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The Decline Of Religious Freedom Should Worry Us All

Though boasting Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria is in the midst of a security and economic crisis that threatens to turn it from a failing into a failed state. Successive governments have failed in their most fundamental duty to keep their people safe, leaving them at the mercy of a litany of hostile actors, from transnational terrorist and often ideologically motivated networks to local criminal gangs.

Religion is one of many fault lines being exploited to divide an increasingly fractious Nigeria. The country has long struggled to unite its Christian and Muslim communities, which each comprising close to half of its 223m-strong population. The imperfect yet effective convention of alternating between presidents of each faith has been cast aside, leaving many to fear persecution based on something as simple – and fundamental – as their faith.

A recent report published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religious Belief highlighted a situation that is getting steadily worse – not better. Today, Nigeria is an epicentre of violence against Christians. Almost 90% of Christians killed worldwide are killed in Nigeria, despite the country’s Christian community comprising just over 2% of the world’s total.

Attacks on churches, preachers, and worshippers have become so common as to no longer garner interest, while the gruesome stoning to death of student Deborah Samuel in 2022 on trumped up charges of blasphemy in the Muslim-majority Sokoto State remains unpunished. Accusations of blasphemy have also seen the leader of Nigeria’s Humanist Association, Mubarak Bala, sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Meanwhile, attacks against Christian communities are now taking place in parts of the country that had previously been geographically far removed from previous bouts of violence, exemplified by last year’s mass shooting at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State. Nigeria’s constitution affords all citizens the right to worship according to their beliefs. However, this is an example of the country’s dispiriting reality falling short of its extraordinary potential.

The report illustrates how religious differences have been weaponised by populist politicians to divide rather than unite communities and compounded – all too predictably – by Nigeria’s entrenched political corruption. Improving our understanding of the key drivers of religious violence in Nigeria requires our urgent attention.

Ayo Adedoyin, CEO of the leading social justice campaign group PSJ UK and contributor to the report notes that ‘the severity of bloodshed and the mostly one-sided nature of the attacks indicate that we require a deeper analysis of their real root-cause’.

This is an area where the UK’s FCDO and academic community could make an invaluable contribution. The decline of religious freedom in Nigeria is fast becoming totemic of the country’s wider security crisis. Admittedly, whilst the drivers of such violence are often unclear or contested, they nevertheless highlight the failure of successive Nigerian governments to safeguard their population’s lives and liberties.

With a new Nigerian administration now in office, the UK Government has both the opportunity and obligation to increase its support for long-overdue security sector reform. Whilst the UK-Nigeria Defence Agreement has undoubtedly been a step in the right direction on this front, it is far from clear what meaningful change it has delivered to date. Reducing Nigeria’s widespread poverty will also be essential to reduce levels of criminality and insecurity – of all kinds.

Currently, almost two-thirds of Nigerians live in extreme poverty and around one-third are unemployed. Poverty on such a scale will inevitably exacerbate tensions between different communities and faiths. Whilst the recent UK-Nigeria development partnership is to be welcomed, the UK Government must do more to ensure its considerable influence is bearing fruit. If Nigeria is to fulfil its extraordinary potential it will need help in addressing its security and economic crises. A focus on freedom of religious belief is a good place to begin. Empirical evidence demonstrates a clear link between such freedoms and overall development outcomes. Yet despite the high stakes involved, few appear to have grasped the urgency of the situation.

Now is not the time to continue our disinterest in what happens in Africa’s most populous nation. If the crises are not resolved, many Nigerians will be vulnerable to further murderous attacks and have to seek to establish a new life outside of the country, migrating to countries like the UK by both legal and illegal routes. That would not be in Nigeria’s interests, nor in ours.


Baroness Cox and Lord Alton originally wrote this for

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