By ABDULRASHEED Hammad
Abdullahi Abubakar was deployed to Saki East in Ago Amadu, Oyo State, in 2021. When he arrived at Adu Grammar School, the secondary school to which he was posted, the school’s principal rejected him on the basis of his Islamic faith, he studied Islamic Studies and left his beard unshaven. He informed them that he could teach any subject other than Islamic studies, but he was not accepted.
“I kept going to that school for a whole month, hoping they would accept me, but I was completely rejected,” he lamented.
However, his partner, who was a Christian and had studied agriculture, was accepted to teach at the school. Abdullahi was later redeployed to Obalufun Grammar School, where they welcomed him, and he began teaching the students economics.
On April 3, 2014, Jewels Leading Lights Academy wrote a letter to the State Coordinator of the National Youth Service Corps in Abuja, rejecting Sani Muhammad Sadis with state code number FCT/148/2144 because of his faith. They expressed their desire for him to be able to express himself freely, as they are a Christian school, and requested for a replacement.
Zainab Suleiman, a 32-year-old teacher, was assigned to a government school in Ikare Akoko, Ondo State, in June 2017. When she arrived wearing a hijab, the school staff asked for her name, university of graduation, and place of residence. She replied that her name was Zainab and that she graduated from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and lived in Bauchi State. Upon realising this, some staff members made derogatory remarks in Yoruba, saying that “these people should be posted to their Muslim places,” unaware that she understood Yoruba.
“They issued a rejection letter, claiming there was no space due to the recent acceptance of other corps members. I was deeply saddened because they rejected me solely because I was a Muslim who wears a hijab,” Zainab lamented.
She reported the matter to the NYSC secretariat head, who was upset because the school wasn’t a Christian school though predominantly Christian. Zainab felt offended because they rejected her based on her faith and assumed she was Hausa.
Zainab was reassigned to Orange FM in Akure, where she faced similar discrimination with her competence called into action because she was a Muslim who wore a hijab. They restricted her from writing and reporting news or assigning her important tasks, even though she was the only female Muslim in the radio station at that time. Industrial attachment students were given assignments, but she wondered why she was excluded.
One day, reporters and IT students were sent to the field for a report, leaving Zainab alone in the newsroom. When one of the women asked for an intern to accompany her, they were told there was none available. The former head of news indicated that Zainab could cover the report, and a reporter objected, citing that she is Muslim as she wears a hijab and that the chairman of the station would not allow him to go.
The former head of news replied, “What does that mean if she is a Muslim? Look at the way she dresses in her hijab and abaya. She is more appropriately dressed and covered than all of you in this station.”
Zainab, angered by their demeaning attitude, initially refused to cover the report but eventually did so to prove herself. Her work impressed them, and they acknowledged her capabilities, giving her more tasks.
Zainab aimed to change the stereotype that covering one’s hair doesn’t mean covering one’s intellect. She continually advocates for tolerance and embracing each other’s religions, emphasizing the importance of providing opportunities for everyone to prove themselves.
How a Christian School rejected christian corp members over religious denomination differences
Apeh Israel, a 35-year-old teacher, narrated how he and his friend were rejected at their first place of primary assignment as corps members in a Christian school due to their Catholic faith, while the school was a redeemed high school.
In 2017, Israel and his friend were posted to Redeemed High School in Mowe, Ogun State. The principal’s secretary initially indicated they would be accepted because he knew they were Christians. However, there was a condition attached: they had to worship with the school and attend their Sunday services. Israel and his friend agreed that they would worship with them every other day, but they still want to attend the Catholic Church on Sundays. Unfortunately, they were rejected solely based on their denominational differences.
They reported the rejection to the NYSC secretariat; although they did not disclose the reason for the rejection, they began searching for alternative placements.
“I am a Christian, but the school where I eventually served was a Muslim school, and the majority of the staff and students in the school were Muslims and I was treated fairly without any discrimimation,” he noted.
Israel expressed his disappointment over the rejection, stating that at that time, he was unaware that the principal’s actions violated his fundamental human rights. He added that if he were the principal or owner of a school, he would hire individuals from other religions, especially since he worked in a Catholic school alongside Muslim students and teachers.
“Religion should not be a reason for rejecting someone with the skills and capabilities to contribute. We should keep them separate,” he explained.
