Understanding the Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB) Landscape in Nigeria

On the 5th of July, 2022, the UK welcomed faith, belief, government and civil society leaders from around the world to London in order to boost efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) internationally. The 2022 International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief is set to showcase practical actions on how to achieve FoRB for all. This includes developing early warning systems, building more resilient societies, tackling online harm and discrimination, strengthening human rights education, and encouraging media freedom.

Currently, more than 80% of the world’s population live in countries where FoRB is under threat. One of these countries is Nigeria, which has recently witnessed a string of religiously targeted attacks. Following this, Haleemah Oladamade Ahmad, Senior Research Associate and Chief Editor at the Da’wah Institute of Nigeria, Islamic Education Trust in Nigeria, gave a presentation at the Fringe Event of the Ministerial Conference on FORB at the UK Parliament. The following text is the content of her presentation:

A Catholic prays during morning Mass in Kano, Nigeria; Muslims mark the end of Ramadan with prayers at a mosque in Lagos. Nigeria has the sixth-largest Christian population in the world, as well as the fifth-largest Muslim population. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images, left; Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

“I am Haleemah Ahmad, and I work with the Da’wah Institute (DIN) and the Development Initiative of West Africa (DIWA), both based in North-Central Nigeria. I am pleased and honoured to be able to share my thoughts with this esteemed audience at this fringe event of the Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
 
A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life estimated the Nigerian population to be 49.3 percent Christian who live mostly in the south, and 48.8 percent Muslim who live mostly in the north, while the remaining 2 percent belong to traditional or no religions, with many individuals also combine indigenous beliefs and practices with Islam or Christianity.
 
I am a Muslim from Southern Nigeria. As a secondary school student, I would walk to school every morning, and about 200 metres from my school, with a heavy heart, I would have to remove my hijab and put on a beret for the rest of the day. After school, I would have to be about 200 metres away from the school before I can wear my hijab again. My hijab is part of the manifestation of my religion, and I was essentially being asked to choose between my right to education and my FoRB. I had to compromise to receive an education, even though this was a public school funded by taxpayers’ money, including my parents.
 
Throughout my life, I have experienced discrimination and denial of rights including employment that I was qualified for, just because of my religion, and especially my hijab.  I graduated high school in 2007, and fifteen years after, millions of Muslim girls in the South have continued to face such violations of FoRB until just two weeks ago, Friday, June 17, when the Supreme Court affirmed the right of Muslim Women and Girls to wear their hijabs in schools, after a 10-year legal struggle. Unfortunately, this ruling which does not affect people of other faiths in any way has received a lot of criticism from Christians in Nigeria. This is just one story of violation of FoRB amongst many others that Muslims face in Nigeria that does not find their way to the international media.
 
Nigeria is unfortunately polarized along religious and ethnic lines with the South being majority-Christian and the North being majority-Muslim. A recurring narrative on the international scene is that of an alleged “Islamization of Nigeria”, “targeted persecution of Nigerian Christians”, and “ongoing genocide against Christians by Muslims in Nigeria”. This has led to a series of programs and FoRB initiatives targeted toward addressing these issues. The fact however is that this is not the true picture and it is unfair to all victims and even the donors that international aid organizations and governments come into the landscape without looking at the research and data by credible independent organizations without religious bias. The reality is that both Muslims and Christians face violations of rights in Nigeria depending on several other factors including their ethnicity and region. For example, a lot of Muslims experience violations of their FoRB including denials of employment or promotion, obstacles in procuring land for religious sites, discrimination and prejudice, and sometimes kidnapping, forceful conversion, and killing in some parts of the South while a lot of Christians experience the same in some parts of the North.
 
While a lot of stories of persecution and killing of Nigerian Christians abound in the international media, the experiences of Nigerian Muslims are completely ignored. For example, in 2019,  nine Muslim children were kidnapped from Kano in Northern Nigeria and taken to Onitsha in Southern Nigeria where their names were changed to Christian names, and they were forcefully converted to Christianity before they were rescued on Friday, 11th October 2019. Recently, there was also a discovery and eventual rescue of 21 Muslim children from a building belonging to the Evangelist Church Winning All (ECWA) Church in Jos on June 27, 2022; and just last week, July 2nd, another 77 persons, mostly children, and youths were rescued from Bible Believers Church Ondo, Southern Nigeria.
 
