Living in Nigeria's northwestern state of Kano, Mubarak Bala believed he could exercise his freedom of expression. Occasionally, he would share his thoughts, mostly on religion and faith, via social media.
However, in April 2020, one of his Facebook posts perceived as critical to Islam and the prophet Muhammed SAW, sparked a blowback he never expected: a 2-year legal tussle marked by arbitrary detention and violations of his rights and access to family.
In the end, Mubarak received a 24-year jail term after pleading guilty to blasphemy in a landmark case that has stoked growing concerns around the protection of freedom of thought and expression in Africa’s most populous nation.
Amina, Mubarak’s wife, says the experience has been agonizing for her and their newborn, who was barely six weeks old when his father was arrested.
“It has been a very dark period for me and our baby. You can imagine the trauma I have gone through with everything that has been going on, including raising my baby alone without my husband. We had not even spent a year together as a couple before he was taken away from us,” she said.
Mubarak’s travails are a stark reminder of the risks associated with openly embracing atheism in Nigeria, especially in the Muslim-majority north, where many have now been forced into hiding. 31-year-old Jibrin Ahmed* is one of them.
Jibrin received news of Mubarak’s arrest with shock but said his sentencing felt even worse. “It threw me off balance,” he said. “For weeks, I didn’t know what to do. I was deeply afraid”.
Born into a Muslim family in Kano, Jibrin attended a local Islamic school, where he learned Arabic and the Quran and was well on his way to becoming a scholar. But in 2020, he informed his family that he was no longer a Muslim and all hell broke loose.
“They beat me so badly that I thought I would die. It is hard to forget,” he said. Weeks later, Jibrin moved to Kaduna State, where he lived briefly with a friend before relocating to Abuja, the Nigerian capital, where he now resides. He says has never been home ever since and has "no plans to return".
‘Second-class citizens’, thriving regardless
Nigeria may be a democracy, but freedom is scarcely available to citizens who embrace atheism. Constrained by widespread criticism and intolerance from the country's deeply religious population, 98% of whom are Christians and Muslims, atheists remain largely discreet about their beliefs, or lack thereof.
Oftentimes, they are beaten, incarcerated, and exposed to threats and rejection from even close family members. A 2021 Non-Religious Report found that 62% of the negative experiences related to the non-religious identities of atheists were from their families and were likely to result in depression and other negative outcomes.
After they found out he had abandoned his Islamic faith, Mohammed Darwin* said his family rejected him. He was also constantly humiliated and threatened by neighbours and even strangers. “There are people who would come and tell me that if I were part of their family, they would beat and beat me until I came back to my senses,” he said.
Although lucky not to have been beaten up like Jibrin, Mohammed said he was treated like an outcast, a situation that left him depressed for months. And as the threats continued, one day, he was forced to run away.
“It was the day Mubarak was arrested. That night, one of my uncles said he was going to beat me, but some people intervened. I was really afraid at that time, so I had to leave the house due to the threats because I didn't know what was going to happen to me,” he said. “I slept somewhere else, and the following morning, I sold the rams I was rearing. Instead of profits, I made losses because I was in a hurry to sell them. I used the money to travel to Kaduna.”
Leo Igwe, founder of the Humanists Movement in Nigeria, described the situation as “unfortunate and disheartening”.
“I want people to understand that the more you suppress humanists—you know, you antagonize them, you treat them with hostility—the more we are going to thrive. It is actually a reaction to oppression, persecution, deprivation, and the formalization of the second citizenship of people who are non-religious,” he said. It can't stop us. It can't make me change my views,” he said.
Nigeria has a growing number of Humanists. These are non-religious people who live their lives and base their decisions and actions on experience, reason, and empathy rather than any religious doctrine. They also include those who identify as atheists, agnostics, secularists, and freethinkers.
‘Playing along for survival’
Aishat Zaki* wears the hijab and prays five times daily—sometimes less. She would join her family at the mosque and prayer ground for celebrations, but unlike others, she did these things not in fulfilment of her obligation as a Muslim. She was merely playing along as a means to survive. While in her first year of studying at a University in one of the Northcentral states, Aisha said she stopped being a Muslim but acted like one whenever she was home for holidays.
Asked how long she has put up with the act, “7 years,” she blurted, readjusting her braids and her overflowing scarf. “Four years in school and [for] three years now. I had to do it; if not, I would have been in trouble,” she added, citing the discrimination women face in the North — the same reason she said led her to abandon her faith.
Aisha hopes to be able to live freely when she gets married to her lover, whom she said is also a closet atheist, but until then, she intends to keep her family oblivious to her faith.
Mohammed shares a similar fate. Months after he ran away to Kaduna, life got tougher, and he decided to return home to his family and back to the religious fold.
“Religious people actually have respect for dreams. So I called my parents and told them that I had realized it and that I saw it in my dream that Islam was the true religion, that I had repented, and that I wanted to come back. It was a lie, but a lie I had to tell to save myself, to come back to my family, and to at least get back what I had lost,” he said in an emotion-laden voice.
Leo said people have been forced to adopt strategies like this due to the dangers of openly identifying as non-religious. "They have made the price of being a humanist high and very deadly so that a lot of people prefer to suppress their views so that they can live and survive," he said.
A report by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office identified some of the tactics used against humanists, atheists, and other non-religious people, including the criminalization of blasphemy and apostasy.
