Religious bigotry – in one of the most religious countries in Africa, if not the world – is one of the topics dominating the debate in the run-up to next year’s elections.
It is rare to find a Nigerian who is not devout in a country roughly divided into a predominantly Muslim north and a largely Christian south.
The constitution guarantees religious freedom – the country has no official religion and none of the 36 states are allowed to adopt one. It also prohibits religious discrimination.
Yet many living in areas where they belong to a religious minority feel discriminated against and live in fear – and with good reason given the history of religious violence.
“We have no freedom to worship. If you dress like a Muslim, you have problems. We just hide our religion for fear of not being attacked,” said Ibrahim Bello, a Muslim living in southeastern Nigeria. TBEN.
Obinna Nnadi, a Christian who once lived in the northern state of Kaduna, felt equally anxious: “I felt it was not safe to practice my religion there. I had to pack my family and leave.”
Neither has much faith in the authorities to tackle bigotry – and Mr Bello says attacks don’t always make the news, except those involving the Islamist insurgency in the northeast, in which both Muslims and Christians are attacked by militants.
This lack of confidence in the political class to deal with such discrimination has been exacerbated as the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) has disrupted a cross-party tradition – in practice since the return to democracy in 1999 – of having of both a Christian and a Muslim on the presidential ticket.
The incumbent president is Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim, while his deputy is Yemi Osinbajo, a southern Christian.
But the 2023 APC ticket has Bola Tinubu, a southern Muslim, with Kashim Shettima, a northern Muslim, as his running mate.
Some think this can cause tensions to flare. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled) has found that the average number of monthly violent incidents targeting Christians has increased by more than 25% in the past year.
While Acled has not separately recorded religion-related attacks on Muslims — with the exception of attacks by militant groups such as Boko Haram — some told the TBEN of their experiences, especially in the southeast, an area largely inhabited by members of the Igbo ethnic group.
Aisha Obi is an Igbo Muslim – a growing community. Some are converts, although the majority are born in the faith in the predominantly Christian region.
She said women were the main target for their Islamic dress and were subject to an animosity stemming from the civil war that began in 1967 when the Igbo leaders declared independence.
The secessionist uprising ended in defeat, but some wounds have yet to heal with resentment against the Muslim Hausa-Fulani community from the north, which then dominated the government.
“They see you as a saboteur,” Ms Obi told the TBEN.
“Even in a vehicle or on a motorcycle they call you, ‘Hausa person, who knows what they’re carrying. It could be a bomb.’ They believe that Igbos should not be Muslims,” she said.
There are frequent attacks on individuals and mosques in the region that authorities do not take seriously, she says.
“They don’t believe us. If we tell them, they’ll accuse us of wanting to start a religious war.’
Rev Caleb Ahima, vice president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), recognizes that religious discrimination is a result of location.
“In some states like [north-eastern] Borno, Christian religious knowledge should not be taught. Christians are not given plots of land to build their churches,” he said.
Rifkatu Aniya, from Kaduna state with large Christian and Muslim communities, said she had never felt safe since her Christian husband, a pastor, was killed in religious violence that broke out in 2000.
The state’s main city, also known as Kaduna, has since been divided into Christian and Muslim areas, explains resident Emeka Okeiyi, affecting their religious freedom.
“I can’t say I have any limitations to practice my faith in the southern part of the city,” he said, but he knows Christians in the Muslim northern suburbs who wouldn’t dare establish a church.
There are adherents of African traditional religions who also say they face intolerance – especially from those who adhere to the dominant religions.
Odinani, or Odinala, was the religion of the vast majority of people in Eastern Nigeria before the introduction of Christianity – and is making a comeback with younger people.
Odinani follower Cletus Chukwuemeka Ogbodo says the idea of religious harmony, as enshrined in the Nigerian constitution, is in stark contrast to how people are treated.
“Pastors set fire to shrines. Pastors burn people’s ancestral heritage during ‘crusades,’” he says of Christian attacks on traditional places of worship.
If the government adhered to the constitutional provisions, it would come to the aid of the people and prosecute the perpetrators, he said.
A lengthy legal battle is raging in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, where heated discussions have taken place over religious freedom versus secular rights.
It ended this year when the Supreme Court of Nigeria upheld a ruling that Muslim female students had the right to wear a headscarf to school.
For Ishaq Akintola, director of Muslim Rights Concern (Muric), it was a victory for Muslims in the south who regularly feel they are not being treated fairly.
But for others, like lawyer Malcolm Omirhobo, it went against the secular spirit of the constitution.
To make a point, he went to court in a traditional outfit – including a beaded gourd necklace and had a white circle drawn on his right eye in chalk as a priest of African religions.
“My fight is for secularity to become the norm,” he told the TBEN.
When the authorities tangibly interfere in religious matters, it can also lead to resentment.
To stop religious incitement in Kaduna state, a preaching ban was imposed last year – limited to those licensed by a council made up of members of both religions.
This infuriated some Christian religious leaders, who suggested it was an example of government force majeure — in particular Pastor Johnson Suleman of the Omega Fire Ministry, who accused the governor when it was first proposed to “Islamize” Kaduna. in a sermon that went viral.
But the interfaith council can be a way to foster local understanding — and could be a blueprint for other states.
Some Muslim and traditional leaders in Kaduna are now joining evangelical believers on Sunday – as part of efforts to ease pre-election tensions.
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