Julius Itopa narrated how he went for an interview in a church of a different denomination. After passing the examination and the interview, he was rejected. He later realised that the church had chosen a lady who was from the same denomination as them, but he and the other persons were rejected because he was from the Anglican Church and the second person was from the Celestial Church.
“I felt disappointed because, with the level of their education, I don’t think they need something like that; if it is someone who is not educated, I would have said it is because of the illiteracy,” he noted.
How job seekers are rejected over their religious beliefs
Lawal Abdulraheem, a 40-year-old engineer, recounted an incident from 2009 when he applied for a job interview in Area 10, Abuja. On the day of the interview, he arrived at 8:00 AM and found fifteen other candidates waiting. However, they were not addressed until 12:00 PM, when organisers distributed Bibles to everyone.
Lawal collected the Bible but remained unsure about the situation. After a while, the organisers returned and insisted that they start with a worship session. Lawal, a Muslim, declined to participate, explaining that it was nearly time for the Juma’at prayer on a Friday. He requested permission to pray and return. Upon his return, they informed him he was no longer part of the interview process and was rejected.
Since that incident, Lawal has struggled to find employment and has turned to freelancing. He believes this is discrimination but he was ignorant that religious discrimination was against his fundamental human rights as a Nigerian.
During his IT (industrial training), Lawal faced similar discrimination when working with a pastor referred to him by his sister. He assumed he was a Christian because the sister who referred him to the pastor was also a Christian. When it was noticed he was a Muslim, he started to assign him to inconvenient work sites far from his residence. Later, a crisis in Jos in 2002–2004 affected the employer’s brother. He said the crisis was caused by Muslims, and they were not comfortable with Muslims in their office, subsequently evicting Lawal from his office.
These experiences made Lawal realise the reality of religious discrimination. He emphasised that as an employer, he would prioritise competence and allow freedom of worship, considering religion is a personal belief in one’s God. As an engineer, he values working with diverse people, regardless of their language or religion, with a primary focus on achieving good results.
Julius Itopa, a 38-year-old teacher, recounted how he was forced to quit his job at a school due to his attempt to revive a Christian fellowship in a Muslim school.
In 2016, Julius had just completed his NYSC in Lagos and decided to return to Kogi to settle down. He secured a teaching job in a Muslim school and noticed that the Christian fellowship was dying. The students invited him to help revive their fellowship. He informed the vice principal, who gave him permission to do so. Julius went to each class to gather all the Christian students on Thursdays after school, resulting in a significant turnout for their Friday weekly fellowship.
He officially resumed work at the school on September 16th and helped the students organize a Christmas Carol event attended by both Christian and Muslim students, drawing a crowd of over 300 students.
However, when the principal noticed this, he started delaying Julius’s salary. After the Christmas Carol event, the principal didn’t pay his December salary, claiming he had forgotten, even though he had paid other teachers. In January, when school resumed, Julius realized he was the only one who hadn’t received his December salary, while another teacher complained about not being paid for February.
Julius approached the principal, who initially claimed to have forgotten. After much persistence and the intervention of the vice principal, who was also a Christian, he finally received his December salary. However, by March, everyone else had received their February and March salaries, while Julius was left unpaid. When he inquired, the principal would say he had forgotten.
Julius reported the matter to the teacher’s union, which was led by a Christian representative. After their intervention, he was paid for the month of January in March. Frustrated by the treatment he received, Julius left the school without notifying anyone. Later, a staff member informed him that the principal did not want any Christian fellowship in his school. Julius added that his February salary of N11,000 is still with the principal to this day.
Yusuf Abdulkabeer, a 41-year-old public servant, recounted his experience at St. Augustine College, Kabba, Kogi State, a state government school where Muslims were not allowed to perform daily prayers on the school premises. Instead, Muslim students were forced to study Christian Religious Studies (CRS) and were not allowed to study Islamic Religious Studies (IRS). Additionally, they were denied the opportunity to establish the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria and had to go outside the school to perform their daily prayers.
The school also enforced a rule that required Muslims to close their eyes during the morning devotion on the assembly grounds, which deeply troubled Yusuf and led him to leave the school after completing J.S. 2 due to the injustice he witnessed.
“When I left the school, I felt oppressed, and I did not feel good because changing the school environment for a child sometimes has implications for the child. Even during that time, I knew about fundamental rights against religious discrimination, but I did not have much information to go ahead and make any formal reports or lay any complaints. I was still a young boy during that time,” he stated.
