Non-believers Across Africa Risk Freedom and Family Support |
Muhammad Mubarak Bala was held incommunicado by the police for so long – eight months – that his wife was sure he was dead.
“I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. The emotional torture was too much for me,” Amina Ahmed told The Associated Press from her home in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
More than a year passed before Bala, an ex-Muslim and president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was charged. Bala is an avowed atheist in a deeply religious country. His alleged crime: posting blasphemous statements online.
Bala’s long detention and its traumatic effect on his young family illustrate the risks of being openly unfaithful in African countries where religious beliefs permeate social life and defying these norms is taboo.
“It’s generally accepted that to be African is to be religious,” said David Ngong, a Cameroon-born religion professor who researches African theology and culture at Stillman College in Alabama. “It takes a lot of courage” to withdraw.
Atheists are part of a growing worldwide group that has no religious affiliation. Also known as “nones”, they include agnostics and those who do not profess any religion. By 2050, the Pew Research Center estimates there could be 1.3 billion nuns in the world, about the size of today’s global Catholic population.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 25 African nations — nearly half of the continent’s sovereign states — have laws prohibiting blasphemy or offensive behavior against a deity or idea considered sacred.
The punishment can be severe. In Mauritania, for example, Muslims found guilty of ridiculing or insulting God face a mandatory death sentence and those who renounce Islam have a three-day window to repent or face the death penalty.
The most severe sentence in secular courts in Nigeria is a two-year prison term; in the country’s Islamic courts, active in the Muslim-majority north, it is death. Sharia does not apply to non-Muslims without their consent.
Bala grew up a Muslim but became an atheist in 2014. His family quickly placed him in a psychiatric hospital, according to James Ibor, his lawyer. Reemerging in public life, he became president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria two years ago and championed non-religious people on social media.
Prosecutors in northern Kano state cited posts on Bala’s popular Facebook account as evidence of his June 2021 indictment in a secular court. He faces 10 charges, including alleged insults to the Prophet Muhammad and “insult to the religion of Islam, its followers in Kano State, calculated to cause a breach of the public peace”, according to reports. Court documents provided to AP by Bala’s legal team.
“Muslims are about to start fasting with the God who refused to eradicate their poverty despite praying 17 times a day,” read one of the posts cited in the complaint. “How I wish Allah existed (sic).”
Denied access to health care and kept in solitary confinement, Bala was forced to “worship the Islamic way”, according to Ibor, and faces a two-year sentence. Prosecutors allege Bala confessed to the charges while in custody; Ibor said Bala did not have a lawyer present at the time.
“Mubarak was honest in his statements,” Ibor said. “We do not consider Mubarak’s messages to be inflammatory, offensive or illegal.”
Kano Attorney General Musa Lawan told the AP that his agency could not be blamed for Bala’s long detention as it only took over the prosecution of his case a year after his arrest.
Nigeria’s disparate criminal justice and legal systems are notorious for lengthy pre-sentencing detentions. Only 28% of inmates have been tried and convicted of a crime, according to the Nigerian Correctional Service.
Bala has already spent nearly two years in pretrial detention – the maximum sentence in a secular court for blasphemy charges. Still, Lawan told the AP, “we will be looking for a maximum sentence.”
Infidels often keep a low profile even in African countries where laws against blasphemy and renunciation of religion are not on the books or are rarely enforced, such as in Malawi in southeast Africa.
“Most of them keep their opinions in secret just because they are afraid of social consequences” such as loss of jobs or financial support from their parents, said Wonderful Mkhutche, president of the support group Humanists Malawi. .
A former deacon in the church, Mkhutche began to question his Christian faith while pursuing a degree in theology and religious studies. He continued to attend services for two years to keep up appearances, but quit in 2013.
Earlier this year, he self-published a book on humanism and politics in Malawi, advocating for the abandonment of government-sanctioned religious acts such as national prayers for good rains to help farmers. Although his book attracted media attention, he said he was now forced to distribute it himself because many stores did not stock it.
Leo Igwe, who founded the Humanist Association of Nigeria and researches religion at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, agreed that it is not common to pose as believers.
“Life is miserable,” Igwe said. “They have to live by always looking over their shoulders, and they are forced to live in a very dishonest way.”
To counter social isolation, nuns in Africa have started to connect on social media and create communities of support, with online humanist groups active in Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Uganda and in Zambia, among others.
In Nairobi, a 21-year-old ex-Muslim found Kenya’s atheist society on Twitter. The government suspended the group’s legal registration in 2016, saying its activities “have caused great public concern which is harmful and incompatible with the peace, stability and good order of the republic”. A judge overturned the suspension in 2018.
The woman, who spoke on the condition that she not be named for fear of being the target of harassment, said the group, which meets online and in person, gives her a safe space to talk and feel less alone .
But she remains locked up, fearing violence from her conservative Kenyan-Somali family, trapped in what she calls a “double life” where she maintains a semblance of adherence to the faith at home while removing her hijab when she go to school.
“If I’m praying, I’m pretending,” the woman said.
In Nigeria, where Bala is still behind bars, there was widespread condemnation last year led by UNICEF and the director of the Auschwitz museum, after an Islamic court sentenced a 13-year-old boy to 10 years in prison for “disparaging remarks towards Allah”. The sentence was eventually overturned by the secular court.
After 600 days in detention, Ahmed hopes her husband of two years will be able to return home soon, but believes Nigeria could be a dangerous place to build their lives. She worries about the emotional effect on their son, who was born six weeks before Bala’s arrest.
“He has a lovely son who barely knows him,” she said during a recent visit to Bala prison. “My neighbors are at home, they’re with their husbands and children. I’m like, ‘Why isn’t mine like them?'”