Unbelievers across Africa risk freedom and family support



Muhammad Mubarak Bala was held incommunicado in police custody for so long – eight months – that his wife was sure he was dead.

“I couldn’t eat. I could not sleep. The emotional torture was too much for me, ”Amina Ahmed told The Associated Press from her home in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

More than a year passed before Bala, a former Muslim and president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was charged. Bala is an outspoken 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 belief permeates social life and questioning these norms is taboo.

“It is generally accepted that to be African is to be religious,” said David Ngong, a Cameroon-born religion teacher who studies African theology and culture at Stillman College in Alabama. “It takes a lot of courage” to withdraw.

Atheists are part of a growing global group that has no religious affiliation. Also known as “nones”, they include agnostics and those who profess no religion. By 2050, the Pew Research Center estimates there could be 1.3 billion worldwide, roughly the size of today’s global Roman 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 any 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 penalty 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 sentence; in the country’s Islamic courts, active in the predominantly Muslim north, it is death. Sharia law does not apply to non-Muslims without their consent.

Bala grew up a Muslim but became an atheist in 2014. His family quickly sent him to a mental hospital, according to James Ibor, his lawyer. Reappeared in public life, he became president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria two years ago and defended non-religious people on social networks.

Prosecutors in the northern state of Kano cited posts on Bala’s popular Facebook account as evidence for indicting him in June 2021 in a secular court. He faces 10 counts, including alleged insults to the Prophet Muhammad and “insulting the religion of Islam and its followers in Kano State, calculated to undermine public order” , according to court documents provided to AP by Bala’s legal team.

“Muslims are about to start fasting for the God who refused to eradicate their poverty despite praying 17 times a day,” read one of the messages cited in the complaint. “How I wish Allah existed (sic).”

Deprived of access to health care and held in solitary confinement, Bala has been forced to “worship the Islamic way”, according to Ibor, and faces a two-year sentence. Prosecutors allege that Bala confessed to the charges while in detention; Ibor said Bala did not have a lawyer present at the time.

“Mubarak was honest with his statements,” Ibor said. “We do not view Mubarak’s messages as inflammatory, offensive or illegal.”

Kano Attorney General Musa Lawan told the AP his agency could not be blamed for Bala’s lengthy detention, as it only took over the prosecution of his case a year after his arrest. .

Nigeria’s patchwork 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 Corrections Service.

Bala has already spent nearly two years in pre-trial detention – the maximum sentence of a secular court for blasphemy. Still, Lawan told the AP, “we will seek the maximum penalty.”

Infidels often keep a low profile, even in African countries where laws against blasphemy and renouncing religion are not in force or are rarely enforced, such as Malawi in South East Africa.

“Most of them keep their opinions hidden simply because they fear social consequences” such as losing their jobs or losing financial support from their parents, said Wonderful Mkhutche, chair of the Humanists Malawi support group.

A former church deacon, Mkhutche began to question his Christian faith while pursuing studies in theology and religious studies. He continued to attend church 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 the national prayers for good rains to help farmers. . While his book gained media attention, he said he was now forced to distribute it himself as many stores do not stock it.

Leo Igwe, who founded the Humanist Association of Nigeria and researched religion at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, agreed that none claiming to be a believer is common.

“Life is miserable,” Igwe said. “They have to live always looking over their shoulders, and they are forced to live in a very dishonest way.”

To counter social isolation, non-Africans have started to connect to social media and create supportive communities, with online humanist groups active in Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Uganda and Uganda. Zambia, among others.

In Nairobi, a 21-year-old ex-Muslim found the Atheists in Kenya Society on Twitter. The government suspended the group’s legal registration in 2016, saying its activities “have generated great public concern which is detrimental and incompatible with the peace, stability and good order of the republic.” A judge overturned the suspension in 2018.

The woman, who spoke on condition of not being named for fear of being the target of harassment, said the group, which meets online and in person, gives her a safe space to speak out and feel. less alone.

But she remains locked in, fearing violence from her conservative Kenyan-Somali family, trapped in what she has called a “double life” where she maintains a semblance of adherence to the faith at home while removing her hijab when she goes to school.

“If I pray, I am pretending,” the woman said.

In Nigeria, where Bala is still behind bars, UNICEF and the director of the Auschwitz museum were widely convicted last year, after an Islamic court sentenced a 13-year-old boy to 10 years in prison for “Derogatory remarks towards Allah. “The sentence was eventually overturned by the secular court.

After 600 days in detention, Ahmed hopes her husband of two years can return home soon, but believes Nigeria could be a dangerous place to build his life. She worries about the emotional effect on their son, 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 are with their husbands and their children. I feel like, ‘Why isn’t mine like them?’ ”


PA reporter Chinedu Asadu in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.


The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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