Nigeria is a Muslim-majority country, though only narrowly, and nearly half of its inhabitants are Christians. The division between the two faiths manifests along geographical lines, with Muslims living mostly in the northern regions and Christians living mostly in the southern regions. Insults to religion in general are punishable for all citizens, while crimes more specific to Islam, including apostasy, are punished only in states that incorporate Islamic courts for their Muslim residents.
Islam had reached what is now northeastern Nigeria as early as the 11th century. By the 15th century; by 1750, it was the nominal, if loosely observed, religion of the ruling and merchant classes. In the early 1800s, Sokoto Caliphate emerged, inspired by the “purification” of society, to live exclusively governed by religious law. Until 1960, Northern Nigeria was the only place outside the Arabian peninsula in which Islamic law was applied in criminal litigation.
Development of Blasphemy Laws
When the British arrived, there were few remaining parts of the region not under Muslim empires. By 1914, the British controlled both the North and South, governing under ‘indirect rule,’ through indigenous institutions. Islamic law never made the same impact in the southern parts of Nigeria as it had in the North; Islam practiced in the south was a more nominal one, less concerned with the conduct of Muslims in social life.
Indirect rule implied two systems of law: native and custom. No native law or custom was to be enforced which was ‘repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience or incompatible either directly or by necessary implication with any [English] law for the time being in force.’ In 1954, the Northern House of Assembly set up a ‘Moslem Court of Appeal’, to handle both civil and criminal cases according to Islamic law. After independence, non-Muslim minorities were now goverened by courts dominated by Muslims. The Minorities Commission attempted to redress this under the Settlement of 1960, which restructured Islamic criminal law in favor of a universal penal code applicable in all courts, independent of religious affiliation.
Nigeria has two court systems, one secular, one religious, but both prescribe punishments for blasphemy. Section 204 of the secular criminal code, "Insult to religion,” states that "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."
Sunni Islam is the dominant religion in 12 out of 36 states, which have religious courts operating alongside secular ones. Courts based in Islamic law can punish blasphemy accordingly.