Back to Forum

Religious Intolerance in Nigeria: An Abuse of Human Rights

Religious Intolerance in Nigeria: An Abuse of Human Rights

Anthonia Bolanle Ojo, SSMA

More than before, contemporary Nigerian society has been beset with religious conflicts that have threatened to tear the fabric of the country’s unity. To a large extent one can say that Nigeria of the past boasted of religious flexibility and tolerance for many years. However, recently, it seems to have been shelved as gruesome stories relating to religion rear their ugly heads frequently, causing loss of lives. One can say that a curious feature of today Nigerian society is religious intolerance, most especially in the Northern and the Middle Belt regions of the country. Religious fanaticism in the Northern part of Nigeria has been hidebound and its spread is unbridled. Religious violence has been unleashed on many innocent citizens of this country, that one wonders if Nigeria is truly a secular country which gives room for religious freedom. There is palpable apprehension among the citizens due to the Boko Haram insurgencies in the different parts of the Northern region. For over two years, cities like Maiduguri, Bauchi, Damaturu and Gombe have being bedevilled with fear due to the Boko Haram insurgencies. Religious intolerance prevails in the country and this is an abuse of human rights.

Religious intolerance usually originates from the perceived superiority of one religion over the others. In simple terms, religious intolerance or fanaticism is the inability of an adherent of a particular religion to acknowledge, accommodate and accept the right of others to live by another faith different from his own. Invariably, such attitude is connected to the conviction that one’s religion is the only divinely ordained path to spiritual enlightenment and immorality in heaven. Consequently, a religious fanatic believes strongly that his religion is unquestionably superior to other religions. It is good to point out that being zealous for one’s religion is commendable and is to be expected, but where such zeal is wrongly channeled, it becomes dangerous for the life of the community and it is an abuse of human rights.

The high rate of killings due to religious intolerance in many parts of the country is worrisome. A great concern at this alarming phenomenon is informed by the recent extrajudicial murder of a 75-year-old woman, Mrs Bridget Agbaheme, a Christian and trader at Kofar Wambai market, in Kano, who was beaten to death by irate youths after accusing her of blasphemy against Islam and also Mrs Eunice Elisha of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Kubwa, Abuja, who was killed recently for preaching. Before Nigerians could comprehend the motive behind such barbarity, another Christian and carpenter at Kakuri area of Kaduna metropolis, Mr Emmanuel Francis was mobbed and stabbed severally by some Muslim youths for failing to observe the Ramadan fast. Definitely, such primitive acts do not present Nigeria in positive light before the international community. Legal opinions have it that, while the above examples may be considered criminal acts, they are largely considered to have religious undertones. There is no denying the fact that many people now see the country as hostage to religious extremism.

Nigeria, like many other countries, is a secular country going by her Constitution. A quick look at the 1999 Amended Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria shows that in Section 38 (1) and also Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right, state that: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” Furthermore, Section 10 of the same Constitution states: “the Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State religion.” It therefore bears restating that the Constitution guarantees freedom of worship and no one should be victimised for their beliefs. The multiple religions in the country give every citizen the right opportunity to choose which faith is convenient. Therefore, freedom of faith must be defended at all cost, even when those in authority are not convenient with it.

Religious intolerance poses a great threat to human rights. Human rights apply to all irrespective of color, gender, sex, religion, health status, dress, socio-economic status, etc. This threat is not simply because of the specific acts of fundamentalist groups which may be recognised as concrete violations of human rights standards; the real threat comes from the political aims or the political project that is at the heart of fundamentalisms, which is essentially to transform the way identities are ascribed and negotiated. The human rights question is about us having rights as human beings. The fundamentalist claim is very different: it is about ascribing humanity on the basis of a certain religious claim which has to be legitimated by certain authorities, and which in turn lays down a whole set of other obligations and subject relationships with self and others to a certain kind of regime.

Right to religious freedom is based on the inherent dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27). In the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, it is explicitly affirmed that the recognition of the dignity and the rights of the human person is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace, and that disregard and contempt for them are acts of barbarousness that offend the conscience of humankind. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Liberty, teach that the right of the individual and of communities to social and civil freedom in religious matters carries with it the right “to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of 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” (§ 2).

Today, most of the world’s major conflicts are as a result of religious intolerance that has been left to fester into uncontrollable spiral of violence. We must restate that religious belief is fundamental to many human identities. It is part of the ways in which human beings experience the world around them. Hence all have the right to enjoy freedom to choose which religion that one is convenient with.