Humanist International’s 2021 Freedom of Thought Report suggests that restrictions on freedom of expression are by and large most severe in the Muslim majority countries of Africa and the Middle East.
We can see some of the problems facing non-believers in such regions illustrated by the imprisonment of Mubarak Bala, the president of Nigeria’s Humanist Association.
Nigeria—a diverse society with hundreds of ethnic groups, including the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and the Igbo—is the most populous country in Africa and the largest economy on the continent. The southern region of the country was once home to the Benin Empire, renowned for its exceptional metallurgy, which includes the Benin Bronzes, and the huge earthworks surrounding Edo City. Under British rule in the early twentieth century, the country’s chief export changed from slaves to palm products (oil and kernels). Today it is probably best known internationally for its cultural exports, including Afrobeats, Nollywood movies and the national version of Jollof rice.
The country’s social and political make up has been partially shaped by Islamic expansion under the Sokoto Sunni caliphate and British colonial rule including the activities of twentieth-century Christian missionaries. Nigeria’s current population is approximately 50% Muslim and 40% Christian.
Although Nigeria leads the way in many areas of African cultural life, according to the Freedom of Thought Report it is a hostile environment for freethinking. The report places Nigeria in the “severe discrimination” category in the areas of government, education and society and considers the country guilty of “grave violations” against freedom of expression.
While Nigeria’s 1999 constitution prohibits both individual states and the federal government from adopting an official state religion, some local legislation is religiously motivated, especially within Muslim-majority areas. For example, certain northern Nigerian states operate under sharia law. Hisbah groups—a kind of supplementary police force—aim to enforce puritanical standards of public behaviour based on an Islamic religious code. As a result of their legislative influence, freedom of expression in these regions is highly restricted, especially for Christians, humanists, women and LGBT people. While the entire country is plagued by vigilante groups, many of them non-Islamic, the Hisbah patrols are often financed by the local or state government and specifically implement religious discrimination.
Apostasy and blasphemy are both punishable by death in Nigeria. Over the past 10 years, only two such sentences have been issued by Nigeria’s sharia courts and neither was carried out. However, such laws serve as a powerful deterrent to free enquiry and expression.
Nigeria is a deeply religious country: it is to be expected that its politicians will pander to the religious feelings of its citizens. But, as Nigerian activist, Leo Igwe has argued, Nigeria as a constitutional democracy and must ensure protections for its non-believing minorities, just as western nations are expected to do for their racial minorities.
Mubarak Bala is the President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, an organisation that provides vital social support for local non-believers. He is the son of Muhammed Bala, an Islamic scholar with political connections in Kano state. Bala junior has stated that he was initially educated in Wahhabi Islamic thought and jihad. In 2014, however, he lost his faith and became first an atheist and later a humanist. His father considered this a sign of a personality disorder and had him committed to a psychiatric facility.
In April 2020, Bala was arrested in his home in Kaduna state. All the following details are taken from Humanists International’s report.
Habu Sani, former Police Commissioner of Kano state, ordered Bala’s arrest in response to a petition signed by the law firm, S. S. Umar & Co, which claims that Bala’s Facebook posts about Mohammed are a violation of the country’s Cybercrimes Act, which criminalises insulting people on the basis of their religious identity, and alleges that his posts may incite public disturbance.
During his almost two-year imprisonment Bala has been denied many basic rights, including necessary medical treatment. Moreover, demands made by the Abuja Federal High Court that he be released on bail have been ignored. Petitions for his transfer out of Kano have also been ignored by the Governor of Kano State, Umar Ganduje. President Buhari has refrained from public comment on the case, even after the publication of an open letter explaining that Bala’s detention violates several articles of the Nigerian constitution.
Perhaps the Kano state government hope to make an example of Bala, to discourage others from criticising Islam. However, the arrest will probably harm Nigeria’s reputation among potential visitors and investors.
Meanwhile, many Nigerian humanists keep their beliefs secret, for fear of repercussions ranging from the loss of employment to murder.
Draconian measures like Bala’s arrest may be motivated by the wish of local governments to appease voters and distract attention from state incompetence and corruption. My colleague Terungwa Nguhar commented in an email exchange with me:
Your average Nigerian feels overpowered and defeated by bad leadership and hardship, and while religion seems to be the most reliable source of hope to such people, attacks on the nonreligious is one of the ways by government to cater to these people’s emotions and suggest every once in a while, that they are actually doing their jobs.
Moreover, according to a 2020 Pew poll, 93% of Nigerians agree that “belief in God is necessary for one to be moral.” This makes atheists easy scapegoats.
One way to improve people’s perceptions of the non-religious is to demonstrate that moral acts, such as providing charity for the needy, are not the exclusive preserve of the religious. Nigerian humanists have therefore been trying to expand their charitable activities, by, for example, founding oral health clinics and providing clothes for orphans. However, this requires both the financial resources to compete with the almsgiving of long-established religious intuitions and the freedom to publicly declare oneself a humanist—currently a dangerous proposition in many parts of Nigeria.
In an interview with me, Saliu Olumide, the Humanist Global Charity Advisor for Nigeria, has suggested different tactics for the north of Nigeria:
We must carefully encourage more moderate interpretations of Islamic scripture—focusing on the Prophet Muhammed’s early career in Mecca, for example, and amplifying the voices of moderates and reformers. Humanists need to appeal to their religious compatriots by stressing common goals, such as peace and prosperity and by pointing out how an ethnically and religiously diverse society like Nigeria’s could benefit from secular governance.
As for those of us who live at a safe distance from deeply oppressive religious regimes, we can help make his vision a reality by supporting organisations that not only supply aid to those living secret lives as free thinkers but also provide education geared toward opening the minds of the next generation.