Africa's most populous nation with an estimated 129 million inhabitants,
Nigeria encompasses a rich and sometimes turbulent mixture of
religions -- with Muslims accounting for nearly half of the population,
making Nigeria one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.
Approximately 40 percent of Nigerians are Christians and the
remaining 10 percent practice indigenous beliefs.
Religion has played a major role in post-colonial Nigerian society,
where there is a strong connection between ethnic and religious
Islam largely dominates the country's northern region, home of
the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups. Christianity is the prevalent
religion in the south among the Yoruba and Igbo tribes, although
the southwesterly Yorubaland contains a more diverse group of
religions. The mid-section of Nigeria maintains an uneasy neutrality,
with neither religion a majority.
Throughout Nigeria, religion is a tool for social mobility, providing
the means for integration into business and political circles
as well as educational ones. But it also has been a source of
contention, fueling violent clashes between Muslims and Christians
over the past decade, primarily in the predominantly Muslim northern
Since the 11th century, gold traders spread the Muslim faith from
North Africa to West Africa along the Trans-Saharan trade routes,
inextricably linking Islam with the local economy. According to
religious historians, many tribal leaders found that adopting
Islam expanded their trade network and promoted them as equal
partners in business transactions with Arab merchants.
As reported by a Library of Congress study, Muslim practice pervades
virtually all public institutions in the north. Out of Nigeria's
36 states, 12 states have embraced the Sharia,
a legal code based on the Koran and the practices of the Prophet
Mohammed. The vast majority of Nigerian Muslims are members of
the Sunni sect.
Public meetings begin and end with Muslim prayer. Regardless
of the individual's religious beliefs, all residents are familiar
with both Muslim prayers and the five pillars of Islam. Reputations
of religious piety accompanied with completion of the hajj, a
pilgrimage to Mecca, often yield heightened prestige.
While Nigerian law prohibits religious discrimination, conversion
reportedly occurs frequently among people with political and business
ambitions. In its 2006 Report on Human Rights Practices in Nigeria,
the U.S. State Department noted that private businesses frequently
discriminated on the basis of religion.
The majority of Nigeria's Christian population is Roman Catholic,
but the country also has a diverse group of other churches. The
Christian community includes Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists,
Presbyterians, Evangelists, Pentecostal Christians and Africanized
sects such as the Aladura.
Roman Catholics and Methodists dominate in southeasterly Igboland,
while Protestants and Anglicans maintain strong influence over
Yorubaland, in the southwest.
Catholic priests accompanying Portuguese traders in the 15th
century first introduced native Nigerians to the Christian faith,
but yielded few long-term converts. Missions in the 19th century
attained much more significant rates of conversion, in part from
their role in the abolition of slavery.
Britain's colonial rule helped formalize the geographic and religious
differences between the north and the south. Muslim leaders
in the north prohibited Christian proselytizing, while a less
central power structures in the south enabled churches to create
a system of religious institutions and schools.
Promoted by the British colonial government, missionary schools
produced an elite class of interpreters and civil servants.
Since full independence from British rule in 1960, many Catholic
and Protestant congregations began to include native music and
dancing in their services. Several independent movements have
also cropped up to create a Christian faith that relates to Nigerians
culturally, including sects that have interpreted biblical passages
as supportive of the native practice of polygamy.
Although a minority of the population still adheres to indigenous
practices, they continue in Nigeria, especially in the southwestern
region. Nigeria's native religious beliefs tie genealogical descent
to a particular site, legitimizing claims to land, resources and
leadership. According to religious scholars, the theology combines
ancestor worship with the worship of primordial spirits, or the
supernatural entities inhabiting a particular locale. Geographical
markers, flora and fauna often embody these entities.
Regular adherence to prayer and other forms of ritual worship
are thought to protect followers from misfortune, and many believers
use charms and talismans to ward off evil.
Throughout Nigeria, traditional beliefs have fused with imported
religious tradition. It is not uncommon to find Muslims and Christians
carrying out ancient religious rites -- such as wearing amulets
-- although younger generations deem compliance with old traditions
as renunciation of the newer faith.
Sharia law and religious violence
Religious violence has been a primary source of instability for
Nigeria over the past decade.
Since the country's return to civilian-ruled democratic government
in 1999, at least 15,000 people have been killed and hundreds
of thousands displaced due to numerous religious, ethnic and political
The religious violence can be traced to the adoption of Sharia,
or Islamic religious law, in the predominantly Muslim northern
The Nigerian constitution of 1999 provides a framework for the
coexistence of Nigeria's two main religions. The constitution
allows each state to make its own laws and says the majority Muslim
states may use Sharia code.
The initial introduction of Sharia law sparked riots by Christian
groups in northern states who feared they would eventually be
prosecuted under Sharia, despite the constitutional assurance
that the courts only applied to Muslims.
The first large-scale riots occurred in the Kaduna state in May
2000, when over 2,000 people were killed following the state government's
application of Sharia. Tension over the implementation of Sharia
But Sharia has not been the only factor for increased violence
between the religious groups. Protection and acquisition of political
power and resources have also caused problems between the country's
Christians and Muslims.
In 2001, more than 2,000 people were slain during riots in the
majority Christian city of Jos, which started when religious factions
clashed over the appointment of a Muslim government official.
The most deadly conflict of the past decade occurred from 2001
to 2004 in the Plateau State, in the center of the country, which
endured a series of reciprocal attacks by Muslim and Christian
workers and militias over the control of valuable farmland. In
the last year of fighting, before the government intervened in
2004, violence in the state displaced 258,000 people and left
1,000 dead, according to the United Nations.
Sporadic clashes have ensued, fueled in part by politics.
"Splits within the government of Nigerian President Olusegun
Obasanjo and increasing jockeying for power have seen a rise in
the number of political assassinations and a general sense of
insecurity across the country," stated the Internal Displacement
Monitoring Centre in a September 2006 report.