Nigeria is a large country both in terms of size, population, and importance on both a regional and global scale, and few issues are as central to the national ethos as religion. Religious practice in Nigeria is just as varied and diverse as the population, creating a complex and fascinating situation that arises from its “triple heritage,” of indigenous religious traditions, Islam, and Christianity.
Nigeria has over 270 ethnic groups who speak over 370 languages. While it has been suggested that about half of the population is Muslim, 40–45% is Christian, and 5–10% practice indigenous religious traditions, none of these figures can be accurately validated, and they are more speculations than fact. This is particularly true given that involvement to one degree or another in more than one religious tradition is common. Regionally, there is a perceived cultural, economic, and political split between Nigeria’s north and south, which is a direct legacy of British colonial policy and uneven regional development.
While the North is largely Muslim and the South is largely Christian, the religious demographics of the country are far more complex than the north/south binary implies. It is true that Islam is deeply entrenched in the North, with many different strands and beliefs represented from widespread affiliation with Sufi brotherhoods, to Salafi interpretations of Islam that reject Sufism, small Shi’a communities, and various interactions with indigenous beliefs.
There is a sizable Christian minority in several northern states (mostly migrants from the southern areas of the country), though this population is shrinking as Christians flee from violence. Christianity, predominantly comprising Catholicism and Anglicanism, prevails in the Southeast but southwestern Nigeria is mixed, with substantial Muslim, Christian, and traditional religious communities. The “Middle Belt,” an area encompassing six states, is populated largely by ethnic minorities and is also highly religiously diverse.
Contemporary conflicts are frequently cast in narrowly-defined religious terms, but this representation fails to include how great economic disparities give shape to tensions. It is more accurate to say that those who have consolidated power and political influence—often by leveraging their religious and ethnic affiliations—have benefited economically, while the vast majority of the population is economically marginalized and competes for limited resources in a context of economic injustice and widespread corruption. Though economic development, particularly that derived from the 1970s oil boom, has enriched some communities in the North and the South, wealth tends to be mainly controlled by a small, wealthy minority found in both the northern and southern parts of the country, with very little trickling down to the vast majority of the population.
The disproportionate balance of political power and wealth in the country and the efforts of religious exclusivists—those who maintain that their particular religious tradition is the right and only tradition—have contributed to a rise in conflict. Between 2011–13, violence (predominantly against other Muslims, but also Christians) initiated by Boko Haram against other Muslims as well as Christians, reached crisis proportions in the Northeast. There has also been continued Muslim-Christian strife in the Middle Belt, resulting in thousands of deaths and increasing numbers of refugees reported in both of these regions. Anti-corporate protests in the South against multinational oil companies continues until the present day, and is taking on religious overtones as one of the largest groups also threatened to attack Muslim targets in retaliation for Boko Haram violence against Christians in the North. It is important to note, however, that there are multiple anti-corporate resistance groups led by Christians, Muslims, and followers of indigenous religions.
Most Nigerians celebrate the impressive diversity of their nation and many support integrative policies to heal the deep divisions left in the wake of British colonialism. However, the increasing polarization and stratification along religious, ethnic, and regional lines are a serious threat to stability. While former president Goodluck Jonathan repeatedly expressed his commitment to religious freedom, insiders and outsiders questioned his offensives in the North against Boko Haram by military forces that led to the deaths of countless innocent civilians and caused many to flee as refugees. Additionally, Jonathan’s economic policies failed to stimulate significant growth or opportunity for everyday Nigerians, and thus conflict with religious overtones continued as resources dwindled under his leadership.
In May of 2015, Jonathan lost the election to Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the All Progressives Congress party who is a retired Army Major General, and who was head of state between 1983–1985 after taking power through a military coup d'etat.
One of Jonathan’s last acts as President of Nigeria was to outlaw FGM (female genital mutilation), a nonmedical practice that entails the removal of the external genitalia of girls and young women. According to UNICEF, Nigeria accounts for almost a quarter of women affected by FGM globally. FGM causes pain, possible infection, infertility, birth complications, and prevents sexual pleasure. FGM is thus thought to protect young women from promiscuity, and preserve their virginities until marriage. (The premarital virginity of women in Nigeria is of high cultural and social importance.)
In Nigeria FGM is slightly more common in the southern, predominantly Christian regions, but it is practiced within both Christian and Muslim communities across the country. The ban of FGM in Nigeria was reached by culmination of the efforts of organizations such as the Inter-African Committee, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization (WHO), together with Muslim and Christian groups. Christians belonging to the Seventh Day Adventist tradition in Nigeria have been particularly outspoken against FGM, and cite the Bible in their rejection of the practice.
The prohibition of FGM in Nigeria is a great success for anti-FGM campaigners, who seek to outlaw the practice elsewhere in Africa, where it is common, as well as in parts of the Middle East and Asia. These campaigns are often interfaith efforts, given that FGM is practiced in multiple religious contexts.
 British Council, “Gender in Nigeria Report 2012,” British Council (2012); Sudharshan Canagarajah and Saji Thomas, “Poverty in a Wealthy Economy: the Case of Nigeria,” Journal of African Economics, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2001), pp. 143–173.
 “Nigeria: Female Genital Mutilation Fact Sheet,” UNICEF, n.d., http://www.unicef.org/nigeria/FGM_.pdf, accessed February 19, 2016.
Image Source: Abuja Street Portrait. Photo by Mark Fischer, Flickr Creative Commons.