Nigeria is a religious place. But what if you aren’t? Atheism, while not illegal, is certainly taboo. Some young atheists are using social media to fight the stigma of not believing in God.
Mubarak Bala knew what he’d done was risky, especially living in Kano. Still, he could never have predicted what happened next.
‘I thought I’d die, and [I] cared less if I died,’ he said. ‘I was beaten up and locked up as a psycho.’
Bala, a 32-year-old engineer, was badly beaten and forcibly committed to a psychiatric ward for 18 days. The perpetrators? Members of his family led by his father. The reason? He’s one of the 0.4 per cent of the Nigerian population that identify as atheist.
‘They gave me drugs that they give violent psychos. All because I am a realist and [they believe ] I must have a god,’ he said.
Bala grew up in a humble, Muslim household and was committed to Islam as a child, but when he left Kano for University, he began to have doubts.
After witnessing numerous violent attacks against Christians on campus he became increasingly troubled. Within a year of completing Hajj he’d stopped praying and fasting. Soon after he began to identify as atheist.
‘I kept it in the closet, I never admitted [it] publicly. I faked prayer, faked fasting, faked anything I can, it was tight prison,’ he said. ‘I hoped an MSc abroad in the UK would finally liberate me, then Boko Haram struck and I became louder and more open.’
Emboldened, he told his mother about his atheism; she was understanding. She told his father; he was not. Bala was freed after raising the alarm through tweets he sent from a smuggled phone, his story made headlines across the globe. ‘Twitter and Facebook helped me,’ he said. ‘The world rallied to my aid, to my cause and to my plight. I felt loved and that solidarity kept me going.’
‘It feels like being in a cage, a prison where you conform or you die.’
For the 185 million people of Nigeria religion is a passionate and contentious issue; roughly 49.3 per cent of the population identify as Christian and 48.3 per cent as Muslim. Although freedom of thought, conscience and religion is enshrined in the Nigerian constitution, atheism, while not illegal, is taboo. In northern Nigeria nine states, including Kano, have fully instituted Sharia law, where apostasy may be punishable by death. There are no such laws in the predominantly Christian south of the country, but the stakes for atheists are still high.
‘It feels like being in a cage, a prison where you conform or you die,’ said Bola*, a 32-year-old atheist based in Lagos. ‘People have been tortured, confined to mental asylums, and even killed by their own family for being agnostic or atheist in Nigeria. It’s an open prison where the currency is conformity.’
‘Nigeria is supposed to be a secular democracy but there is no truth in that,’ agreed Chuks* a 28-year-old atheist in Abuja. ‘People are always knocking at my door to try and sell me the “word of God.” Religion is supposed to be a personal choice, but it’s like “pray or no other way” in Nigeria. Religion interferes with everything in this country.’
‘I felt like a CIA agent being asked to be leader of the USSR.’
Given the integral nature of religion in the fabric of the nation, atheists like Bola choose to ‘go through the motions’ and act like they still practice their former faith, sometimes with awkward consequences.
‘I was about to be made the head of youth of the church; I was almost unanimously nominated by all the youth,’ he said. ‘I felt like a CIA agent being asked to be leader of the USSR. I raised a vote for reforms that would have destroyed the power structure to make it more independent of the church. No one likes a reformer so the power makers made sure I didn’t win.’
Being part of such a small minority in the second most religious country on earth can also lead to discrimination and ostracism. ‘You can miss out on a lot of opportunities if people know you are not religious,’ said Matthew*, a 30-year-old atheist based in Abuja. ‘Most people don’t believe you can’t believe in God, [Atheists are] generally perceived as satanists, which is funny considering we don’t believe in Satan either. You just can’t avoid religion in Nigeria. It’s everywhere you look and tied to everything you do.’
Despite this, and the fact many atheists keep their beliefs a closely guarded secret, avenues where they can freely express themselves are springing up courtesy of the internet.
The Humanist Assembly of Lagos (HAL) was founded as a direct response to Mubarak Bala’s forced detainment. The two founders of HAL were involved in securing his release and set up the organisation to raise awareness about humanism, however the group also iqserves as a de facto support group for atheists.
‘We come across a number of atheists and humanists in Nigeria who have been rejected or ostracised by family members, friends and their communities. We’ve witnessed a number of unpleasant incidents,’ said Adeyinka Shorungbe, one of HAL’s co-founders. ‘We knew about apostasy in Islam and how conservative the northern part of the country is but his [Mubarak’s] case was an eye opener for a lot of folks in Nigeria especially in the south.’
‘Nigerians of our generation are starting to ask questions and resources are available online to give various perspectives.’
Shorungbe believes the internet has been pivotal in the growth of the atheist community in Nigeria. ‘The community is growing and voices are getting louder,’ he said. ‘Nigerians of our generation are starting to ask questions and resources are available online to give various perspectives. With social media Nigerians can openly engage with folks from around the world and connect, they can discover they’re not alone in asking questions and thinking differently.’
‘I didn’t know there were that many of us until I became active on Twitter,’ echoed Matthew. ‘Social media has created an avenue for people to engage with each other and find out they are not alone in having questions about religion or rejecting it totally. There’s quite a few Nigerians asking questions now, that is always a good thing.’
Perhaps no one is more thankful for the role of social media in the atheist community than Mubarak. What would have happened to him had he not been tweeting that fateful day? ‘Without Twitter I would be a dead man, or a drugged incapacitated dullard,’ he said. ‘ Social media is the ultimate pen, the weapon that reaches far and wide… The online community is what brings us together, the challenges are much, but we squeeze through, everyday.’