Soyinka: Nigeria is ‘not a nation but a cage if we imprison people for their religious views’

By Akin Irede
Posted on Friday, 8 April 2022 11:30

Amina Ahmed, the wife of Muhammad Mubarak Bala, an atheist who has been detained since April 2020, holds his picture in her home in Abuja, Nigeria, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021.
Amina Ahmed, the wife of Muhammad Mubarak Bala, an atheist who has been detained since April 2020, holds his picture in her home in Abuja, Nigeria, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. Bala is an outspoken atheist in a deeply religious country; his alleged crime: Posting blasphemous statements online. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

The President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, Mubarak Bala, has been sentenced to 24 years in prison for blasphemy after months in solitary detention and earlier confinement in a mental institution, raising questions about the country’s tolerance for religious freedom and right to free speech.

Professor Wole Soyinka, speaking to The Africa Report, describes the sentence as a mockery of justice and calls on human rights organisations to launch a campaign against the development.

The Nobel Laureate says the incident was part of the disadvantages of the Sharia law being practised in the north, adding that the concept of blasphemy ought not to exist in a country like Nigeria which claims to be secular.

“I understand that the matter will be appealed, which is good, but I think beyond the judicial process, civil society organisations should rise to the occasion and insist that Nigeria is a secular nation and has no recognised religion. We are not living in a nation but a cage if we imprison people for their religious views” he adds.

Nigeria is currently at war, battling terrorists in the northeast and the northwest that have killed millions and left others displaced. Having been overwhelmed, the authorities in recent years introduced a controversial amnesty programme for terrorists who lay down their arms.

While terrorists who surrender escape prosecution and are given a government stipend, atheists and blasphemers in northern Nigeria are not so lucky. If they are not lynched by an angry mob or sentenced to death by a court, they get long prison sentences. This is the story of Mubarak Bala.

Bala, who is the President, Humanist Society of Nigeria, has paid a stiff penalty for his atheist views. In 2014, when he first publicly renounced Islam, he was confined to the psychiatric ward of Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital by his pious family for about two weeks before he was released following pressure from rights groups.

He eventually decided to leave Kano – one of the most volatile states in the country – and relocated to Abuja, the country’s capital that is more liberal than the other areas of the north where Sharia law is practised and religiously enforced.

In Abuja, he was embraced by the atheist society and soon became the President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria and got married. He had an active Facebook page on which he insulted religious figures including Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammed. His pages were filled with death threats and he was warned never to set foot in the Muslim north as he would pay dearly for it.

Journey of no return

In April 2020, when his wife had just given birth to their first child, Bala got wind of the government’s plan to announce a lockdown in Abuja due to the rising cases of Covid-19 and then decided to quickly visit Kaduna State for an event and promised to return soon.

“Mubarak and I are based in Abuja. I had just given birth to a baby boy earlier in the year through C-section and I hadn’t completely recovered when he decided to travel to Kaduna. We spoke on the morning of April 28. He said he couldn’t return because of the lockdown but promised to come back immediately after the lockdown,” his wife, Amina Ahmed, recalled.

But when a Kano-based lawyer, Salisu Umar, got information that Bala was in neighbouring Kaduna State, he swiftly wrote a petition to the police, demanding his arrest for making inciting comments about Prophet Mohammed; behaviour Umar claimed had breach peace in Kano State.

The petition was handled with uncommon speed by Nigerian police.

“I wrote the petition because I believed Bala’s behaviour could breach public peace. And although he was in Abuja when he made those postings on Facebook, Nigerian cyber crime law gives absolute jurisdiction to all states to prosecute anyone who causes trouble on social media,” Umar tells The Africa Report.

On getting the petition, the police in Kano State swiftly called Kaduna State, requesting Bala’s arrest. His recuperating wife recalls that she knew the worst had happened.

“When I heard he had been transferred to Kano, I began to fear the worst because Kano has very strict Sharia laws,” his wife recalled.

Prolonged detention

After he was whisked away to Kano State, Bala spent months in police detention and was denied access to his wife and his lawyer. This prompted activists including Wole Soyinka, to demand Bala’s release.

A tribute written by Soyinka to Bala read in part, “As a child I remember living in a state of harmonious coexistence all but forgotten in the Nigeria of today, as the plague of religious extremism has encroached. We both have sought to challenge the ascendancy of religious jingoism.

