Secularism and the Nigerian Nation

Marcus Amudipe


The Nigerian Nation is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society’s, that’s a country with numerous ethnical groups and presence of more than one religious worldview. The three major religions in the country are Islam, Christianity and the African Traditional Religion.

The unique feature of these three different religions in Nigeria is that they in their different rights share different values system, that’s belief system. While they are all religious worldviews, their beliefs system differs as they all have different doctrines and teachings. While the Christians believe in the supremacy of God and his son Jesus Christ and are lead in their doings according to the tenets of the religion as written in the Bible which is regarded as the Holy Book of the Christians, the adherents of Islam regarded as Muslims believe in the oneness of Allah and his prophets, also they follow the tenets of the religion as written in its holy book, the Holy Quran, also they are also guided by the dictates of the Sharia which is a collection of laws derived from the Quran which guides the activities and conduct of all Muslims. While the followers of the African Traditional religion in Nigeria are indigenous worshippers with a pantheon of gods

Also Followers of these three major religions in Nigeria take different positions on the question of the secularity of the Nigerian state. While most Christians argue for separation of the Nigerian state from religion, most Muslims advocate the fusion of religion, the state and the law. To many of them, the Sharia ought to govern the totality of the life of a Muslim from cradle to grave.

As a result of the multi-ethnic and multi-faith outlook of the Nigerian nation whose history can be traced to amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorate in the year 1914, the Nigerian nation adopted a secular outlook to suit it new existing structure for the sake of a peaceful and harmonious co-existence among its people

The 1999 Constitution did not expressly proclaim Nigeria to be a secular state. However, it prohibits both states and the Federal Government from adopting any religion as state religion; and guarantees to every person the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as well as the right to freedom from discrimination on grounds, inter alia, of religion. On the other hand, the Constitution in chapter II under the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy, enjoins the state to provide facilities for, among other things, religious life.

In addition, it makes provision for the establishment of Sharia Courts of Appeal though with jurisdiction restricted to questions of Islamic personal law. The Constitution also provides for the taking of oath of office by certain public officers. Although the Constitution is silent on the sources of Nigeria law Islamic law has been recognized as one of the sources of Nigerian law.

While the principles of a secular state is that the state government must not interfere or be affiliated in any religious outfit or use the state resources in preference to any religious activities, the Nigerian government in its dealing has made it difficult for us to have a clear practice of what a secular state really implies or entails. The Nigerian government adding to the aforementioned still uses the state funds to pay for pilgrimage trips, still uses state funds to celebrate religious activities, and still celebrates religious holidays.

Adding to these Politics in Nigeria has since independence been influenced greatly by religion. Elections in Nigeria cannot be won without taking into cognizance the religious structure of the country, appointment into the civil service is greatly determined using various religious consideration.

These Constitutional provisions have been the subject of tendentious interpretations. While some people contend that the Constitution has provided for the secularity of the Nigerian state, others contend to the contrary.

Definition of Secularism

Secularism may refer to any worldview or principle which defines the secular at a given context, and prioritizes, justifies or promotes it over the non-secular. Secularism has a broad range of meaning. While its definition as the separation of religion from civic affairs and the state is the most common among its many features. Within the secular setting, there is no other law except the rule of law entrenched in the constitution

The principles of secularism which protect and underpin many of the freedoms we enjoy are:

  1. Separation of religious institutions from state institutions and a public sphere where religion may participate, but not dominate.
  2. Freedom to practice one’s faith or belief without harming others, or to change it or not have one, according to one’s own conscience.
  3. Equality so that our religious beliefs or lack of them doesn’t put any of us at an advantage or a disadvantage

Need for Secularism

  1. Secularism protects both believers and non-believers

Secularism seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularists want freedoms of thought and conscience to apply equally to all  believers and non-believers alike. They do not wish to curtail religious freedoms.

  1. Religious Freedom

Secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious and other belief, and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. Secularism ensures that the right of individuals to freedom of religion is always balanced by the right to be free from religion.

  1. Secularism is about democracy and fairness

In a secular democracy all citizens are equal before the law and parliament. No religious or political affiliation gives advantages or disadvantages and religious believers are citizens with the same rights and obligations as anyone else.

  1. Secularism champions universal human rights above religious demands. It upholds equality laws that protect women, and minorities from religious discrimination. These equality laws ensure that non-believers have the same rights as those who identify with a religious or philosophical belief.

  2. Equal access to public services

We all share hospitals, schools, the police and the services of local authorities. It is essential that these public services are secular at the point of use, so no-one is disadvantaged or denied access on grounds of religious belief (or non-belief). All state-funded schools should be non-religious in character, with children being educated together regardless of their parents’ religion. When a public body grants a contract for the provision of services to an organization affiliated to a particular religion or belief, such services must be delivered neutrally, with no attempt to promote the ideas of that faith group.

  1. Secularism is not atheism

Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Secularism simply provides a framework for a democratic society. Atheists have an obvious interest in supporting secularism, but secularism itself does not seek to challenge the tenets of any particular religion or belief, neither does it seek to impose atheism on anyone. Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere – for believers and non-believers alike.