On May 22, 2022, a law-abiding pregnant Muslim woman living in Isulo, Anambra state of Southern Nigeria was killed alongside her 4 children and six other Northern Muslims by Christian IPOB (Independent People of Biafra) terrorists of the South-East. These horrific events hardly gain prominence in local media or find their way to the international media, and the point here is not to trivialize any persecution or killing as every life is sacred and everyone has the right to enjoy their fundamental human rights. It is also not to engage in an Olympics of victimhood but to point out that the violations, forced conversions, denial of human rights, kidnappings, and senseless killings are occurring across the country with both Muslims and Christians as victims, and as such, the issue needs to be addressed holistically, rather than adopting a “we vs. them” approach.    
 
This does not also mean that every Christian in Northern Nigeria is persecuted or that every Muslim in Southern Nigeria is oppressed. There are in fact, a lot of positive interreligious engagements amongst ordinary people on a daily basis. There are thousands of churches in Northern Nigeria just as there are thousands of mosques in Southern Nigeria, for example. This includes hundreds of mosques in the South-East and the siting and continued existence of a major Catholic diocese in Sokoto, side-by-side with the seat of the Caliphate, without any hindrance.
 
Nigeria is a complex mix and a lot of organizations and interveners make the mistake of seeing and taking complex and cross-cutting issues as being simply FoRB violations or religious persecution, thus framing the issue with one lens while ignoring other dimensions that need to be addressed. Most individuals in Nigeria have overlapping identities and as such, even in cases of conflicts, you need to sincerely and carefully consider if it is religious-based only? Ethnicity-based only? Resource control-based only? Or a complex combination of several factors including historical grievances some of which are a part of the legacies of colonization.
 
Often, a lot of issues framed as FoRB violations against Christians, especially in North-Central Nigeria is more often than not a complex mix of Majority-Minority, Indigene-Settler or farmer-herder clashes of which, one party coincidentally are Muslims while the others are Christians, and it is thus considered religious violence when it is in fact a minor FoRB plus bigger other problems. Permit me to quote the Bible here: “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God “. Both herder-Muslims and farmer-Christians in the Middle Belt have been victims and perpetrators of the violent conflict in that area.
 
A lot of academic research has already pointed out the factors underlying the constant farmer-herder clashes in these areas and provided recommendations for addressing them, and a lot of efforts are ongoing in that area. Hence, I would not delve too much into that. Instead, I would recommend that international organizations and governments who want to intervene in this area should look at the research and recommendations by organizations like Search for Common Ground which has conducted an extensive conflict analysis and highlighted the complex nature of the conflict and the several strategies and concerted and holistic efforts that need to be put in place by multiple stakeholders to address the conflict.
 
The premise that FoRB violations occur only in the North, with the Christians as sole victims and Muslims as sole oppressors,  has led to the concentration of virtually all initiatives and projects on the promotion of FoRB in the North with the belief that the South is okay. As I have explained earlier, the South is not okay, and Southern Muslims have just been more tolerant of the oppression of their Christian neighbours over the decades. Another factor contributing to the negative peace in the South is that the South is more homogenous with Muslims and Christians often belonging to the same tribe and family, unlike the North where the religious divide is often also along ethnic divides.
 
However, Southern Muslims are becoming more aware of the injustice of their situation and standing up for their rights legitimately as seen in the hijab legal struggle. Unfortunately, if the status quo is maintained, and the South remains left behind in terms of FoRB promotion initiatives, there is a high possibility of heightened religious tensions in the South in the near future. Also, a lot of Muslim religious actors in the North who are currently engaging in the promotion of FoRB and interreligious engagements might become more suspicious of FoRB initiatives and programs as merely disguised Christianization and thus pull out of them, thus making it a case of two steps forward, five steps backward.
 
Conclusively, I call on all local and international media houses to be more balanced and nuanced in their reportage of supposed religious conflicts in Nigeria. I call on local and international non-profits and international governments working in this area to be more aware of the complex dynamics of the FORB  landscape in Nigeria and be strategic and holistic in their intervention in FORB and peacebuilding-related initiatives in a way that does not demonize one party, do not harm any segment and that would lead to positive peace in this region and guarantee FORB for all.
 
Thank you very much for your rapt attention.”

Photo Credit: The Muslim Voice, Nigeria

Sources: Gov.UK; Haleemah Oladamade Ahmad

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