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Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country with over 230 million people, roughly evenly split between Muslims and Christians. Just over half the population are Muslim and around 46% are Christian according to the CIA World Factbook.

Muslims include followers of Sunni, Shia and Sufi, with smaller Izala and Salafist minorities, according to the US State Department’s 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom. The same report says that approximately a quarter of Christians are Roman Catholic, while Anglican, Baptist and Presbyterian Churches are the largest populations among Protestant groups. Other communities include Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Animists, and individuals who do not follow any religion.

Geographically Nigeria has often been described as split between the Muslim north and the Christian south, but significant populations reside in both parts of the country. Islam is the dominant religion in the north-west and north-east regions, while Christianity is the dominant religion in the south-west, including the capital, Lagos, and south-east.

Nigeria’s constitution prohibits the adoption of a State Religion by either the Federal Government or state governments. The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary law. Sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory.

Olufemi O. Vaughan, the author of a book on religion and the making of Nigeria, suggests “we cannot understand Nigeria without understanding the role of West Africa’s two world religions and how they intersect with indigenous religions.” He argues religion is important to both social identities and political mobilisation in the country.

Nigeria’s security situation was a main concern for voters in Presidential elections held in February 2023. Jihadist groups including Boko Haram wage insurgencies in the north-east. In the central region, there has long been conflict between largely Christian farmers and mainly Muslim herders, or pastoralists, over scarce resources. Some of this violence has been described as “banditry.” The US State Department’s 2021 Report on International Freedom, published in June 2022, chronicles incidents of religious violence.

Jideofor Adibe, Professor of International Relations and Political Science, Nasarawa State University in Nigeria, identifies three factors that he says have heightened religious tensions in Nigeria:

The first is the competition for space between the two main religions of Islam and Christianity. Secondly, there is the perception that Nigerian leaders use the state to promote their religion or faith at the expense of others. Thirdly, there’s a culture of insensitivity to the feelings of minorities.

Charles Ekpo, with the Peace and Conflict Resolution Programme at Arthur Jarvis University in Nigeria, rejects descriptions of Nigeria as a secular state as simplistic, saying “religion conspicuously influences politics in Nigeria.”

Ekpo suggests that “religious tolerance has worsened over the years due to the politicization of religion and the religionization of politics,” citing examples such as the escalation of violent religious conflicts and undermining of traditional religious balancing in political posts in religiously diverse states.

Balancing political appointments between Christians and Muslims has been seen as an important means of ensuring representation for both religious groups and public reassurance that all interest will be taken into account. Ebenezer Obadare, the Douglas Dillon senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the 2023 election of a Muslim President, Bola Tinubu, and Vice President, Kashim Shettima, has caused concern among some sections of the Nigerian Christian community. During the election campaign, Tinubu told northern Christian leaders that he picked Shettima because he “protected Christians” while he was Governor of Borno State.

While the election of two Muslims to the posts is not without precedent, during the outgoing administration of Muhammadu Buhari, Christian Yemi Osinbajo served as Vice President.

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