  1. Secularism protects free speech and expression

Religious people have the right to express their beliefs publicly but so do those who oppose or question those beliefs. Religious beliefs, ideas and organizations must not enjoy privileged protection from the right to freedom of expression. In a democracy, all ideas and beliefs must be open to discussion. Individuals have rights; ideas do not.

Secularism in the Nigerian Experience

Avid followers of Politics in Nigeria will agree the difference and irregularities of the Nigerian constitution on secularism and the real practice of a real secular state in Nigeria  If  we  are  to  go  by  the  pervasive  secular  state that Nigeria is often designated as then it becomes very complex to demonstrate  this  choice  at  an  empirical  level.

Religion has a place in the life of every nation including Nigeria. Irrespective of the faith or denomination, religion when truly practiced in its truest form and spirit, has been and remains sacred. It plays a vital role in purposeful leadership, community building, social justice, law and order, peace-making, reconciliation, forgiveness and the healing of wounds, be they political, family or personal. Religion ideally is not an arena of conflict. Unfortunately, Religion in Nigeria has given rise to conflicts between the adherents of the three main religions; Islam Christianity and African Traditional Religion.

Nigeria is not only a plural society with several ethnic and religious groups, but also one where ethnic and religious boundaries overlap.

Section 10 of the 1999 Nigerian constitution categorically proclaims that “the government of the Federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion”. Section 38 of the 1999 constitution under fundamental rights stresses the freedom of worship in the following words:

“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

Deducing from the above quotation, the constitution bars a state religion from adoption, and any attempt by anyone to foist a religion on the nation by a political fiat or indeed, any form of deceit. However, the Nigerian Constitution recognizes the need and application of the Sharia law but only to those whose religion is Islam. Section 260 of the Nigerian Constitution gives room for the establishment of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory Abuja: “There shall be a Sharia Court of Appeal of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja”. Officially, Nigeria is a secular state with freedom of religion guaranteed in the 1999 constitution. Through secularism, Nigeria seeks not only to maintain some form of neutrality and independence on religious matters, but also allows Nigerians religious freedom. The essence was to draw a boundary between the two realms state and religion and by so doing, reduce the negative influence of religion on nation building.

However, on the contrary, religion continues to cast an ominous shadow on the governance of the country. In Nigeria, religion has become a tool for politics. Nigeria is no longer able to maintain the fundamental principles of a secular state. Nigerian’s secular posture has been challenged on many occasions, thereby curtailing the religious freedom it sought to protect.

Constitutionally and in principle, Nigeria is a secular state that promotes freedom of worship but the situation on ground is contrary to the expectations of the constitution. From experience, it appears Nigeria is secular only in the constitution and not at all in practice or at best a quasi-secular republic. Nigeria is multi-cultural as it is multi-religious. Even though, in contemporary Nigeria, Christianity and Islam predominate, there are people of other faiths as well. The practice of secularism in Nigeria is usually centered on consideration of what values to be allowed depending on whether it is not a Christian-religious doctrine or Islamic. Yet, successive Nigerian governments have at different times fallen into traps of getting involved in religious affairs. Here is a list of some government activities which have strayed into one religious stream or the other;

  1. Permitting of preaching in public places by Christian and Muslims.
  2. Observance of religious holidays for Christianity and Islam.
  • Prayers during official government functions are reserved for official representations of Islam and Christianity.
  1. The government has built a Central Mosque and an Ecumenical Centre for Islam and Christianity respectively.
  2. Construction of churches and mosques with government money in schools, barracks.
  3. Subventions on Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia.
  • Public oath-taking on the Bible and the Quran.
  • Nigeria’s membership of OIC
  1. State-sponsored inter-denominational services and carols.
  2. Islam as a State Religion in some of the Northern States.
  3. Imposition of Gregorian calendar and Arabic language on Nigerian currencies.
  • The teaching of Khadis (Muslim judges) by the government
  • States whether dominated by Christians or Muslims, leaning toward the faith practiced by majority of residents and government officials routinely give out public revenue to religious organizations during public fund raising.
  • States media are used by the Muslims and Christians to publicize their faith Government owned media stations start and end their broadcasts with Islamic and Christian prayers.
  1. Saturday and Sunday are work free days for all public officers
  • Friday is unofficially half- working day in Nigeria because of Friday prayers for the Muslims.
  • The government is involved in the regulation and funding of mandatory religious instruction in public schools where Muslims are taught the Islamic religion and Christians are taught the Christian religion
  • The state support the funding of schools owned by religious bodies and does not interfere in their curriculum

Way forward

Following the realities of the Nigerian state and its inability to conform to the ideal of a pure secular state in the wake of its pluralistic nature. However for the nation to have an ideal system which gives room for even development and growth. In addressing the irregularities of the Nigerian secular system, there is a need for a realistic constitutional amendment that will show and reflect the nature of its system and one that can accommodate its federating system. Also the Nigerian government needs to adopt the virtue of neutrality especially when it comes to the issue of politics and critical national issues. There is a need for both its politicians and religious leaders to play the roles of an umpire rather than fan support and incite their religious or political followers to toil the path of violence


Against the structure of the Nigerian secular system, it is obvious that we are not practicing a full secular system, instead what is being practiced is a mild or soft secular system, however for peace to be restored to our federating units, which is the only panacea for growth development, the Nigerian state needs to adjust its constitutional structure to fit its realities.

July 29, 2020

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