Nigeria's 'atheist with a cause' still in jail after a year

Amina Ahmed, wife of Mubarak Bala, an outspoken atheist who was charged with blasphemy, displays her husband's photo.
Amina Ahmed, wife of Mubarak Bala, an outspoken atheist who was charged with blasphemy, displays her husband's photo.PHOTO: AFP

ABUJA, NIGERIA (AFP) - Ms Amina Ahmed is tired. Day and night, she waits by her phone for news of her husband, languishing behind bars in northern Nigeria for close to a year.

Eight months after she married Mubarak Bala, a self-proclaimed atheist she met online, in an intimate ceremony, he was detained by police on April 28, 2020, and taken to an unknown destination. Since that day, Bala has been held without charges.

Advocates for his release say he is accused of writing a Facebook post criticising the prophet of Islam, an act of blasphemy that can carry a death sentence in Nigeria's conservative Muslim north where sharia law is enforced alongside common law.

Bala is an engineer who worked for a power company in Kaduna. He is also president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, an organisation that describes itself as "the voice of humanism in Nigeria."

The 36-year-old grew up in a traditional Muslim family, with a father who had three wives and a mother who had nine children. But as a young adult, he became irreligious. Bala started advocating for freedom of religion and against Islamic extremists, in particular in the north-east, where armed groups have waged an insurgency for over a decade in an attempt to establish a caliphate.

Many say he wasn't detained because of his beliefs but because he was, and still is, an "atheist with a cause".

"He was trying to change the dynamics... in the north," said Mr Leo Igwe, a rights advocate and founder of the humanist group. "He was even saying he was going to contest elections."

'Illegal'

As someone from a religious background himself, Bala knew the risks he was taking, opposing northern clerics who yield significant power and influence.

Already in 2014, Bala was forcibly admitted by his own family to a psychiatric ward for 18 days because he said he did not believe in God. After that episode, Bala redoubled his activism, using social media to share his views.

"He was inspiring a movement... and people were getting worried," said Mr Igwe.

Ms Ahmed gave birth to a boy just a month before Bala was taken. For the first six months, the 36-year-old had no idea where her husband was. "I didn't even know he was alive," said Ms Ahmed.

Eventually, she found out he had been taken to a prison in Kano, more than 200km away from where he was detained. "When I finally heard his voice, it was like cold water being poured on me."

In May 2020, his legal team filed a motion asking the country's federal high court for his release. A ray of hope emerged in December when the court responded to the motion and ordered the police to release Bala on bail.

But till today, the court ruling has not been enforced, and Bala remains behind bars. The police in Kano told AFP that Bala was not in their custody and said the courts were in charge of the case. Bala's lawyers filed another petition in February to add more parties to the summons, as the police say they cannot release Bala since he is not in their custody.

"I think the refusal to obey the court order is mischievous and illegal, but we are trying to close all gaps, to give them no excuse," one of his lawyers, Mr James Ibor, said. The attorney-general of Kano state did not respond to several calls and messages seeking comment on the case. A hearing on the enforcement of the court order is scheduled for April 20.

Losing hope


Ms Amina Ahmed gave birth to a boy just a month before Bala was taken. PHOTO: AFP

The UN's special rapporteur on freedom of religion, Mr Ahmed Shaheed, said he was "very concerned about the persecution of non-religious people in Nigeria". In countries where "syariah laws are held in parallel rather than subservient to overarching a common law structure," said Mr Shaheed, "we see very frequent and concerning violations of fundamental rights."

Bala's supporters are worried about his health in detention but also his security.

Others accused of blasphemy in northern Nigeria have been sentenced to death, and in one case in 2011, a man was beheaded in his cell by unknown individuals.

"There is a threat from private actors if they find out his location," said Mr Shaheed, but "it does not negate the state's obligation to ensure that the rule of law is applied here". Diplomats in Nigeria and international bodies have been treading carefully with Bala's case in part because of the risk of being seen as "anti-Islam".

But his wife is losing hope. She says she has developed eye problems from crying so much this past year.

"We have suffered enough. Whatever he has done, he should be charged, go on trial... I am not even asking for his release," said Ms Ahmed, cradling her baby boy, who just turned one.

"He's stronger than us outside," she said. "But he's caged. It's not okay when you're not free."