Persecution and killing for blasphemy, illegal in Islam.
Although Nigeria has no blasphemy laws—the closest being its recognition of insult to religion as a crime, it is a crime under Sharia law, which operates in 12 Northern states. But most cases do not make it to the courts. Over the years, allegations of blasphemy have resulted in pockets of violence and the extrajudicial killing of people who are deemed to hold or express contrary religious beliefs or opinions.
From Gideon Akaluka, Nigeria’s first recorded blasphemy victim in December 1994, to the recent killing of a butcher, Usman Buba, in Sokoto State in June 2023, a timeline of blasphemy cases in Nigeria shows there have been 26 incidents of violence over blasphemy allegations which have resulted in over 600 deaths. Eight blasphemy convictions were also secured within the period, including Mubarak Bala’s.
Nigeria’s Supreme Court has ruled that these sorts of killings are illegal. Delivering a verdict in a case in 2007, the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad (then a Justice of the Supreme Court), said: “Islamic law has not left the killing open in the hands of private individuals… The law will thus have set a dangerous precedent if private individuals were authorized to take laws into their hands as the appellant and others did in this case. Sharia guarantees and values the sanctity and dignity of human life. That is why it outlaws [the] unlawful killing of human life.”
Justice Tanko expressed this in the case of Abubakar Dan Shalla v. State (2007) LPELR-3034 (SC), where a group of persons, including the appellant, allegedly killed Abdullar Alhaji Umaru (now deceased), citing the Holy Quran as justification for the killing.
‘Believing in Islam, not by force’
“Why can’t we disbelieve?” Mohammed asked. Not waiting for an answer, he suddenly continued: “You see, we are not actually asking for much. We just want to disbelieve. And then, if we disbelieve, we need to get jobs when we qualify for them. And we don't need to be shamed.”
While atheists like Mohammed want the freedom to hold and express disbelief, Islamic scholars say believing is not by force.
Badmus Lanre Yusuf, Chief Imam at the University of Ilorin, said believing in Islam is not by compulsion and that the religion prohibits anyone from being hounded or intimidated into becoming a Muslim.
“He has the freedom to be an unbeliever, and within the policy of Islam, nobody has the right to terrorize or punish him as long as he does not disturb the peace of other followers of the religion and as long as he remains peaceful," he said.
Yusuf, who is also a professor of Islamic Studies, held that “If somebody has been practising Islam and he decides to apostate and then leave, there may be things that will be denied him, but not to the extent of a punitive step against him. For example, if a son decides to opt out of Islam, by the time his father dies or his mother dies, legally speaking, he will not be entitled to share in the estate left behind by the deceased father or deceased mother, but other than that, he will be left alone.”
"The declaration of the Quran, 'La Iqra'a Fi'l-din: there is no compulsion in religion', restrains any believing Muslim from forcing him or intimidating him into believing that he has to belong to the religion of Islam by force. But if there is a persuasive way through which he can be invited to see the light and encouraged to open his mind to the understanding of Islam, and on his own volition, he decides to surrender to God Almighty and embrace Islam, it is well and good.”
The professor, however, condemned blasphemy, which he described as an intentional act of disrespect to God.
“Their intention is also to use abusive language or be disrespectful to Prophet Muhammad, who is admired and held in high esteem by the adherents of Islam. You’ll discover that there’s no cogent reason other than to provoke the people with whom they have been living together in peace and concord and to cause disagreement among the Islamic community," he said.
But Leo disagrees and says it negates the spirit of free speech, recognized as a fundamental right across the globe. “You're telling me what you believe? If I tell you what I believe, you want to kill me. We have cases in the north where, just because you made utterances alleged to be critical of Islam and all that, people are attacked, killed, or lynched, and nothing happens. This is not fair,” he said. “People who feel offended by remarks that humanists make and feel opposed to their right to organize don't know what they are in for.”
He said that rather than deter or discourage them, the situation makes an urgent case for a thriving humanist community.
“No matter what you do, you can't change this. People may suppress it, they may hide it, they may not want to say it openly, and they may not even post it on Facebook, but that does not mean that they don't hold such beliefs. And I want to tell you, Millions of Nigerians, to put it on record, they share the same view with Mubarak, but they may not want to say it out loud,” he said, adding that there are more non-religious Nigerians than are known," he said.
“If we do a general census within a free environment, we might have more Nigerians who are atheists, agnostics, humanists, and freethinkers than you have outside Islam and Christianity."
As the days pass, Mohammed says he has regrets. He wished that he had never come out publicly as an atheist in the first place.
"Mubarak always advised me to play it on a low key. I should not allow people to know that I am an atheist. When he was telling me all those things, I didn't really see it. I look back, and I wish I [had] strictly complied with the pieces of advice he gave me those days."
Like many atheists across Nigeria’s Sharia North, he says he constantly lives in fear.
“You can imagine that despite the hard time I'm going through, I find myself in a less radical Islamic environment [Darikar Tijjaniya] than some of the other ex-Muslims, and it's still like this. So you could imagine now that somebody who would find himself in, for instance, a Wahabbi family is going to find it even harder," he said.
“And although there are differences between sects, when it comes to killing in the name of the prophet, all of them come together in one place and kill anybody. And after the killing, the world will come back to different sects.”
*Names have been changed to protect identity
This story was produced with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in partnership with Code for Africa