Religious Conflict in Nigeria: How it has Become a Threat to National Security and what can be Done to Stop it

5 March 2021

The majority of Nigeria’s population of about 182 million follows either Islam or Christianity. Historically, these two major religions have coexisted peacefully. However, since independence, the country has suffered from many ethno-religious conflicts. In recent years, the number of deadly attacks has increased due to the growth of extremist groups such as Boko Haram and radical Fulani herdsmen. These attacks exasperate existing ethno-religious tensions and threaten national security. In order to unite Nigeria’s ethnically and religiously diverse population, change needs to be enacted from the top and the bottom of society. Both economic development and religious reconciliation are necessary to rebuild trust and stabilise the country.

Religious conflict can be defined as ‘the struggle over values and claims to scarce resources, status and power in which the aims of the opponents are to neutralize or eliminate their rivals’ [1]. This definition very much mirrors the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, as the groups compete for political and economic power, as well as land and water resources. Since independence from the British in 1960, the country has had many religious crises, which have persisted into the 1990s and 2000s. Examples are the Kafanchan-Kaduna crisis of the 1980s and 1990s; the Kaduna Sharia riots of 2000 and the Bauchi riots in 2001, both caused by the introduction of Sharia law in those states; as well as the 2001 riots in Jos, caused by a governmental appointment [2]. Hundreds of lives were lost during these conflicts and the effects reverberated beyond state borders.

Since 2008, Boko Haram have been an increasing threat to national security. The terrorist organisation is ranked the 4th deadliest terror group [3] in the world and aims to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. It opposes the Westernisation of the country, to which it links Christianity. The Islamist militant group conducts terrorist attacks on religious and political groups as well as civilians. Victims are both Muslims and Christians. There are an estimated 2.5 million displaced people in the Lake Chad Basin and over 300,000 Nigerian refugees as a result of this conflict [4]. The effects of this conflict are far-reaching and have eroded social and political stability, resulting in a threat to national security.

Another religious conflict in Nigeria is that of the farmer-herdsmen conflict. Violent clashes between radical Islamist Fulani herders and Christian farmers are increasing due to a number of reasons. Climate change is one factor. The Fulani are traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists based in the north of the country, but due to desertification, they are being forced southwards in search of water and grazing pastures. Christian farmers in turn view the Fulani, who often carry weapons, as encroaching on their land. The situation is exasperated by the government’s failure to manage land.

The religious element of this conflict and the rise in extremist Islamic ideology is often not given enough emphasis, but it is a third and significant factor. A faction of the Fulani are adopting similar terror strategies to Boko Haram, including targeting Christian leaders, communities and churches, as well as expelling Christian farmers from their land. Whole communities have been massacred or displaced as a result. While Muslims can fall victim to radical Fulani attacks, the vast majority of victims are Christians.

In 2019, HART visited our in-country partners and met with villagers who had survived Fulani armed attacks and massacres. They told us horrific first hand accounts of the violence – how their family members had been massacred and their homes burnt, and how many are now living with live-changing injuries. There were fears of genocide.

The consequences of these religious conflicts are immense. They have undermined traditional leadership, threatened national security and caused huge economic loss. The violence has also exasperated existing religious tensions and as a result given rise to deep suspicion and distrust between Muslim and Christian communities. As a result, there needs to be both a top-down and bottom-up approach to resolving the religious conflict.

Firstly, the government needs to take religious violence seriously and take a more active role in ending it. Continued government indifference plays a significant role in the perpetuation of violence. Its failure to ensure good governance, land management or the promotion of economic development has led to massive unemployment [5] which in turn has left young men vulnerable to radicalisation as they take up arms as paid militia [6]. Thus, it needs to focus on economic development to tackle unemployment and poverty and protect its people by bringing justice to the perpetrators of violence.

On a local level, a culture of mutual understanding and harmonious coexistence needs to be created while peace, dialogue and trust are rebuilt [7]. Religious reconciliation needs to take on an active form for it to be successful. An effective way of doing so is by creating spaces where Christians and Muslims can meet, exchange ideas and work together. Indeed, religious reconciliation involves ‘practical everyday politics of inclusion and accommodation’. Informal ‘social resources for cooperation’ including informal associations and networks, are vital to ensuring inter-religious harmony [8]. Another way dialogue can be carried out is through education to reconcile Christians and Muslim communities who are still living with pain from religious conflicts [9]. This way, communal relations can be improved through building a better understanding and awareness between faiths to change and challenge narratives of hate.

HART’s in-country partners focus on these two aspects of religious reconciliation: creating grassroots networks where Muslims and Christians can work together and providing education. The Mai Adiko Peace and Reconciliation Project focuses on female and youth religious reconciliation projects. By focusing on youth involvement, the project is reducing the likelihood of radicalisation by extremist groups and in turn, reducing community tensions. HART partner, Canon Hassan John reports that Christians and Muslims are socialising in each other’s communities more frequently, sharing food and forming football teams made up with both Christians and Muslims, which has brought a sense of unity and friendship.

Income generation is also vital to rebuilding communities and protecting young people who are vulnerable to radicalisation by both Boko Haram and Islamic Fulani militia. According to Hassan John, youths who would be easy targets for such radicalisation are now engaged in creative skill development training. During the corona-virus pandemic, they have been producing and selling hundreds of facemasks to protect their community in Jos. Muslim and Christian members of the project have also launched collaborative business initiatives together including women who have lost their husbands to the conflict, who now sell cold drinks or handmade clothes. These projects are successful because they involve Christians and Muslims actively engaging with one another in activities that are mutually beneficial. Thus, trust can be slowly rebuilt.

Education is another agent for resolving religious conflicts and insecurity. HART supports two mixed-faith schools in the states of Kano and Bauchi. In 2019, Bari School (Kano state) educated 250 children, of which over half were girls, with 15 teachers. Ningi School (Bauchi State), maintained 400+ pupils of equal proportion from Muslim and Christian villages. This form of inter-faith education leads to wider social integration and allows for Muslims and Christians to form friendships, thus improving community relations.

There are many layers to the conflicts in Nigeria, involving religion and ethnicity, and competition for power and resources. The consequences are far-reaching and threaten national security. Given the seriousness of the situation, all societal groups must be involved in rebuilding the country. This involves a top-down and bottom-up peace-building approach. The government must promote national integration and economic progress while religious leaders and groups must come together to rebuild a culture of harmonious coexistence and trust so that the extreme violence is put to an end.

By Georgia Fox, HART Prize Intern



Abubakar, D., 2019. Creed and Grievance: Muslim-Christian Relations and Conflict Resolution in Northern Nigeria. African Studies Quarterly18(3), pp.21-23.

Çancı, H. and Odukoya, O.A., 2016. Ethnic and religious crises in Nigeria: A specific analysis upon identities (1999–2013). African Journal on conflict resolution16(1), pp.87-110.

Gbenda, J.S., 2006. African Religion and Christanity in a changing world: A comparative approach, Nsukka.

Global Terror Index 2019, Measuring the Impact of Terrorism by the Institute for Economics and Peace.

Gofwen, R.I., 2004. Religious conflicts in northern Nigeria and nation building: The throes of two decades 1980-2000.

Otite, O. and Albert, I.O. eds., 1999. Community conflicts in Nigeria: Management, resolution and transformation. Spectrum Books Limited.

Ushe, U.M., 2015. Religious Conflicts and Education in Nigeria: Implications for National Security. Journal of education and practice6(2), pp.117-129.


Although all blog posts are reviewed by an editorial team, our blog authors all write in a personal capacity and the views expressed are not necessarily those of HART.

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