Today is May 12, a full two weeks since Mubarak Bala, president of the Nigerian Humanist Association, was arrested and detained in Kano State in northern Nigeria because he exercised his freedom of expression.
For readers who aren’t familiar with Bala’s case, here’s a quick primer: after Bala, a chemical engineer by profession, left Islam in 2014 and came out as an atheist, his father had him forcibly detained and medicated in a psychiatric facility for eighteen days. In a statement he put out after being released, Bala said:
To those who have made threats against me, I urge you to reason and learn to tolerate opinions other than yours. Education and free speech cannot be cured, but love for humanity is our panacea, we share the same destiny. All that I have said is in good will that we may all prosper and learn the facts of life.
Since then he’s grown as an activist and leader in the humanist community and has simultaneously been on the receiving end of numerous death threats. Then, on April 27, 2020, a local law firm filed a petition with the Police in Kano alleging that Bala committed two crimes. First, the petition alleges that Bala insulted the Prophet Muhammad in his Facebook posts in violation of Section 26(1)(c) of the Cybercrimes Act, which criminalizes insult of any persons due to their religion, among other characteristics, and is punishable by a fine and/or up to five years’ imprisonment. Second, the petitioners allege that Bala’s posts will incite the Muslim community and lead to public disturbance, a violation of Section 210 of the Penal Code of Kano State. Bala was arrested in Kaduna State the next day. And the day after that, after police in Kaduna transferred him to police in Kano, he disappeared. Police in Kano have neither confirmed Bala’s location nor issued any public charges against him.
There are a lot of unknowns right now, and we in the global humanist community are worried. We fear for the ways Bala’s rights have already been denied; he’s had no access to legal counsel, and the Nigerian constitution stipulates that he should have been released more than a week ago if no charges were filed. We fear for his safety; the lapse in accountability over Mubarak’s whereabouts is extremely troubling. And we fear for his health; given the fact that COVID-19 is ravaging prisons and immigrant detention centers (aka prisons), Bala’s detention puts him at greater risk of contracting the disease.
So much of what has happened to Bala is difficult to fathom. The United States has its own terrors, but Americans easily take for granted the fact that we cannot be forced into a psychiatric ward for leaving a religion. To a lesser extent, we take for granted our ability to voice our opinions on social media free from threats against our lives. And we may also take for granted that if we’re detained for unjust reasons, we wouldn’t go missing at the hands of the state for two full weeks.
In the American Humanist Association’s work on international religious freedom, we put a lot of effort into getting policymakers to grasp—even partially—the consequences of what happens when people can’t take those rights for granted. An equal amount of work goes into getting those same policymakers to do something about it.
Sadly, human rights aren’t inherent. They must be fought for and affirmed loudly and repeatedly on an international stage. The AHA, alongside other US-based nontheist groups, has been working tirelessly on Bala’s behalf since we were made aware of his arrest on April 28. I spoke directly to Ambassador at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback about Bala’s arrest and detention. On behalf of fifteen secular organizations, we delivered a letter to USCIRF urging them to take action. And we’ve been elevating the case with members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus.
This strategy is working. After learning about Bala’s case, Brownback tweeted his support. USCIRF put out a strong public statement on Friday, which included statements from Chair Tony Perkins and the following quote from Commissioner Anurima Bhargava:
We urge the State Department and US Embassy in Nigeria to continue to sound the alarm about Mr. Bala’s arrest with the Nigerian federal government. The matter is urgent; Nigerian state authorities have refused to provide any information and Mr. Bala’s safety in custody is of serious concern.
These are important first steps, but there is more to do and our advocacy is ongoing.
Nontheist groups around the country are taking the lead in different areas of advocacy. Last week Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, worked with other African-American secular organizations in issuing a joint statement condemning the detention of Bala and calling on the Congressional Black Caucus to intervene. “As Black humanists and atheists, we continue to express strong transnational solidarity with the struggles of African secularists who are also more likely to be ostracized by their families and communities for questioning Christianity, Islam or indigenous religious traditions,” Hutchinson said, noting that:
This dynamic was amplified by data from the recently published Secular Survey, which found that non-religious African Americans face disproportionate levels of violence and harassment. Stigmas against non-religious Africans are also set against the backdrop of colonialist oppression and global economic disparities that further disadvantage secular Africans who may not be able to rely on the kin, cultural, and social welfare networks that faith-based Africans have access to.
Federal advocacy is only one piece of a larger campaign to pressure Nigeria to protect Mubarak Bala’s health, safety, and rights. I urge anyone and everyone to join the grassroots campaign in support of Bala. Tweet, sign a petition, donate to his legal fund, share news about his detention with friends and colleagues. Each person who speaks out adds to a large and united chorus of support—support that is important not only to the pressure-driving campaign, but also to Bala’s mental health. If and when Bala finally has access to legal counsel, they’ll share with him the breadth of support behind him, which can go a long way toward stemming the isolation and desperation felt during incarceration.
Visit FreeMubarakBala.org for more information and to get involved. Each voice matters right now. Please add yours.