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God and the Nigerian State: An Examination of Blasphemy Laws in Nigeria viz-a-viz Human Rights Law – Abolade Akinkunmi

God and the Nigerian State: An Examination of Blasphemy Laws in Nigeria viz-a-viz Human Rights Law[1]


The right to freedom of expression and religion are among the most important rights in a democracy. Being able to express oneself and practice the religion of one’s choice is a common feature of almost all advanced democracies. The right to freedom of religion confers a negative duty on the state not to impose a religion on citizens, a negative duty which extends to non-adoption of a state religion i.e., the state has a duty not to do anything in that regard. In fact, even though many states prefer one religion above others another,[2] many countries of the world are now identified as secular states as opposed to a minority few which have religions on which state affairs are based. Nigeria is said to be a secular state by virtue of Section 10 of the Constitution[3] which prohibits the adoption of a state religion.

However, recent events have put to test the secularity status of the Nigerian state. The most recent events in this regard are the convictions of two (2) different people in Northern Nigeria for blasphemy by a Sharia Court.[4] It then becomes a question whether the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression are still contained in the Nigerian Constitution and our statutes.

This essay shall examine the right to freedom of religion and expression under Nigerian law. It shall be examined whether the crime of blasphemy exists under Nigerian law and whether such is consistent with the provisions of section 10, 38 and 39 of the Nigerian Constitution[5] which respectively prohibit the adoption of a state religion, guarantee the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to freedom of expression. This article shall conclude by recommending that our courts should nullify laws that seem to favour people of one faith above the other and that our courts should be vibrant and safeguard what is left of our democracy.

The Right to Freedom of Religion and Expression

The Right to freedom of religion under Nigerian law is a creation of section 38 of the Nigerian Constitution. The section is reproduced below verbatim:.

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.

From the provision, it can be gleaned that everyone has the right to choose whatever religion they desire. It can also be gleaned that a person cannot be prosecuted for apostacy under Nigerian law. The last leg of the provision reveals that anybody can practice their religion as they wish and can practise any version of a religion no matter how unconventional. Hence, no matter how unconventional a person is in their practice of Christianity and Islam, they can never be stopped from doing so and cannot be prosecuted for it.

In the Nigerian case of NURSING AND MIDWIFERY COUNCIL OF NIGERIA v. ESTHER BOSE ADESINA,[6] the court held that the right to practise one’s religion is a fundamental right and held that the respondent was within her rights to change her name on the basis of her change in faith. The court further held that the refusal to register her new name was a violation of her right. The court further upheld the right to freedom of religion in the case of Ukegbu v. N.B.C,[7] where the court further emphasized the importance of the right to freedom of religion.

While the state cannot stop a person from holding certain beliefs, the state can limit the manifestation of one’s beliefs.[8] Furthermore, the right to freedom of religion cannot be derogated from based on public emergency by virtue of Article 4.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[9] Certainly then, the right to freedom of religion may be exercised to such extent as will not affect others. In fact, Article 18(3) of the ICCPR provides that there may be limitations on the manifestation of one’s belief as may be prescribed by law for the purpose of public safety, order, health, and the rights of others. The very tough question to answer is how the manifestation of a religious belief would be dangerous to others. This essay argues that if the manifestation of a religion does not advocate violence or the breach of any law, the state should not interfere.

The law also forbids discrimination on the basis of religion. In the American case of MORRIS COUNTY BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS, ET AL. 18–364 v. FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION, ET AL.,[10] the United States Supreme Court held that religious organisations were entitled to benefit from governmental assistance available to secular organisations. The court further held that refusing to rent out a space to a religious organisation simply because of being religious organisation was discriminatory. An assessment of this decision and other decisions would reveal that the law compels religious tolerance. It is not enough to argue that your belief forbids you from associating yourself with people of a particular religion, lest the person would be held to be discriminatory. This essay argues that that is good and Nigerian courts should adopt this reasoning when confronted with a similar issue.

