Marcus Amudipe

The current Nigerian issues in the socio-political terrain which has created an unstable society since Nigeria’s independence has led many to question different aspect of its component structure. One of these is the compatibility of the religion Islam and Democracy.

The peculiarities of a nation’s practice of democracy distinguish it from another’s. As a social process, democracy should naturally be expected to respond to the dictates of its immediate milieu while as much as possible it aspires to some universal principles or standards in its practice. From its definitions as ‘a government of popular sovereignty’ democracy permits the majority of the governed to have its “will” enthroned in governance at least in deciding who should direct its own affairs in political authority at elections. In Nigeria’s barely half-a-century of political independence, some attempts at democratic governance may have totaled up only to nineteen years of its nationhood. Of this however, much will be desired of any one to identify the boundaries of a ‘true democracy’ as defined above if any, that is existing in the Nigerian experience.

Typically, a democracy is characterized among others, by a regular general election, a highly defined electoral procedure, a high degree of the rule of law (with an independent and transparent judicial structure) and a people whose human rights is optimally guaranteed by existing executive, legislative and judicial institutions. While it may be argued at some academic forum that no ideal (true) democracy can be found in any nation today, there is however much compelling impulse to associate some current western democracies with a high degree of ideal democratic phenomenon. The Nigerian democracy would, comparatively rank very low in such continuum in terms of both practice and dividends.


Democracy in Nigeria

The model of democracy that is popular in this age of globalization is liberal democracy, democracy is a descriptive term that is synonymous with majority rule, and it is associated with democratic consolidation and good governance. However, in Nigeria, efforts to attain the high level of democratic consolidation and good governance have been made but not yet to be crowned with much success.

The literal meaning of “democracy” comes from a combination of two Greek words, demos (people) and kratos (rule), and at its core, “Democracy is a form of government in which the people rule”. The term originated in Athens and was a part of the standard classification of regime forms that distinguished rule by one (monarchy), several (aristocracy), and the many (democracy). However, beyond the literal meaning of democracy, there has been considerable debate over the criteria that distinguish democracies from non-democracies.

It can be argued that, democracy is a system of government where the opportunity to participate in an authoritative decision making is opened to all who are willing and interested to share. However, it is a system of government that recognized individual rights, a system of representation and electoral system based on the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value.

The Nigerian state assumed a new governance status in 1999 following the demise of authoritarian regime in the country. Military dictatorship was replaced by representative democracy with the hopes and aspirations of good governance much higher than what the seemingly collapsible democratic institutions could fulfill. The source and nature of transition in 1999 was later found to constitute threat to the foundation of democracy and obliterates the current efforts at consolidating democracy.

Since restoration of democratic rule in the country, change of government has been orderly while elections have been periodic. Between 1999 and 2015 four different civilian administrations have emerged and there have been four successive transitions from civilian government to another (Obasanjo Administration, 1999-2007, Yar’adua/Jonathan Administration, 2007-2011, Jonathan Administration, 2011-2015) and incoming administration Buhari Administration 2015.

This also is applicable to the legislature. Since 1999, the country has successfully passed through five legislative houses both at the centre and the component units. Elections in the Fourth Republic have been characterized by monumental irregularities and malpractices which magnitude increases with every election.

Despite the fact that Nigeria has experienced about sixteen years of uninterrupted democracy practice there are various challenges confronting democratic consolidation and good governance in the Nigeria.


Liberating Nigeria


A major feature of democracy in any setting is the presence of a constitution which affords the citizens their various rights and obligations. The right to religious freedom is one among these numerous rights as stipulated by the constitution.

The Nigerian Constitution pre-supposes that an individual has freedom to practice religion of his or her choice without government interference. This is where secularism comes into play. Secularism is a legal position in the supreme law of Nigeria, stating that religious belief should not influence any public and or governmental decisions. In other words, secularism is a documented position in a Constitution relating to political belief in the separation of religion and state. While people are allowed to practice whatever they believe in as their religion, the government must not allow that to influence public policy.

While we have the presence of three major religions in Nigeria, which are Christianity, Islam and the African Traditional Religion. The religion of Islam has raised several questions over its practice as history has given many to believe that the religion is incompatible with the tenets of a democratic setting.

Most of the many religious crises which has plagued Nigeria since its Post-Independence era are chiefly from Islamic terrorists. While the Islamic apologist says that Islam is a religion of peace, we cannot shy away from the Boko Haram insurgency, the Jos crises and many other religious crises which we have faced in Nigeria.

Lives and properties has been lost, drawing back the growth and development of affected regions by killing their socio-economic growth as a result of these religious insurgency while people of other religions constantly live in fear of attacks from Islamic terrorists, question their readiness to peacefully co-exist with people of other religions as the constitution stipulates as a feature of a democratic setting.


