Emerging Religious Movements

Due to an economic downturn spurred by falling oil prices the 1980s, the state failed to provide basic services to most Nigerians, and this led many to question the state’s secular foundations. This period saw the emergence of Islamist movements, most notably the Izala, which was made up largely by the urban poor, and which received financial support from Islamists in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq.[1] Leaders of the Izala accused the government of using secularism to promote Christian agendas, channeling economic resources to Christians, and stifling Muslims’ ambitions to live a godly life.

Corruption and poverty were the signs that secularism had failed, and many Muslims felt that only an Islamic government could restore justice. They asserted that since Nigeria is majority Muslim, the government should reflect certain Islamic ideals that they claimed the sole authority to determine. Their interpretations excluded various other interpretations of Islam, most notably Sufism. They pointed to the national celebration of Christian holidays and the weekend’s inclusion of Sunday, among other things, as evidence that the “secular” government was in fact based on a European Christian and colonial model, and was therefore inherently discriminatory towards Muslims.[2] However, Nigeria equally observes and celebrates Muslim holidays and festivals. For example, the federal government subsidizes and organizes both Muslims pilgrimages to Mecca during the Hajj and Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Some do not approve of a secular government at all with or without the socio‐economic “proof” of its failure, and prefer religion-based forms of governance.

New exclusivist Christian movements also took shape in the 1970s and 1980s, partly influenced by the rise of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in the United States and Britain in the 1960s (and their missionary efforts in Nigeria). These movements increased rural-to-urban migration, the economic changes and growing conspicuous consumption that accompanied the oil boom, the political culture of military dictatorship and widespread corruption, and by fears of the occult that were culturally associated with some of these other factors.[3]  These transnational movements provided “born-again” converts with this-worldly salvation, emphasizing “health and wealth,” modernity, and individualism while condemning perceived demonic forces, including Muslims, and those who pursue ill-gotten financial and political gains.[4]

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), an umbrella group of various Christian denominations, opposed efforts to institutionalize and expand Islamic law and fiercely protested Nigeria’s membership in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1986. Both Christian and Muslim exclusivists taught that members of the other faith received preferential treatment and economic resources from the government, a message that further undermined the legitimacy of the secular state. The Pentecostal/Evangelical movement is perhaps even more outspoken in its renunciation of indigenous religions as demonic. Some find this stance ironic because it relies to a certain extent on these traditions to define itself in contradistinction to them. Some also find similarities in the worldview  and worship of this movement and indigenous traditions although the movement stresses a complete break from any and all traditional practices, concepts, and ideas.[5]

In 2002 an indigenous northern Islamist group referred to as Boko Haram was formed and in 2009 began attacking police and army targets.[6] They have directly compared the Nigerian government to the colonial government, and have expanded targets to include other Muslims, Christians, media outlets, government offices, and a United Nations office. In 2004, a state of emergency was declared in the central Plateau state after more than 200 Muslims were killed in Yelwa in attacks by Christian militias; revenge attacks were launched by Muslim youths in Kano.[7] These cycles of retributive violence marked the beginnings of deepening conflict among Christians and Muslims in the northern and Middle Belt regions, which threaten to spill over into the South.

In April of 2014 Boko Haram kidnapped over 200 young girls who were attending boarding school in Chibok. This mass kidnapping prompted global media coverage, and social media campaigns were launched with the hashtag “#bringbackourgirls.” High-profile figures such as Michelle Obama became involved, and eventually Britain and the United States sent planes to search for the kidnapped girls of Chibok.[8] The girls have still not been returned to their families, though a few managed to escape. Boko Haram claims that they have forced the girls into marriages and cannot locate them.

In early 2015 the group killed approximately 2,000 people in a small town called Bagu, near the northern city of Maiduguri. Due to the continued threat of Boko Haram to Nigeria, especially in the Northeast, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger formed a military coalition in 2015. The coalition achieved substantial success, and the Nigerian army went on to seize Boko Haram's alleged stronghold, Gwoza.