The Secularity Status of Nigeria

It is usually said that Nigeria is a secular state. This assertion is on the basis of section 10 of the Nigerian Constitution which forbids the adoption of a state religion. The interpretation of this provision is subject to debate and its full implication is not clear as it has hardly been a subject of litigation before our courts. Many have argued that the Nigerian Constitution only forbids the adoption of a state religion and does not necessarily mean that the constitution does not recognise the place of God in our national affairs. In making their arguments, proponents of this assertion allude to the Preamble of the Constitution which states thus:

We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria

Having firmly and solemnly resolve, to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation under God, dedicated to the promotion of inter-African solidarity, world peace, international co-operation and understanding

This essay shall not engage in a debate as to whether Nigeria is, indeed, a secular state. However, it argues that maintaining a position that some religions are not recognised under our law is either a product of hypocrisy or innocent ignorance.

There are several provisions under our laws which favour certain religions than others. In Southern Nigeria, the law seems to afford Christians more protection than people of other faith. In Northern Nigeria, the law seems to be on the side of Muslims than other religions.

The Criminal Code Act – the statute that governs criminal law in Southern Nigeria – is replete with several provisions that afford some defences only to Christians. For instance, section 10 of the Criminal Code Act provides that a husband is not criminally responsible if he facilitates the escape of his wife after the commission of a crime and vice versa. However, the section further provides that that defence is available only to Christians. Furthermore, section 33 provides that a wife of a Christian marriage is not criminally responsible for an action if compelled by her husband. Section 34 of the Criminal Code also provides that a husband and wife of a Christian marriage cannot be guilty of a conspiracy between each other alone. The implication of these provisions is that the defendants only need to prove that they are Christians in order to be acquitted if charged with any offence under those sections. Hence, a Muslim or a traditionalist would not be availed by the defences under those sections. This essay argues that this is bad for our legal system and those provisions be repealed altogether or those defences should be afforded to people of other faiths.

In Northern Nigeria, the mere fact that Sharia law is a primary source of law is enough proof that the law favours Muslims above others. The provisions of the Penal Code are worded in such manner that portray that the principles therein are drawn from Islamic tenets. In fact, the Nigerian Penal Code Act is an adoption of the Sudanese Penal Code[11] with modifications to fit into the Nigerian situation. Sections 387 and 388 of the Penal Code Act criminalise the act of adultery and punishes it by a term of 2 years imprisonment or fine or both. While the Penal Code Act does not expressly make provisions which favour Muslims, the practical implications of those provisions seem to engender Islamic principles in Northern Nigeria. Lending credence to this assertion is the stance of Northern governors on these issues and the fact that 2 people were recently convicted for blasphemy in Northern Nigeria. This is not good enough for our legal system. This article advocates that these principles that seem to favour one religion over another should be entirely repealed.

Blasphemy Laws in Nigeria

While blasphemy is not expressly stated in our criminal statutes, there are provisions that have such implications. Section 204 of the Criminal Code Act criminalises the act of insulting a religion. It provides thus:

Any person who does an act which any class of persons consider as a public insult on their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.

A similar provision is contained under Section 210 of the Penal Code Act which criminalises the act of insulting other religions. This essay opines that such provisions ridicule our democracy. While these provisions are not totally unreasonable, they do not seem to conform to the Nigerian social reality. Nigeria is a country with a set of people who hold religious beliefs in high esteem. Insulting the religion of others is quick to annoy people and there is a need to ensure that public order is kept by ensuring that nobody insults the religion of others. However, on a daily basis, different people ridicule the religious belief of others. An important aspect of the sermons of Nigerian pastors and imams is raining insults on traditional Nigerian gods and portraying those religious beliefs as ridiculous. Pastors say negative things about Islam in their sermons as much as imams say negative things about Christianity. The social reality of the Nigerian system is that insulting the religious beliefs of others is a means of reinforcing our own beliefs. Thus, criminalising the act of insulting the religion of others is a total sham.

However, a major disadvantage of the sociological school of law is that social reality is not a defence in criminal prosecutions. Hence, it would not be acceptable to argue before the court that the Nigerian social reality allows us to insult other religious beliefs without consequences.