Islam and Democracy in Nigeria: The Experience

Nigeria’s Muslim population continues to grow. Estimates suggest 80-85 million Nigerians identify as Muslim (roughly 50% of the total population), of which the majority are probably Sunni (60 million), though this is not a unified identity and includes a wide variety of different viewpoints. For example, members of Sufi orders, members of the Jama‘atul Izalatul Bid’ah Wa’ikhamatul Sunnah (or Izala ) movement, and members of Boko Haram might all identify as Sunni, but the Izala and Boko Haram movements have had strong anti-Sufi components.

Estimates suggest 4-10 million Nigerians are Shari’a, mostly based in Sokoto, and there is also a significant Lebanese Shari’a diaspora. In Nigeria, the most prominent Sufi orders are the Tijaniyya and Qadiriyya, and a 2012 Pew Research Center survey showed 37% of Nigerians identify with Sufi orders (19% identified specifically as Tijaniyya and 9% as Qadiriyya).

Islam arrived in Nigeria in the 11th and 12th centuries through trade, migration, and through the travels of the scholar-mystic-wayfarer along trade routes, through the regions of Kanem and Bornu had been in contact with Muslim traders as early as the 9th century. As Islam spread, Muslim West Africa became deeply tied in with Islamic networks that stretched across North Africa and the Mediterranean to the Middle East, as well as an important trans-Saharan network that enabled and necessitated Arabic literacy as the lingua franca of trade.

During the 15th century the Malian Songhay Empire spread into Northern Nigeria’s Hausaland, establishing a dynasty there under Askiyya Muhammad). The gold trade brought migrants from around Hausaland to flourishing central cities such as Kano, and the Hausa language became an important medium for Islamic literature and scholarship. Arabic continued to provide the groundwork for religious scholarship that facilitated exchanges between Muslims in Mali, Sudan, and beyond, formed the basis for classical Islamic education, and allowed Muslims to read foundational works of doctrine and jurisprudence. By the 18th century, the Hausa and Fulani were well-connected to intellectual traditions and currents in Islamic thought, leading to impressive local intellectual production, from poetry to linguistics.

In the 19th century, Usman Dan Fodio (d. 1817), founder of the Sokoto Caliphate (1804-1903), led a reformist jihad against religious syncretism and perceived injustice throughout Hausaland and several other states, thereby expanding Islam’s influence in what would become Nigeria.

A new impetus to the spread of Islam was provided by Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region after Nigerian independence in 1960, with his Islamization programme that led to the conversion of over 100,000 people in the provinces of Zaria and Niger. The military coup in 1966, which claimed the lives of many politicians including Ahmadu Bello, brought his Islamization programme to an abrupt end but the 1970s saw continued government policy favouring the dominance of Islam. History has shown that Islamization was easier under military dictatorship and Islam spread quickly under Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993).

Religious tensions between Evangelical Christians and Islamic groups have long existed, but the anticipated extension of Shari’a law in a number of northern states has caused increased religious tension since December 1999. For example, in Ilorin, Kwara State, fourteen churches were burnt to the ground by suspected Islamic fundamentalists. News of the introduction of Shari’a law on 1 January 2000 in Zamfara State led to widespread violence in February/March 2000 in which property was destroyed and more than 1,000 people were killed. A second state, Kano State, adopted Islamic law in June 2001 and in 2002, a further ten northern states followed suit. Though the Nigerian central government has openly recognized the incompatibility of Shari’a law with the federal constitution of the nation

Muslims, especially the traditional ones, that is Muslims who follows the Quran to the core and adhere strictly to the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, they believe that anything outside the purview of the Islamic faith is unholy and is considered haram which makes them unfit for worship otherwise known as Ibadah in Islam, moreover it is believed that the tenet of democracy leads to a loose society where anything is acceptable. Islam is a religion which covers the totality of the lifestyle of a Muslim.

According to the Pew research results, it was stated that Muslims sees democracy as a tool which rest on the freedom and right of the individual, this if entrenched will alter the doctrinal structure and authority of the religion. In Islam there is a strict separation of what is secular to what is Islamic, and a thick line is been used to differentiate both else its adherents falls into ‘haram’  As earlier stated the rule of  law is an integral part to democracy, and there are three cardinal points upon which democracy is built on namely supremacy of the constitution, equality before the law and respect for human right , also the Section 1 of the 199 constitution makes the constitution   supreme over all laws, including Islamic, whereas for the Muslims, the first of the five pillars of Islam is the Confession of Faith which states that there is no God but Allah   and Mohammed his only messenger .This implies that to the Muslim Allah is the only law giver and anything outside this is sinful. Submitting oneself under a human

In Nigeria, the acceptance of Islam and  the Shari’a law against the tenets of democracy can be seen and made evident in the adoption of  the Shari’a law m state like Zamfara,Kano,Kastina,Bauchi,Borno,Jigawa,Kebbi,Yobe,Kaduna,Niger and Gombe are examples of states where the Constitution has been set aside for the Shari’a laws and these as  influenced the administration of  these respective states and  the citizens thereof.


