The response of the government of Nigeria to persistent religious freedom concerns in that country continues to be inadequate. These concerns include an ongoing series of violent communal conflicts along religious lines; the controversy over the expansion of sharia (Islamic law) into the criminal codes of several northern Nigerian states; and discrimination against minority communities of Christians and Muslims. In addition, there are increasing reports of foreign sources of funding and support for Islamic extremist activities in northern Nigeria, activities that threaten to fracture already fragile relations between the two main religious groups. 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 August 2004, the Commission released a Policy Focus on Nigeria, containing recommendations for the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.

Over the last year, Nigeria continued to experience incidents of violent communal conflict along religious and ethnic lines, which are often intertwined, as well as pervasive mistrust among religious and ethnic communities. The popular movement in 12 northern Nigerian states to expand the legal application of sharia to criminal matters has continued to spark communal violence and is an ongoing source of 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 to undermine the democratic transition and the foundations of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in Nigeria. Social, economic, and political conditions have not improved in the country, fostering a climate of even greater tension among ethnic and religious communities.

Since President Olusegun Obasanjo came to power through popular elections in 1999, more than 10,000 Nigerians have been killed in sectarian and communal attacks and reprisals between Muslims and Christians. The most serious of these clashes have occurred in Kaduna state (February and May 2000); Jos, Plateau state (September 2001); Kaduna state (November 2002); and most recently in Kano state and Yelwa, Plateau state (February-May 2004). Ethnic and religious violence continued in 2004 and into the early part of 2005.

In the past year, hundreds of people have been killed, and dozens of churches and mosques destroyed, in communal violence in several towns and villages in the Middle Belt region and northern Nigeria. In February and March 2004 in particular, violence and reprisal attacks between Christians and Muslims in Plateau state in the Middle Belt resulted in the deaths of several hundred people. The violence reached its peak in May when a mainly Christian militia from a nearby town in Plateau state killed more than 500 predominantly Muslim Hausa/Fulani residents in Yelwa village. A week later in Kano state, Muslims staged a peaceful rally protesting the violence against Muslims in Plateau state. When unemployed Muslim youth began vandalizing businesses belonging to Christians, mob violence erupted in which more than 300 Muslims and Christians were killed. That same month, after the violence subsided, President Obasanjo suspended the governor of Plateau state for six months and declared a state of emergency. In November, the state of emergency was lifted and relative calm has followed.

President Obasanjo has been criticized both inside and outside Nigeria for not responding more decisively to religious violence and the 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 to stop or prevent further violence. Moreover, 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. However, in May 2004, President Obasanjo for the first time responded directly to sectarian killings by declaring a state of emergency in Plateau state after violence erupted there.

Since October 1999, 12 northern Nigerian states have extended or announced plans to expand the application of sharia in the state's criminal law. 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 for Muslims only. 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. Women have faced particular discrimination under sharia, especially in adultery cases where pregnancy alone has been used as adequate evidence of guilt, and allegations of rape and sexual violence are rarely investigated by judges. Some states have instituted or tolerated, as a result of these imposed codes, discriminatory practices disadvantaging women in education, health care, and public transportation.

There have been several cases in which sharia courts have handed down sentences of death by stoning to Muslims for various offenses. In 2003, some high profile cases involving sentences of death by stoning were overturned and thrown out on appeal; stoning sentences remain in several other cases pending appeal. No stoning punishments have been carried out as of the time of this report. There have been sentences involving amputation and flogging carried out in recent years, although no amputations have taken place in the past year. Sharia punishments such as death by stoning and amputation have been topics of a national debate in recent years on whether these punishments constitute torture, inhuman, or degrading treatment under the Nigerian Constitution. The UN Committee Against Torture, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, have stated that stoning and amputation do constitute inhuman or degrading treatment under international human rights standards and treaties.

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 to build or repair 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. Although proselytizing is permitted by the Constitution, several northern states continue to ban some public religious activities to address public safety and security concerns.

Over the past few years, there have been an increasing number of small, vocal Muslim groups in northern Nigerian that advocate strict application of sharia, and which, some argue, are helping create a haven for radical Islamic militants from outside Nigeria. Though not organized as a nationwide movement, some of these groups advocate a more forcible Islamization of all of Nigerian society, regardless of religious affiliation. In late 2003 and early 2004, a wave of extremist activities, including attacks on police stations and churches, resulted in at least 18 deaths in Yobe state in northeastern Nigeria. A group of about 200 young militants killed two policemen and seized guns and ammunition. Police responded by killing dozens of militants. A UN press report stated that a Sudanese man was arrested for spearheading the insurrection and that the Islamic foundation he headed, which builds new mosques in Nigeria, was funded by Saudi nationals. The man who heads the militant group reportedly fled to Saudi Arabia. Similar militant activity, resulting in more than a dozen deaths and kidnappings of Christians, continued in September and November 2004 in Borno and Jigawa states.