This essay argues that the provisions of section 204 of the Criminal Code and section 210 of the Penal Code which both criminalise insult to other religions is a violation of the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. While it is conceded that the law should forbid people from insulting others, such criminalisation should not be on the basis of religion. It is advocated that people should have the right to express themselves even if it ridicules the religious beliefs of others. Making mockery of the beliefs of others, be it religious belief or not should not be a crime. In fact, under our law, it is unlikely that a person would be convicted for making mockery of other people’s opinion. One would then wonder why there is an exception for religious beliefs.

While it is rare that a person is prosecuted for insulting the religious beliefs of others, it is on the increase in recent times. 2 people have been criminally convicted in that regard in Northern Nigeria recently: a man was sentenced to death and a minor was sentenced to a term of imprisonment. This essay argues that those convictions constitute violations of human rights. In one of the cases, the man was convicted of blasphemy simply because he elevated a religious saint above Prophet Muhammed in his song. As has been argued in the preceding paragraphs, everyone is entitled to practise whatever version of a religion they desire even if it contradicts mainstream religious beliefs. The mere fact that a person considers one being to be higher than the other is an unreasonable ground to put them to death. It is hoped that those decisions would be reversed on appeal.

In arguing that blasphemy is a crime under Nigerian law, advocates of those death sentences have alluded to the Supreme Court decision of ABUBAKAR DAN SHALLA v. STATE.[12] The words of Muhammed JSC are usually quoted in that regard:

The trite position of the law under Sharia is that any sane and adult Muslim who insults, defames or utters words or acts which are capable of bringing into disrepute, odium, contempt, the person of Holy Prophet Mohammed (SAW), such a person has committed a serious crime which is punishable by death.

Certainly, advocates of this argument who quote these words do so out of context. The issue of blasphemy was not the issue before the court and those words constitute an obiter dictum. In fact, the appellant in that case was convicted of murder for killing someone who insulted the prophet, a conviction that was affirmed by Muhammed JSC himself. The court held that it was certainly not in the hands of private individuals to put justice in their hands. While the words of Muhammed JSC tend to portray blasphemy as a crime punishable by death, it is again affirmed that his words in that decision constitutes an obiter and carries no weight in deciding future cases. This article advocates that our courts should not permit the criminalisation of any insult on any religion. It is hoped that our courts would safeguard what is left of our democracy.


This essay has argued that the right to freedom of religion extends to a person holding any belief whatsoever even if it does not conform to the general belief held by other members of the society. The social reality in Nigeria is that we insult the beliefs of others on a daily basis. It is hoped that the 2 recent criminal convictions for the crime of blasphemy would be overturned by the Supreme Court on appeal. It is further advocated that the Supreme Court should nullify the provisions of section 204 of the Criminal Code Act and section 210 of the Penal Code Act which forbid the insulting of the religions of others. It is further hoped that other provisions within our statutes that favour Christians or Muslims should be repealed by our National Assembly or nullified by our courts as being unconstitutional.

Abolade Akinkunmi

[1] Akinkunmi Abolade, Associate, Law Axis 3600, Nigeria.

[2] Pew Research Centre, ‘Many Countries Favor Specific Religions, Officially or Unofficially’ (Pew Research Centre, 3 October 2017) <> Accessed 26 November 2020

[3] Constitution of The Federal Republic of Nigeria (Promulgation Act), Chapter C23, Laws of The Federation of Nigeria

[4] Lucie Sarr, ‘Two Nigerian youths convicted for blasphemy, sparking international criticism’ (La Crox International, 13 October 2020) <> Accessed 26 November 2020

[5] Supra

[6] (2016) LPELR-CA/B/398/2010

[7] (2007) 14 NWLR (Pt. 1055) 551 at 578, paras. A – B (CA)

[8] Lady Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, ‘Are we a Christian country? Religious freedom and the law’ (Oxfordshire High Sheriff’s Lecture 2014, Oxfordshire, 14 October 2014)

[9] General Comment No. 22: The Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion (Art. 18): 30/07/93.

[10] 586 U. S. ____ (2019)

[11] Sulaiman Olayiwola Rabi’u, ‘Shari’ah Hudud and Northern Nigerian Penal Code’ [2016] 2 International Journal of Law 8

[12] (2007) LPELR-SC.245/2004

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