UNICEF has reported that approximately 800,000 children have been displaced as a result of the conflict with Boko Haram.[9] The militant group itself has also started enlisting children as cooks, combatants, and sex slaves. The group’s use of young girls became particularly evident in 2016, when three girls wearing suicide vests were sent to a refugee camp and killed thirty-eight people.[10] One of the three girls managed to escape Boko Haram without activating her suicide vest, and explained how she was held captive. The Guardian reports that, over a six-year period, Boko Haram has killed 20,000 people and displaced 2.5 million others.[11]

The Boko Haram conflict has fostered animosity among some persecuted Christian groups in the North, who suspect their Muslim neighbors of supporting Boko Haram.[12] Tensions have also arisen between peaceful minority Shi’ite Muslims and the Nigerian military. The Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) has reported concerns that the military could trigger a revolt, after it killed hundreds of Shi’ites in Zaria.

In the midst of this antipathy and fear, Muslims and Christians—both of whom have been targeted by Boko Haram—have united in opposition to the group. Sheikh Adam Albani, a prominent Muslim cleric who spoke out against the group’s actions, was subsequently assassinated in 2014. Consequences such as these have likely discouraged others from denouncing Boko Haram’s actions, although activists do continue to contribute to peacebuilding efforts. Hafsat Mohammed, for example, has set up an NGO called Choice for Peace, Gender and Development, in spite of repeated threats to her safety.[13] The aim of Mohammed’s organization is to help young people and women whose family members have been taken by Boko Haram. Mohammed has also worked closely with the much-celebrated Interfaith Meditation Center, which promotes Muslim-Christian dialogue in Nigeria, and about which the film The Imam and the Pastor was made. Since 2012, the IMC has been implementing a project entitled: “Training of Leaders on Religious & National Coexistence (TOLERANCE).”

Nearby Cameroon has set up an admirable example of interfaith peacebuilding on its border with Nigeria, where it is vulnerable to attack by Boko Haram; Muslims and Christians take turns to guard one another’s place of worship at prayer times.[14]


[1] Olufemi Vaughan, “Ethno-Regionalism and the Origins of Federalism in Nigeria,” in Democracy and Prebendalism in Nigeria: Critical Interpretations, ed. Wale Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

[2] April A. Gordon, Nigeria’s Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook (Santa Barbara: ABC-­‐CLIO, 2003).

[3]  Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction, p. 240–241; Matthews A. Ojo, “The Contextual Significance of the Charismatic Movements in Independent Nigeria,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute,” Vol. 58, No. 2 (1988), pp. 175–192.

[4] Ruth Marshall, Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 100–103.

[5] Jacob K. Olupona, “Bonds, Boundaries, and Bondage of Faith: Religion at the Crossroads in Nigeria,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Vol. 41, No. 2 & 3 (2013), pp. 20–30.

[6] “Boko haram timeline: From preachers to slave raiders,” BBC News, May 15, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-22538888, accessed November 22, 2013.

[7] Said Adejumobi, State, Economy, and Society in Post-­‐Military Nigeria (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

[8] “Nigeria profile – Timeline,” BBC, 12 June, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13951696, accessed 12 February, 2016.

[9] UNICEF, “800,000 children forced to flee violence in Nigeria and region,” April 13, 2015,http://www.unicef.org/media/media_81518.html, accessed 12 February, 2016.

[10] “Teenager seized for Boko Haram attack tells how she tore off suicide vest and fled,” The Guardian, February 11, 2016,http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/12/teenager-seized-for-boko-haram-attack-tells-how-she-tore-off-suicide-vest-and-fled, accessed 12 February, 2016.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cristina Silva, “Boko Haram Violence: Christians Take Revenge Against Muslims In Nigeria,” International Business Times, 4 April, 2015,http://www.ibtimes.com/boko-haram-violence-christians-take-revenge-against-muslims-nigeria-1874995, accessed 19 February, 2016.

[13] Cailann Morgan, “Meet the Nigerian woman taking on Boko Haram,” Aljazeera, 4 November, 2015,http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/women-make change/2015/11/151104160651727.html, accessed 20 February, 2016.

[14] Joe Mellor, “Christians And Muslims Protect Each Other Against Boko Haram,“ The London Economic 16 January, 2016 ,http://www.thelondoneconomic.com/news/christians-and-muslims-protect-each-other-against-boko-haram/26/01/, accessed February 20, 2016. 

Image source:

UNAMID, Flickr Creative Commons.