In April 2022, the sentencing of Mubarak Bala sent shockwaves internationally. The outspoken Nigerian atheist was sentenced to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to charges related to blaspheming Islam. What followed is a landmark case that has placed the threats to freedom of religion and expression in Nigeria under new scrutiny.
In a new documentary from BBC Africa, ‘The Cost of Being an Atheist’, reporter, Yemisi Adegoke, explores Bala’s case, hearing first-hand from his wife, lawyer and revealing the impact his sentence has had on other atheists living in fear across Nigeria at a time when religious violence is on the rise. She also speaks to those who are offended by those who speak out against religion.
The Cost of Being An Atheist explores the legal issues surrounding blasphemy laws in Nigeria. Northern Nigeria has a dual legal system where the Penal code is implemented alongside Islamic law.
The film features human rights lawyer, Adeola Oyinlade, who explains the uniqueness of Bala’s case. He told the BBC: “We’ve not really had cases of blasphemy going to the highest court of the land.” Mr. Oyinlade further explains the challenges around blasphemy laws. He said: “In our laws we have a Penal code that applies in the North and a Criminal code that applies in the South, that does not expressly mention blasphemy, but that looks at the ingredient of blasphemy…We don’t have a unified definition of what constitutes as blasphemy in Nigeria.”
The documentary also captures the shocking moment in court when Bala pleaded guilty to the charges related to blasphemy, a decision which took those in the courtroom by surprise, including his lawyer James Ibor.
Bala’s case began when he started receiving death threats for posting criticism of Islam on Facebook in April 2020. He was then arrested at his home in Kaduna State just a few days later and taken to Kano following a petition written by SS Umar, a Muslim lawyer based in the northern state. Speaking to BBC Africa, SS Umar said: “Fair comments is within the law, insult is extending boundaries…Reading all these posts make me unhappy. He (Bala) crosses the line touching someone (Prophet Muhammad) that they hold dear, more than their mothers and fathers, more than anything in the world.”
BBC Africa also spoke to a contributor who wished to remain anonymous. He said Bala’s arrest had a huge impact on other atheists in northern Nigeria and revealed his house was burnt down after he publicly defended Bala. He said “His arrest created a kind of panic amongst ex-Muslims in northern Nigeria. A lot of us decided to disengage from social media activities because the emotion and outrage was so high, that once people discovered you were not a Muslim, you are poised to be a target.”
Despite being a minority in Nigeria, many atheists face discrimination, harassment and persecution not only in the predominantly Muslim north of the country, but also in the majority Christian south.
Leo Igwe, a former Christian and founder of the Humanist Association spoke to BBC Africa about his experience of being an atheist in southern Nigeria. He said: “Religion plays a role in the everyday life of Nigerians. If you are the free thinking type, life becomes a struggle.” On his relationship with Bala he added: “Listening to him gave me hope, it let me have this sense of fulfilment… then we started working together until he was arrested in 2020.”
Another atheist and former Christian also shared her views on being vocal about atheism. She said: “You don’t have to come out, I am an advocate of that. If you’re still dependent on your boss to pay your salary why do you have to tell your boss ‘No, I won’t pray’. But for how long, and to what extent?”