300+ days of illegal incarceration, reversed prison sentence | What to learn about anti-blasphemy in Nigeria

Less than 10 weeks from today, outspoken ex-Muslim Mubarak Bala, would have spent a full year in illegal detention for a harmless Facebook post. The Human Rights Activist and President of Humanist Association of Nigeria, up until 28 April 2020, when he was picked up from his home in Kaduna is being held for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad in the Facebook post.

The crime his accusers charged him for in their petition is discussed here.

In the days since his kidnap in Kaduna, which was followed by his handover to the Kano State Police command because “the petitions originated from there,” he was first denied access to his lawyers for 5 months.

On getting access to his lawyers, they established there were no charges pressed by the petitioners, and assuming a crime truly exists as he has been accused of, it happened outside the jurisdiction of Kano State; a state that is far from neutral on the matter and is highly unlikely to grant him a fair trial.

Mubarak was however not given the chance to even have a trial. His case is one of justice being both delayed and denied.

 A petition challenging his continued illegal incarceration filed by a team of lawyers supported by Humanists International in a High Court in Abuja resulted in a ruling in favour of Mubarak Bala. The court not only ordered his immediate release, but it also awarded 250, 000 Naira compensation to be paid by the respondents for what he went through. This was on 21st December 2020. 2 months later, none of the court orders have been honoured. Mubarak Bala is still incarcerated.

The contentious post at the centre of his troubles is a post he made comparing the Prophet of Islam Muhammad to Prophet TB Joshua, adding that the only difference between the two is the former is pro-terrorism. Mubarak has been openly an ex-Muslim and atheist for years. He was detained in a psychiatric ward in 2014 on the grounds that he has to be insane to be an atheist. His release was secured on 3rd July 2014; thanks to tireless advocacy by Humanists International.

A symptom of a greater problem

Nigeria’s blasphemy law is a surprising unifier when it comes to the country’s two court systems. Secular laws prohibit blasphemy under section 204 of the Criminal Code prescribing 2 years imprisonment as punishment for what it calls ‘insult to religion.’ The Shari’a courts in operation in a dozen states in the predominantly Sunni Muslim north can treat blasphemy with several punishments including execution.

The Qur’an does not in fact have any punishment outlaid for blasphemy. Quran 4 verse 140 advised believing Muslims simply to remove themselves from situations and people disparaging the religion. The same can’t be said about Sunnah – utterances and teachings believed to have come from the Prophet, and Qiyas – inspired estimations by Muslim religous thinkers, two things that make part of what inspires Shari’a, the Qur’an being one of those. 

Shariah’s fluid source is the Sunnah, which ironically as embattled Kano-based Islamic cleric Abduljabbar Nasiru Kabara found out the hard way, can also be a source of the very blasphemy they seek to prevent.

Now banned from teaching after he was briefly under house arrest to safeguard his “safety,”  the cleric has been in trouble after trouble following the emergence of recordings of him teaching Hadeeth to his students that depicted Prophet Muhammad as a rapist sodomite. He insists they are authentic Hadeeth and his only crime is teaching truth.

A 13-year-old child accused of blasphemy following a heated argument with a friend was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. A successful appeal following a spirited campaign that saw over 100 people from around the world demanding to serve parts of his sentence on his behalf means he is now free. The campaign was led by Dr. Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz memorial in Poland.

The child, while free, is doomed to a life whose course will never be as it once was – prior to the needless charade that changed it forever. His parents, who perhaps out of a need for self-preservation or just shame as they claimed, had dissociated themselves from him.

Another blasphemy case that the people of Kano are keen on, is that of 22-year-old singer Yahya Sharif-Aminu who was sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy but appealed the ruling, following which the upper court ordered a retrial. He awaits his retrial while he languishes in Kano prison.

The root of all evil

It shouldn’t need saying that blasphemy laws by their very nature are unjust if we’re being charitable and not calling it what it is – irrational. Ideas (even dearly held ones) like the ones that form the foundation of our beliefs, are at their core just that – ideas that are not above criticism or loathing by others. 

In addition to that, even a cursory glimpse into the reality of the proponents of blasphemy laws will reveal how easily dismissive they are, when it comes to the sanctity of other religious beliefs. Practitioners of traditional African spiritualities have stories by the dozen, of insults to their beliefs by Muslims and Christians.

Nigeria’s blasphemy laws, even had they been rational and just, are not there to protect religious beliefs. They are there to protect the self-righteousness of arrogant Christians and Muslims who will never extend any grace to believers of any faith that isn’t theirs.

The problem, as it stands, is that Nigeria isn’t too keen on protecting all its citizens. Nigeria appears strictly keen on protecting its territorial integrity, with as little effort as possible; even if that means daily losing the lives of citizens to terrorism and banditry.

Whichever group will cause the least amount of instability to State – sexual, gender, religious and ethnic minorities, easily gets thrown under the bus.

Until all of us are assured of equal protection under the law, no matter whose ox is gored, we will continue to have Mubarak Balas, Yahya Sharif-Aminus, and even clerics like Abduljabbar Nasiru Kabara will come to find out that they are not as protected as their clerical cloak might have them believe.

The injustice they preach will come for them too. Like party Jollof, oppression tends to get to everyone eventually.

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