“As a human rights activist, you have sought to promote freedom of belief and expression and grown to serve as President of the noble institution that is the Humanist Association of Nigeria.”

In a bid to legalise his detention, the police first filed an information report before a magistrate court, accusing Bala of breaching the Cyber Crime Act.

One of the charges read: “Racist and Xenophobic offence contrary to Section 26(1)(C) of Cyber Crime Prohibition Act 2015. That you, Mubarak Bala, ’35 years old’ did sometimes in April 2020, via a Facebook post, characterise Prophet Mohammed, his religion, Islam, and his Muslim followers as terrorists and posted same in your Facebook page named Mubarak Bala.”

“Your action is alleged to have contravened the above sections and therefore arraigned before the honourable court.”

After months in detention, Bala was transferred to prison custody and was placed in solitary confinement to prevent him from being attacked by other inmates.

His lawyer, James Ibor, subsequently filed a human rights suit before Justice Inyang Ekwo of the Federal High Court in Abuja seeking his immediate release from detention. The relief was granted and the court ordered Bala’s immediate release but the order was never obeyed. The police arraigned him before a Kano State High Court which denied him bail even though it was not a capital offence.

Guilty as charged

At the resumed hearing on 5 April 2022, Bala, without the consent of his lawyer, informed the court that he would be changing his plea to guilty. He was immediately sentenced to 24 years in prison.

But his lawyer tells The Africa Report that he sensed his client was fed up and could no longer withstand the rigours of trial. Ibor adds that Bala and his family had been receiving constant threats and this may just have been a way for him to end it all.

The lawyer, however, expressed shock over the long sentence, insisting that the offence ought not to have been more than five years based on the statute books of Kano.

“The court out of malice imposed a ridiculous sentence. By the Kano State penal code, the maximum penalty for one of the charges is three years in prison while the other is two. So, the maximum he should spend in prison is five years and having spent two years already, it should have been three years more so given the fact that he pleaded guilty.

“Under the Kano State sentencing guideline, it is unthinkable to impose a 24-year sentence. He wasn’t charged for breaching the Cyber Crime Act but Kano law. Our argument was that this court lacked the jurisdiction because the offence took place in Abuja. He wasn’t living in Kano. We are working on an appeal. The wife is devastated. She has not been able to sleep,” Ibor tells The Africa Report.

Condemnations galore

Amnesty International’s Director in Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, condemned the long sentence, describing his detention as an abuse of human rights.

A message she sent to The Africa Report read in part, “Amnesty International is concerned that Mubarak Bala has been sentenced to 24 years imprisonment under criminal charges for breaching public peace through his Facebook posts of April 2020.

USCIRF is outraged that Nigerian authorities sentenced humanist leader Mubarak Bala to 24 years in prison on blasphemy charges.

“No one should go to jail solely for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of expression, thought, and belief. Mubarak was detained for two years in violation of the constitution and minimum standards of fair hearing and his rights to personal liberty.”

Activist, Femi Falana, a senior advocate of Nigeria, tells The Africa Report that the sentence undermines the right to free speech.

He advised the defence to file an appeal, adding: “Bala Mubarak’s right not to believe in God is constitutionally protected. Therefore, his conviction is illegal as it violates his fundamental right to freedom of conscience guaranteed by Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution.”

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also condemned the Kano court’s judgement in a statement.

The agency said Bala was sentenced for peacefully expressing his beliefs, which the Nigerian government considers blasphemous.

“USCIRF is outraged that Nigerian authorities sentenced humanist leader Mubarak Bala to 24 years in prison on blasphemy charges,” said USCIRF Commissioner Frederick A. Davie

“Mubarak Bala should not have been charged or convicted in the first place for simply expressing his freedom of belief and expression,” the agency added.

Humanist activist, Leo Igwe, who is also an associate of Bala, described the conviction as the victory of jihadists over free speech.

Igwe, a research fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation, tells The Africa Report how Bala’s sentencing “underscores the dark and destructive hold of jihadist Islam on the justice system in Kano and Nigeria. For almost two years Bala has been detained without trial. He has been subjected to physical and mental torture by his Islamist jailers.”

He continues: “He was held incommunicado and denied family and lawyer visits for several months. Bala has been under immense pressure to reconvert to Islam and plead guilty for blaspheming against the prophet of Islam. What transpired in court was an outcome of a two year Islamic inquisitorial process.”

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