The arrest and incarceration of Mubarak Bala has compelled a review of the role of religion, in this case Islam, in governance, in Nigeria’s nation building and development. I did not know Mubarak Bala until 2014.
Then I was studying for my doctorate in Germany. Before leaving for my studies, I knew a few ex muslims who were part of the Humanist Association. From interacting with them. I understood how dangerous it was to be an atheist or an ex muslim in Northern Nigeria. I am from southern Nigeria, in fact from a region, the south east, that could rightly be called the country’s Bible belt. Coming out as an atheist was risky and challenging but not as risky as in the case of Mr. Bala.
In 2014, some friends alerted me that the family of Bala consigned him to a mental hospital following his renunciation of Islam. I was asked to help rally international support to secure his release. We campaigned and Mr Bala eventually left the hospital although that was after the staff at the hospital embarked on an industrial action. To understand how difficult and challenging being an irreligious person in Nigeria could be, an overview of Nigeria’s religious landscape will be helpful. Traditional religion, christianity and islam are the main religions that Nigeria’s over 200 million people profess. Christianity and Islam are foreign religions. Western missionaries brought christianity to the geographical area that make up contemporary Nigeria about 15th century and Arab and north African jihadists and scholars introduced Islam much earlier. Centuries of christian evangelization and islamic spread that included coercion and violence, demonization and fetishization of traditional religions, killing and enslavement of Africans have turned what used to be a traditional religious stronghold into christian and islamic dominated society.
While the Islamic religion is dominant in the northern part of the country, most people in the south profess christianity. Across the country, there is an undercurrent of religious hybridity, a mix of christianity and traditional beliefs, Islam and traditional religion and some places christian, islamic and traditional beliefs.
In muslim majority states, Islam controls education, politics, commerce, and the law. Sharia is in force in twelve out of seventeen states in Northern Nigeria. British authorities tried to limit the influence and sway of sharia and political Islam during the colonial period. Since independence Nigeria’s multiple religious heritage has presented a challenge to nation-building and the forging of a peaceful and progressive nation state. The two foreign colonial religions have been pitched in a battle to define and direct statecraft. From time to time tensions boil over resulting to religious conflict and blood shed especially in states and sections with significant number of muslims and christians.
The volatile religious situation in Nigeria has negatively impacted the non religious, leaving humanists, atheists and agnostics, freethinkers in the country with very limited options. Based on existing religious demographics, the irreligious form an insignificant part of the population. They are less than one percent. The religious account for over 95 percent of the population. But as the case of Bala has clearly shown, Nigeria’s religious demographics are bloated and exaggerated. Fear, intimidation, violence and threat of violence largely account for Nigeria’s religiosity. Simply put, there is no freedom of religion in the country.
The percentage of the irreligious is very low not because Nigerians are notoriously religious as John Mbiti stated.To most Nigerians, religion is on the surface. it is a survivalist facility. Nigerians become religious due to social pressure and coercion; they are perforce christians and muslims And this explains the pervasiveness of religious hybridity and the immortal quest of islamic purists to islamize and re-islamize the population.
Nigeria has a statistically insignificant irreligious population because it is risky and dangerous to come out as an ex christian or ex muslim, as a godless, irreligious person. It is disabling socially, economically and politically. There is enormous hostility towards persons who openly and publicly declare to be atheists even from persons who can barely explain why they believe in God. The stigma linked to atheism and the antipathy towards individuals who declare themselves as non religious and irreligious is enormous. Christians and muslims are indoctrinated to hate, belittle, demean, persecute, discriminate and in some cases kill non believers.
It is important to point out that although, Nigeria is one country, the situation of atheists varies from North to south, from one religious background to another. The situation of atheists is worse in the islamic northern part of the country where Mr Bala comes from. Atheism is a matter of life and death. The risky situation of atheists has affected the growth, development and organisation of humanism and atheism because humanists and atheists in these places operate underground. They have been unable to effectively organise and hold meetings in Kano, Kastina, Sokoto, Zamfara, Jigawa, Kebbi, Yobe, Gombe etc.
