of the journalist in question. However, a spokesman for the Nigerian federal government said that the Deputy Governor's judgment was "null and void" and would not be carried out because it contravened the rule of law in Nigeria.
In addition to the Sharia controversy and the violence it has incited, Nigeria is plagued by a number of other serious problems regarding freedom of religion or belief. Christians in the northern states complain of what they view as discrimination at the hands of Muslim-controlled governments and describe their communities as having the status of "second class citizens." Most complaints predate the recent initiatives regarding Sharia, and include allegations of official discrimination in the denial of applications for building or repairing religious institutions, access to education and state-run media, representation in government bodies, and government employment. Muslim communities in southeastern Nigeria, where Muslims are a small fraction of the population, echo some of the complaints of minority Christian communities in northern Nigeria. Southern Muslim leaders report official or officially sanctioned discrimination in the media, education, and representation in government institutions.
The Commission wrote to President Bush in July 2003 urging him to raise with Nigerian President Obasanjo the need to take action to end Muslim-Christian violence. The Commission also recommended that President Bush urge President Obasanjo to take various actions to protect religious freedom, including condemning religious intolerance and discrimination and ensuring that the expansion of Sharia-based criminal law does not apply to non-Muslims.
In September 2003, the Commission issued a statement welcoming the acquittal on appeal of the woman sentenced to death under the Sharia criminal code in Katsina state, noting, however, that the decision did not address larger concerns about the application of Islamic law in northern Nigeria and its reported interference with the freedoms of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
In February and March 2004, Commission staff hosted two separate briefings on the application of criminal Sharia law since 1999 and ongoing communal and sectarian violence, respectively. A Commission staff delegation undertook an extensive mission to Nigeria in August 2003 and met with numerous Nigerian government officials, religious leaders, and representatives of human rights and other non-governmental organizations.