“The act is illegal, unconstitutional, unacceptable, condemnable, reprehensible, and barbaric,” says a human rights lawyer
Human rights lawyer and principal of Festus Ogun Legal, Festus Ogun, said the act of rejecting corps members and job seekers based on religious beliefs is unconstitutional, illegal, unacceptable, condemnable, reprehensible, and barbaric, noting that the practice does not align with international labour practices.
He pointed out that Section 42 of the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom from discrimination, which is violated when employers engage in such discriminatory practices.
He said: “As a lawyer specialising in labour and employment law, I can tell you that it is an unfair labour practice for employers to discriminate, especially on the basis of religion, when recruiting employees. While employers have the right to hire and fire and to employ whomever they want, this right does not extend to discriminating against individuals based on their sexuality, gender, or religion.”
“Section 38 of the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion, thought, and conscience. If everyone has that right, then employers should also respect it and not discriminate when hiring. Employment has nothing to do with religion. In my opinion, employers who engage in discrimination should be reported to the authorities so that legal and regulatory sanctions can be imposed. The right to freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion is separate and should not be the basis for denying anyone employment, even in a private establishment.”
He further stated that corps members should also report such incidents to NYSC because it is unconstitutional, adding that a willing employee cannot be forced upon an unwilling employer, but it is grossly unconstitutional for an employer to reject or not accept an employee, especially corps members, based on their religion.
He advised people to embrace religious tolerance because religious tolerance is extremely significant. He also advised victims of religious extremism to start taking up these issues and suing employers in court to demonstrate that their acts are unconstitutional and can result in the payment of damages.
AbdulLateef Abdullahi, a lawyer, author, and imam, shared his perspective on religious discrimination and cases related to it in Nigeria. He discussed instances where individuals were denied jobs and discriminated against based on their religion, particularly focusing on cases involving hijab garment
He mentioned a case at Kwara State College of Education in Ilorin, where a group of lawyers fought for a certain Bashirat Saliu’s right to wear the Nikob at the school, where judgement was given in favour of the government at the High Court and the appeal court delivered the judgement in favour of the victim.
AbdulLateef also stressed a case in Lagos involving primary school pupils who were denied entry for wearing hijabs. He used the court of appeals judgement in the Kwara case to argue against the Lagos State government in the research work he was doing in 2014 to prove that the judgement would be in favour of Asiat and the judgement was eventually in favour of the victim.
He expressed the need for religious tolerance and encouraged victims of religious discrimination to take legal action to defend their rights. He emphasised that religion should not be the basis for discrimination in employment or any other aspect of life, quoting sections 38 and 42 of the Nigerian Constitution that protect religious freedom and prohibit discrimination.
He advised those facing religious discrimination to be patient, seek legal recourse through the courts or the police, and utilise the support of groups of lawyers advocating for religious freedom.
What the law says
The International Labour Organisation Convention III, in Article 1(a), defines discrimination as “any distraction, exclusion, or preference made on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction, or social origin, which has the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity or treatment in employment or occupation.
Section 38 of the Nigerian Constitution guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, allowing individuals to practice, change, and express their beliefs freely. It also protects individuals from compulsory religious instruction or participation in ceremonies unrelated to their beliefs.
Section 42 of the constitution ensures that no citizen of Nigeria should face discrimination based on factors like community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion, or political opinion. They should not be subject to disabilities or restrictions that others aren’t, nor should they receive privileges or advantages denied to others based on these criteria.
Pastor, CAN president and MURIC director react
Reverend David Ayub from Worship Chapel International in Kaduna, Nigeria, shared a personal experience of religious discrimination. He recounted how, as a young man interested in joining the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), he obtained the form and took it to the Zaria local government secretariat near the Emir’s palace for signing. When the man saw the name on the form, he threw it away and refused to sign it because he was a Christian and not a Hausa or Fulani. Despite being born in Zaria in 1979, finishing secondary school in 1988, and growing up there, they shattered his dream of becoming a soldier.
“He told me that I should go to my village as he would not sign for me, and I was about 17 years old then. I forgot about the military because there was no way I could sign the form, and I did not know any military officers at the time. The local government secretariat was my only option; I didn’t know any other place, and that is how I lost the opportunity during that time. After that, I went to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, to study agriculture,” he recounted.
He expressed his shock and disappointment at this discrimination, as he had always believed in unity and coexistence among people of different religions.