The Rule of Law

The rule of law is the supremacy of the constitution as against any form of arbitrariness in government. Professor A. V Dicey (the greatest advocate of the concept) in his analysis of the rule of law based his explanation on the following:

  1. That the law of the land is supreme,
  2. That everybody is equal before the law to the extent that there should be impartiality in the administration of justice,

iii. That the constitution recognizes the fundamental human rights of individuals.  The rule of law is the principle that the power of the state must be limited by law and that no one is above the law”. It also means that the law of the land (i.e. the constitution) is supreme to any other law, either spiritual or temporal. Hence, the rule of law, according to him “is the fundamental bedrock upon which democratic government rests… (and) unless it is routinely observed by governing officials, democracy may not survive”.

The rule of law by extension, upholds that individual rights such as: freedom of association and religion, freedom of thought, expression and belief, and others must be entrenched in the constitution and strictly observed by the governing officials. Besides, the rule of law also upholds the doctrine of equality and inclusion.

Equality means that fairness to all, while inclusion means “democratic rights and freedom must be for everyone. They must not be denied to specifically targeted elements of population such as woman or minority groups” He further elaborates that the principles of inclusion means that all the main social groups that comprise the population in a country – ethnic groups, religious groups, social classes and so on, should have reason to feel that they are free and not discriminated.


Shari’a and Democracy in Nigeria: Compatibility or Incompatibility

After many years of military intervention and rule, Nigeria, once again, became a democratic society in May 1999 when political leadership changed hands from the military dictatorship to popularly elected leaders. The new leadership has since continued to strive towards adherence to democratic values – majority rule, popular sovereignty, constitutionalism, political participation, political representation, political equality and liberty among others.

Consequent upon this, the international community perceived Nigeria as a democratic state, not an Islamic state. But the decision by some Northern states to implement Shari’a legal system is however perceived with some anxiety and fear by non-Muslims who roundly interpreted this action to mean an attempt to gradually Islamize Nigeria. Even though, mere implementation of Shari’a legal code does not single handedly on its own connote an Islamic state as we were made to understand, it is observed that certain principles of democracy run contrary to some practices of Shari’a.

Several issues come to fore with the introduction of Shari’1a law by some Northern states: federalism, secularity, supremacy of the constitution, sanctifies of human right and the rule of law. The rule of law is an integral aspect of democracy, the absence of which negates democracy and democratic practice in any society. So central is the concept of rule of law to democracy that it embraces three cardinal aspects of democratic practices namely: the supremacy of the constitution, equality of all before the law and respect for the human rights and liberty of individuals.

Let us examine the extent to which Shari’a can be said to be compatible with these principles. We begin with the principles of supremacy of the constitution. There is no contention among Muslims on the issue of the superiority of Shari’a over any “manmade‟ constitution. Muslims, the world over, share this belief, and Muslims in Nigeria are not exception. Whereas, section 1 of the 1999 constitution makes the constitution supreme over laws of the land, the proponents of Shari’a in Nigeria have said times over again and again, that Shari’a is supreme to the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria.

The Shari’a government is regarded as Allah’s government. The first of the “five Pillars of Islam” is called Khalims Shahada, confession of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah”. This confession means ascribing divinity to Allah alone and not allowing any human being to share this attribute of divinity. Sovereignty is the first characteristics of this divinity; since Allah is the only sovereign one, only he must be law-giver of the Muslims. Submitting oneself under a human government is therefore regarded as a denial of the very foundation and pillar of Islam

The implication of this on a polity like Nigeria is that a Muslim must not subject himself to any law that is not Islamic, including the 1999 constitution. It also implies that a non-Muslim is not qualified to rule the Muslim population, especially, in states where Muslims are in majority. If we may ask: what becomes of a state like Kaduna (in Nigeria) if a Christian suddenly wins election, and considering the fact that the population is almost 50% Muslims and 50% non-Muslims? Would the Muslims, especially, those in Northern Kaduna who are presently observing Shari’a submit to the rule of a Christian? If not would this not amount to classifying the non-Muslims into a second class category?