Bala lives in Kaduna but was born in Kano. These are muslim majority states with a history of religious bloodletting and blasphemy killings. Under sharia law, apostasy and blasphemy are crimes that are punishable by death or long prison sentences. Persons who are born into muslim families cannot leave the religion, and if they do, they cannot say that they have left the religion. They cannot declare why they have left because that would be interpreted as blasphemy as seen in the case of Bala. So there are two places left for atheists, exmuslims or those who renounce Islam to be: in the prison or in the grave. Bala’s experience in 2014 has revealed another place for atheists, the psychiatric hospital. So as an atheist, one is either mentally sick, a criminal or dead.
Sadly these are despicable options that mark the everyday life of atheists in Nigeria especially those from muslim dominated areas. Atheists have become endangered species, and risk being picked up, locked up, hospitalized, hunted down and killed at the behest of extremists. These risks and dangers are responsible for the insignificant demographics of the irreligious in Nigeria. And if the case of Bala is not adequately addressed the situation is bound to fester, worsen and spread to southern Nigeria where atheists live and operate with relative ease. Atheists in southern region could be increasingly targeted. The situation could become more precarious for freethinkers and freethought in the region.
The arrest of Bala is indicative of an underlying rot and malaise. It has clearly demonstrated how religion, in this case Islam, has caused Nigeria to drift and depart from the path of civility, sanity, legality and life. Islam has occasioned the emergence of existential nihilists, death cults that unleash mayhem and wreak havoc at the slightest provocation. Muslim jihadists have perpetrated savage acts, mindless violence and destruction. Raging in Nigeria is a form of Islam that sanctifies impunity and crimes against humanity. Unfortunately acclaimed moderate and progressive muslims have remained indifferent as the country drifts and flounders. The islamic establishment in Nigeria has keep mute and refused to speak out against the persecution and threat to murder a citizen of Nigeria merely for posting a comment on Facebook that allegedly insulted the prophet of Islam. No member of the Nigerian government, or a state agency has condemned the arrest.
In Nigeria, Islam mainly thrives on fear, compulsion, intimidation and violence. As currently practiced, Islam has a strong undercurrent of anti humanity and anti- Enlightenment. It is hardwired against reformation and progressive change. Islamic religion has a long history of intolerance and bloodshed that goes back to the precolonial times, and traced to 1804 jihad of Sheikh Usman dan Fodio and beyond. In post colonial Nigeria, the cycle of jihadist violence, oppression and bloodletting targeting mainly muslims and christians has continued. In the case of Bala, Nigeria is witnessing a new dynamic, an added target in the jihadist assault and persecution- atheists and humanists.
Nigeria has suffered enormously as a result of jihadist murderous campaigns: the Maitatsine sect in the 80s, the sectarian killings in Kano in 1991 that muslims perpetrated to protest the visit of an American evangelist Reinhard Bonnke, the beheading of Gideon Akaluka in the 90s, the riots and wastage of lives over sharia enforcement in 2000s, the lynching of a school teacher by students in Gombe, the murder of a christian woman in Kano for blasphemy and of course the vicious terrorist activities of rampaging Boko Haram militants. The list of islam-motivated atrocities is endless. Incidentally, those who were behind these instances of religious carnage in Kano or Gombe are walking about freely in the region. Religious bloodletters are not brought to justice; they are not made to answer for their crimes. Killing in the name of Islam has yet to be treated as a crime. In Kano, the government acquitted suspected blasphemy killers stating that they had no case to answer. But the state has detained a person who made a post on the prophet of Islam on Facebook for over a month. Now Kano state government that has been unable to successfully prosecute and established a case against murderous jihadists and blasphemy killers are looking for ways to indict and convict an innocent individual for making a post on the internet. Nigeria should release Mubarak Bala and guarantee the rights, safety and dignity of atheists and humanists across the country. Nigeria has the primary responsibility to protect atheists and other non muslims in the region.
But to accomplish this important objective, Nigeria must free itself from the bondage of violent extremism and radical Islam. Nigeria must wean itself off this vicious and bloodthirsty form of piety that makes -and has made- some muslims to kill or be ready to kill other human beings at the slightest provocation. Nigeria must get rid of the anti-human, suicidal and genocidal formation of Islam that teaches muslims to value their religion, the Qu’ran and the name of the prophet more than their life, more than human life.
Nigeria, Free Thyself. Free Mubarak Bala