When asked if, as a CEO or company director, he would employ people from other religions, he replied that, as a pastor, the Bible taught love and compassion. He emphasised that he did not discriminate based on religion and had friends of different faiths, extending his help and prayers to them.
Reflecting on his own experience, he advised victims of religious discrimination to trust in God, not see members of other faiths as enemies, and remember that love and understanding could bridge divides. He stressed the importance of love and unity among Nigerians, regardless of their religious backgrounds, for the progress of the country.
Reverend Joseph John Hayab, the Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Kaduna State Chapter, and Country Director, Global Peace Initiative in Nigeria, explained that the Bible condemned religious intolerance. He cited John 53 Verse 13, which stated that God showed love to the world, including Christians and those who are not, including those who belong to their tribe or not or are from different races.
He added that the Bible, in chapter 4 verse 26, states that anybody who says he or she loves God but does not love the people around him or her is a liar, adding that a person cannot say he loves God until the person loves what God created.
“The ideology teaches us to love everybody, respect other people, and appreciate other people. There is no evidence in the Bible not to employ or love people who are not practicing your religion. So, every Christian who does not respect other people or show love to other people is not practicing the word of God.
He explained that in Kaduna State University, in the past, if they had the Vice Chancellor as a Muslim, the Registrar would be Christian, the Bursar Christian, and the Librarian would be Muslim. But now, the VC, Registrar, Bursar, and Librarian are Muslims. He disclosed that the school has more than five mosques, but it took them a long fight and a court case to get land to build a church, and they are still working on the papers to build it.
He added that in ABU Zaria, their children are worshipping under the tree on the ABU Congo campus after the crisis that happened in 1987, which led to the burning of the church, but they haven’t been allowed to build a new church till now.
He said, “Tell them what they are doing is wrong; let them know how bad what they are doing is, because it is not helping them, and they did not get any advantage from there. We are using legal means and advocacy to let people know about it, because if people do not know, how are they going to fight for their rights and avoid evil plans against them?
He said the solution to religious intolerance and injustice is to be honest with ourselves, be patriotic to our land by following the constitution, and have humanity. He added that the issue of identity or religion is an unnecessary division because the masses suffer the same poverty and joblessness, and the politicians are not aware of their complaints.Ishaq Adesola, the director of Muslim Right Concern, said they are fighting problems for Muslims against religious discrimination. He said that in 2021, an engineer was rejected at Victoria Island in Ikoyi because he was a Muslim, where the employer claimed he couldn’t work with a Muslim, and the engineer walked away. One hour after he left, the building collapsed, and even the man who rejected him died in the building’s collapse.
“Apart from that, we have had cases of women wearing hijab who were rejected when applying for jobs. This is a common occurrence and contradicts religious rights, particularly for Muslims. They often make excuses for rejecting Muslims on job applications. This is very unfortunate and a violation of Section 38 of subsections 1 and 2 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
He explained that MURIC is raising awareness about these kinds of discrimination by disseminating information so that people become aware of the injustices being committed against Muslims. He added that whenever names were involved, they were mentioned, especially to law enforcement agencies and the government, to ensure they were aware of what was happening.
He added that another way they protect the rights of Muslims is through legal action. He noted that there are numerous ongoing cases involving individuals who faced rejection due to being Muslims.
He said, “We have approached the courts to hold those responsible accountable for violating the fundamental human rights granted by Allah. In all these cases, we have emerged victorious because there is no place in the Bible, Quran, or any constitution that promotes discrimination. When we take them to court, they can do nothing but delay and obstruct the legal process, as the law will ultimately catch up with them.”
He disclosed that there is no genuine religious tolerance, especially in the southwest, because if there were, they would not prevent Muslim women from wearing hijabs and would not refuse to employ Muslims due to their religion.
He noted that there is no valid reason for a governor, for any reason, to appoint commissioners exclusively from one religion while excluding others. He lamented that those who fight against religious intolerance are often labelled as terrorists. He pointed out that although some Christians are tolerant of other religions, they are minority groups.
“Unfortunately, those who are intolerant accuse individuals and groups like me, Akintola, of being terrorists because we do not allow them to oppress our Muslim brethren. If they genuinely want to demonstrate religious tolerance in this country, it is the government that should take action,” he asserted.
Nigerians of both faiths continue to tread the delicate balance of prejudice in spite of what the laws of the land say, teaching and practicing tolerance is the silver lining that has not been allowed to shine.
*This story was produced with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), in partnership with Code for Africa.