My right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Introduction)

  • Introduction

This right is very fundamental and inalienable. It is also considered among the oldest and most controversial rights provided for at the traditional, national and international settings.

Section 38 of the 1999 constitution provides:

Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

What is freedom of thought and conscience?

This right does not necessarily have to be based on a particular religion. An atheist or free-thinker can come under this head.[1]

[1] Kehinde M. Mowoe Constitutional Law in Nigeria 2008, Malthouse Law Book p. 427

My freedom of religion

Because of the highly subjective nature of religious belief, the courts have generally rejected the idea of an inquiry into the truth or falsity of beliefs claimed to be religious, stating that there is no heresy in law.[1]

Justice Ayoola of the Supreme Court of Nigeria while stating the scope of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion many years ago implied a right not to be prevented, without lawful justification, from choosing the course of one’s life, fashioned on what one believes in, and a right not to be coerced into acting contrary to one’s religious belief. The limits of these freedoms, as in all cases, are when they impinge on the rights of others or where they put the welfare of society or public health in jeopardy.[2]

[1] Church of the New Faith v. Commissioner of Pay Roll Tax (1983) 57 ALJR 785

[2] Medical and Dental Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal v. Okonkwo (2001) 10 WRN 1 SC at 41

Do I have the right to change my religion or belief?

The constitution empowers anyone who so desire to change his/ her religion or belief. See section 38 of the 1999 Constitution

Can I manifest and propagate my religion?

Yes. Every citizen can propagate his/her religion which include the manifestation of religion in practice, worship, teaching and observance as including ceremonial acts, customs as the observance of dietary rights, the wearing of distinctive clothing, head coverings, the use of particular language customarily spoken by the group.[1]

Kindly note that the right to manifest religion would also cover issues such as dressing, mode of worship, and so on as long as it is not coercive and does not affect the rights of others.

[1] Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights C.C PR/C/21/Rev:1Add 4 adopted July 20 1993, reprinted in HRLJ 15. (1994)

Can churches/mosques propagate religions by establishing schools?

Section 38(3) provides:

No religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of that community or denomination in any place of education maintained wholly by that community or denomination.

Under the provision, religious institutions are empowered to give religious instructions in schools established by them, which indirectly empowers them to establish schools. The court so many years ago once declared unconstitutional a circular which purported to indicate that only public schools can operate in Lagos state.[1]


[1] Adewole v. Jakande (1981) 1 NCLR 262; See also Okogie (Arch Bishop) v. Attorney General Lagos State (1981) 1 NCLR

Since I have right to freedom of thought, religion and belief, why can’t I be a member of a secret society?

Membership of a secret court is criminalized in Nigeria.

Section38(4) provides:

Nothing in this section shall entitle any person to form, take part in or be a member of a secret society.

The implication of the provision above is that a secret society is not regarded as a religion and does not entitle a person to claim the freedom of thought, conscience or religion’s right.