Several observers inside and outside Nigeria have reported that financial support from Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan has been the most visible in helping build mosques and Islamic religious schools in northern Nigeria. Some have suggested that the strict interpretation of Islamic theory and practices being preached in these mosques and religious schools is not a form of Islam that is traditional to Nigeria. Also, there are reports that an increasing number of Nigerian Islamic scholars and clerics are being trained in Saudi Arabia and have brought back with them a politico-religious ideology that explicitly promotes hatred of, and violence against, non-Muslims.

The Commission has traveled twice to Nigeria, most recently in August 2003. In addition, throughout the past year, Commission staff conducted personal interviews with members of non-governmental organizations representing various religious communities in Nigeria, as well as human rights organizations, academics, and other Nigeria experts.

In May 2004, the Commission released a public statement strongly condemning the sectarian violence occurring in Plateau and Kano states, which had claimed hundreds of lives. The Commission urged the U.S. government to press President Obasanjo to expand efforts by the Nigerian government to address sectarian violence in order to prevent further killings and to advance protections of the constitutionally guaranteed human rights of all Nigerian citizens, including religious freedom. The Commission also urged the U.S. government to encourage the Nigerian government to examine the impact of sharia in exacerbating the sectarian violence.

In August 2004, the Commission issued a Policy Focus on Nigeria, which included recommendations for the U.S. government in relation to communal and sectarian violence, the expansion of sharia law in the north, discrimination against religious minorities, and increasing Islamic extremist activity. In March 2005, a Commission representative testified at a Staff Briefing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on "Nigeria: Crises of Religion and Resource Control."

With regard to Nigeria, the Commission recommends that the U.S. government should:

  • urge the Nigerian government to address the sharia controversy, oppose religious extremism, and hold accountable perpetrators of religious violence by:
    • ensuring that sharia criminal codes do not apply to non-Muslims or to individual Muslims who do not wish to go before sharia courts, and preventing law enforcement activities in northern states by any quasi-official or private corps of sharia enforcers;
    • ensuring that sharia codes, where applied, do not result in violations of international human rights standards with regard to freedom of religion or belief, due process of law, equal treatment before the law, freedom of expression, and discriminatory practices against women;
    • identifying, publicizing, and countering foreign sources of religious extremism as part of its counter-terrorism efforts; to assist in this effort, the U.S. government should include Nigeria in its Pan-Sahel initiative, a U.S. military training partnership with four Saharan African nations fostering anti-terrorist and anti-extremist cooperation among countries of North and West Africa;
    • taking effective steps to prevent and contain acts of sectarian and communal violence, prevent reprisal attacks, and bring those responsible for such violence to justice;
    • ceasing immediately any official support for the so-called "religious police," or Hisbah, and ensuring that state governments make greater efforts to halt the activities of these vigilante groups, including prosecuting those found to have taken the law into their own hands;
  • expand U.S. presence and outreach efforts, primarily in northern Nigeria by:
    • opening a consulate or other official presence in Kano, or elsewhere in the north;
    • providing adequate Embassy and Consulate staff with appropriate local language skills, and require political and public affairs officers to regularly travel throughout Nigeria;
    • increasing the capacity of the Hausa Service of the Voice of America to report fair and balanced views on communal conflict and human rights;
    • expand in northern Nigeria the American Corners program; and
    • sponsor several exchange programs each year on the topics of freedom of religion or belief, religious tolerance, and Islamic law and human rights, targeting religious leaders, human rights advocates, government officials, and northern Nigerians;
  • expand U.S. support for communal conflict prevention and mitigation, through U.S. foreign assistance programs or otherwise, by identifying and supporting:
    • Nigerian non-governmental organizations working on communal conflict prevention and mitigation, emphasizing capacity-building at the local level;
    • human rights defenders, including legal aid groups that defend the constitutional and internationally-recognized rights of individuals, especially women, impacted by shariabased criminal codes;
    • human rights defenders responding to credible allegations of religious discrimination in any part of Nigeria;
    • funds for the expansion of training for the Nigerian federal police in human rights protection;
    • programs and institutions, particularly where communal violence has occurred, that promote objective, unbiased, and non-inflammatory reporting, consistent with the right to freedom of expression; and
    • the expansion of Nigeria's Inter-Religious Council, formed to promote dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and replicate the Council at the state and local levels.

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