The Troubled State of Freedom in Nigeria

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written by
Arch Puddington
Vice President for Research

Islamist militants in Nigeria have escalated their campaign of violence against the government, educational institutions, and those they regard as nonbelievers over the last several days. On Monday, a car bomb was detonated in Abuja, the capital, killing some 75 people. On Tuesday, about 100 girls were abducted from a school in the northeastern part of the country.

Although it has been described in the Economist as “Africa’s New Number One,” Nigeria has long struggled with problems of poor governance, corruption, religious conflict, and the persecution of vulnerable groups—notably LGBTI people. The following review of basic facts and recent developments is drawn in part from the forthcoming Freedom in the World chapter on Nigeria.


Population: With over 170 million people, Nigeria is by far the largest country in Africa.

Boko Haram: The name of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram is loosely translated as “Western education is forbidden.” Its adherents oppose secular education, democratic institutions like elections, and Western-style clothing. Boko Haram is said to be one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world, second only to the Afghan Taliban. Its fighters have murdered both Christians and Muslims and have made special targets of churches and schools. In 2014 alone, the militant group is said to be responsible for some 1,500 deaths.

Government Response: The government’s counterterrorism efforts have been widely criticized for the indiscriminate use of force, extrajudicial killings, and other abuses. In May 2013, the federal government declared a state of emergency in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa, and the authorities have reportedly killed or captured many of Boko Haram’s leaders, but the group has continued to organize large-scale attacks with mass fatalities.

International Response: In 2013, the International Criminal Court decided to expand its preliminary examination into whether Boko Haram had committed crimes against humanity.

Corruption: Corruption remains pervasive, and government efforts to improve transparency and reduce graft have been inadequate. During 2013 there were numerous high-profile corruption scandals. A report by Chatham House in September revealed that over 5 percent of total oil output was being stolen by a network of Nigerian politicians, military officers, oil industry authorities, and international actors and institutions. Although Nigeria has established a robust legal and institutional framework to combat corruption, the government has not been able to effectively prosecute officials and eliminate the culture of impunity. Since 2002, the principal anticorruption body has secured only a handful of convictions, resulting in little or no jail time. According to Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, Nigeria was ranked 144 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed.

Press Freedom: The government frequently restricts press freedom by publicly criticizing, harassing, and arresting journalists, especially when they attempt to cover corruption scandals, terrorism, or ethnic violence. Attacks on journalists by both state and nonstate actors typically go unpunished. Sharia-based statutes in 12 northern states impose severe penalties for alleged press offenses. In 2013, the National Film and Video Censors Board banned Fuelling Poverty, a 30-minute documentary that details corruption in the oil industry and its impact on Nigeria’s economic development. According to the board, the film was a threat to national security because of its potential to encourage public protests.

Freedom of Religion: Religious freedom is constitutionally and legally protected and is generally respected by the government in practice. However, communal violence between Muslims and Christians remains common in some states. Boko Haram has explicitly targeted Christians and their houses of worship, though Muslims still account for the majority of the group’s victims.

Attacks on Schools: Boko Haram has made a special target of schools. In September 2013, the terrorist group killed up to 50 students during an attack on an agricultural college in Yobe State, while a July attack on a boarding school claimed the lives of more than 40 students and others.

Status of Women: Nigerian women’s educational opportunities have improved, and women hold several key governmental positions. However, throughout the country, women experience discrimination in employment and are often relegated to inferior positions. Discrimination against women is especially problematic in northern states governed by Sharia-based statutes. In addition, women belonging to certain ethnic groups are often denied equal rights to inherit property due to biased customary laws. Women continue to be affected by domestic violence and rape, and the practices of female genital mutilation and child marriage are common.

Persecution of LGBTI People: The Nigerian government and society continue to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. In January, President Goodluck Jonathan signed legislation that imposes sentences of up to 14 years in prison for engaging in same-sex relations, and up to 10 years for any individuals or groups that support or facilitate these relationships. The new law complements existing state laws banning same-sex relationships, including Sharia-based statutes in northern states that allow execution by stoning.


*Screengrab from http://www.onenewspage.us/video/20140414/1742041/Nigeria-Points-To-Boko-Haram-In-Deadly-Bus.htm.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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