Updated January 2016
Population: 181.5 million
Government: Federal republic
Religion: Christian 40%; Muslim 50%; Ethnoreligionist* 10%
Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, oil-rich Nigeria has been beset by military coups.
It took until 1999 for this West African country to make a peaceful transition to an elected leadership and civilian rule.
The national government presides over a federation of 36 states and one territory. Africa’s most populous nation is a melting pot of more than 250 ethnic groups. Corruption is rife.
The government faces the huge challenges of uniting a nation strongly divided along ethnic and religious lines, and overcoming the insurgency in the north by Boko Haram militants. More than 2 million people have been displaced by violence.
Freedom of religion is enshrined in Nigeria’s constitution, yet 12 states in the north have adopted Sharia (Islamic law) and Islamists have vowed to turn Nigeria into an Islamic nation.
In many instances, Sharia is applied to all citizens and not just Muslims. The result has been communal clashes for which religion is often the trigger. Thousands of people have died.
Tension between Christians and Muslims is high in the northern Sharia states. Christians are often marginalised and discriminated against in work and education. Churches have been burned and Christians sometimes killed in riots.
There have been Muslim casualties too, but these are often outbursts of revenge. Aggression is mainly directed at Christians, and their death toll is disproportionately high.
The resurgence of extremists Boko Haram in central and northern Nigeria has added an alarming dimension to Christian persecution. The Islamist group, referred to by its nickname, which means ‘Western education is forbidden’, has allied itself to Islamic State. It has murdered thousands of civilians.
Boko Haram’s armed insurgency began in 2009. Since December 2010, Boko Haram has increasingly targeted churches and Christian areas. The group is stirring up religious and communal strife, as well as driving out Christians from the north.
Boko Haram achieved worldwide notoriety in 2014, with the kidnapping of 219 schoolgirls in Chibok. Most of the girls were Christians. Abductions of girls and women have continued in the north. Boko Haram sells them into slavery, forces them into ‘marriage’ with jihadists, or turns them into fighters. Those who refuse to convert to Islam or to kill others are themselves killed, according to Amnesty International.
Armed Islamists have claimed more than 14,000 lives since 2013, forcing some 60,000 from their homes.
Some Christian leaders fear the extremists’ ultimate aim is to split the nation in two, along similar lines to Sudan.
In the central belt of Nigeria, between the Muslim north and Christian south, Plateau state remains a particular flashpoint. Ongoing violence, fuelled by an influx of jihadists from countries such as Chad, has claimed thousands of lives since 2001.
In central and northern Nigeria, Christians face the dual threats of Boko Haram and Fulani militants. Armed Fulani herdsmen are driving Christians off their land so they can take it over to graze their cattle.
Rural villages have suffered brutal raids by militants with machetes and guns, some repeatedly. Christians frequently call on the authorities to do more to protect their communities from such attacks.
Current and recent projects include:
- Offering persecuted Christians pastoral and spiritual support to come to terms with difficult experiences and face the future
- Practical projects to support persecuted Christians, including trauma healing and emergency medical aid
Sources: Amnesty International; BBC; Britannica Online Encyclopaedia; International Christian Concern; Operation World (2010); The Voice of the Martyrs Canada; The World Factbook 2016.
* Ethnoreligionist: followers of local, tribal, animistic or shamanistic religions, with members restricted to one ethnic group.
Updated January 2016