The proponents of Shari’a in Nigeria have argued that Shari’a is compatible with democracy and that the actions of Zamfara and other states that have implemented Shari’a were in line with the spirit of democracy which allows any group within the federation to identify with its way of life. Accordingly therefore, there is the: Need to give full weight to the right of Nigerians to democratically choose the kind of society they wish to have, at the level of the state, and within Nigeria as a whole, It is equally argued that the Nigerian constitution recognizes three co-existing legal cultures; English law, customary law and Islamic law. But the English law (otherwise considered to be Christian law) is predominantly practiced in disregard to others.

This according to them amounts to undue imposition, discrimination and unfair disregard to the Muslims who are not allowed to practice their religion “freely and fully as set in the Fundamental Rights chapter of the constitution”. Section 38:1.On the other hand, the Shari’a legal system has been criticized on ground that its practice violates some aspects of human rights including the right “to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as, the right to change one’s religion or belief as enshrined in Section 38 (1).

One major thing that makes the Shari’a irrelevant for the modern man and woman is that the Shari’a does not allow freedom of religion. It does not allow freedom of conscience. You cannot believe what you want to believe. A Muslim under the Shari’a constitution has no right to leave Islam if he finds it reasonable or justifiable to do so. The legal punishment (hada) for leaving Islam is death. The logic is that, as far as Islam is concern, there is no distinction between the state and  religion.

Therefore, if a Muslim discards his religion, it is regarded as having committed treason against Allah and the state, hence the capital punishment (death), must be melted on him. In his interpretation of Section 277  (1) of the 1999 constitution which states that: “where all the parties to the proceedings, being Muslims, have requested the court to hear the case in the first instance to determine that case in accordance with Islamic personal law …” Shari’a is a voluntary legal system which Muslims parties may surrender themselves to its jurisdiction. Anything other than voluntary submission to Shari’a law is regarded by him as undue imposition and violation of human rights of those concerned7

Apart from the criticism, that the practice of Shari’a does not allow freedom of religion and conscience, there is also the argument that when Shari’a becomes fully operational in any state, its practice will unavoidably discriminate against women and non – Muslims.

Women under Shari’a are not considered equal to their men fold. For instance, two women witnesses equal a man’s witness in a law court.

Non – Muslims are equally regarded as dhimmis under a Shari’a government, and all dhimmis are second – class citizens). Besides, all dhimmis are compelled to pay tax Jizya. This state of affairs is succinctly described below: The tax Jizya‟ (is) imposed on them (i.e. all dhimmis) to make them acknowledge the lordship of Islam over them. It is a tax of humiliation. The word Jizya has its root from jaza which means „punishment‟. So, the Jizya tax is a punishment for not embracing Islam.

The above discriminative punishment is similar to the compulsion of beards wearing in Islam. For instance, the prescription of beards wearing by the former Zamfara state governor Alhaji Ahmend Sani Yerima as prerequisite for the award of contracts by the state, and for receiving support from the state government, can best be described as discriminatory and impositional.

According to the former Zamfara state Governor, Alhaji Ahmend Sani Yerima maintained that “I enjoin Zamfara youth to grow beards from today, I myself will start growing it. Whoever wants contracts must grow beards. Those without beards will not be considered. Even if you want to marry and are looking for government assistance, it will be given to you only if you have a beard.”  From the foregoing discussion, it is obvious that the implementation of Shari’a full-scale in a multi-religious society like Nigeria is inherently incompatible with democracy. Muslims may decide to ignore these facts in a fully blown Islamic environment where the Shari’a legal system reigns supreme. But, certainly not in a multi-religious society, which acclaim to democratic practice.

Democracy is far more than free and fair election, majority rule, accountability and constitutionalism. Its real essence lies in how to ensure that the individual actualizes the greatest level of happiness and satisfaction in conformity with the principles of justice, fair-play and equity. And bearing in mind that democracy does not strive in a chaotic environment where “lawlessness, abridgement of individual’s right and liberty, denial of the preservation of rights to life and property” are the order of the day, it is only proper to avoid the implementation of any law that can generate chaos.

The adoption of Shari’a law in some states is violent invasion of all the individual citizens of these states and crude assault on the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.



Conclusion – Islam and Democracy in Nigeria

The Nigerian society is undeniably a pluralistic society with diverse religious worldviews coming into play, and to accommodate this unique feature and the people of these different religious setting and cultural background is the concept of democracy which provides an equal ground for people to interact without the fear of victimization or oppression by one religion over the other.

The practice and the structure of Islam has left scholars wondering if it could work in a democratic setting, the religious experience in Nigeria and the interaction between Islam and people of other faith is a testament to the strained and tense interaction it has with other religion.

Despite all this, in a democratic setting, the rule of law as the constitution posits supersedes all other laws, cultural, political or religious.


Liberating Nigeria: A Guide to Winning Elections & Liberating our Country

July 13, 2020


  1. Oyediran Glory

    This is mind blowing!!!Really informative, educative and a great content.

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