While the constitution guarantees religious freedom in theory, the state endorses numerous anti-secular and theocratic policies. The government and non-state militia such as Boko Haram constantly violate the rights to freedom of thought and expression. Both of Nigeria’s parallel court systems, Customary and Sharia, outlaw “blasphemy”.

Under the Customary system, applicable nationwide, “blasphemy” is prohibited under section 204 of the Criminal Code. Section 204, “Insult to religion”, states:

“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.”

States subject to Sharia courts can and do implement severe punishments for crimes such as “blasphemy”, including execution.

Sections 275–279 of the Constitution give states the power to establish their own Sharia courts of appeal for civil matters. Abiding by Sharia law is required for Muslims in some states but optional in others and enforcement differs by state. The introduction of criminal law aspects of Shari’a, the continued state use of resources to fund the mosque construction, education of Kadis (Muslim judges), pilgrimages to Mecca (Hajj), and religious instruction in schools, mean that Islam is often regarded, and is in effect, the de facto state religion of numerous northern states.

In addition to handing down executions, predominantly Muslim states have frequently seen riots, violence and murder after blasphemy accusations, sometimes against individual Muslims accused, but with potential for wider violence when the accused is Christian.

In 2012, a rumour that a Christian man had “blasphemed” against Islam, sparked a riot and looting in the town of Bichi, in which four people were killed.

In 2009, a mob on the rampage in Gwaram, Jigawa State, burnt a police outpost, injuring around 12 people, over an alleged blasphemous statement against the holy Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (SAW) made by a “non-Muslim” resident of the town.

In 2008, a 50-year-old Muslim man, alleged to have uttered “blasphemy” against Muhammad, was besieged in his house in Kano by a Muslim mob, who then beat him into a coma. He later died.