Sections 38 and 39 of the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s Constitution respectively guarantee the rights of citizens to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – including the freedom to change their religion or belief – and the right to freedom of expression. The Constitution also prohibits the adoption of any religion as a state religion, however, Islam is often regarded as the de facto state religion in the northern states, where the majority of the population is Muslim.
While Sections 275-279 of the Constitution devolves power to the states to establish their own Shariah courts on civil matters, Shariah Penal Codes and criminal procedure codes were reintroduced in 12 northern states in 1999, creating two parallel legal systems. Non-Muslims are not subject to Shariah Penal Codes. Both of Nigeria’s parallel court systems, Customary and Shariah, outlaw ‘blasphemy’. Approximately half of the population are Muslims, around 45% are Christians, and about 6% are of traditional indigenous religions or no religion. Non-religious people face social persecution and prohibitive social taboos in Nigeria.
Under the Customary system, applicable nationwide, ‘blasphemy’ is prohibited under section 204 of the Criminal Code. Section 204, “Insult to religion”, states:
“Any person who does an act which any class of persons consider as a public insult on their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.”
States subject to Shariah courts can and do implement severe punishments for crimes such as ‘blasphemy’, including execution.
In addition to handing down executions, predominantly Muslim states have frequently seen riots, violence and murder after ‘blasphemy’ accusations, sometimes against individual Muslims accused, but with potential for wider violence when the accused is Christian.
Nigerian human rights activist and President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria Mubarak Bala was arrested by Kano State Police Command on 28 April 2020 following a petition filed by a law firm alleging that Bala had insulted the Prophet Muhammad in his Facebook posts. As of September 2020, Bala has been held without charge for over 140 days in contravention of the Constitution; there has been no official confirmation of Bala’s whereabouts; court hearings have been subjected to repeated adjournments: and the Kano State Police Commissioner has refused to comply with an order issued by the court requiring the police to grant Bala access to his legal team.
In July 2020, UN human rights experts urged Nigeria to immediately release Bala and expressed concern about Bala’s safety, fearing that he may be subject to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment because of his atheistic beliefs. The Human rights experts also expressed disappointment as the Nigerian government had not responded to their urgent appeal sent in May.
Bala has been the victim of death threats and harassment since he renounced Islam in 2014. In June that year, he was assessed as needing psychiatric help because he was “an atheist” and was held against his will at a psychiatric ward in Kano, northern Nigeria. His father, formerly a senior member of the Islamic religious authorities, had orchestrated Mubarak’s detention after Mubarak had refused to keep quiet about his atheistic views on religion. Bala was freed after nearly three weeks due to a strike at the hospital.
Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, described by the BBC as a little-known Islamic gospel musician was sentenced to death by hanging by an upper Shariah court in Kano state on 10 August 2020. Sharif-Aminu was arrested in March 2020 after allegedly saying that Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse, the Senegalese founder of the Islamic Tijjaniya sect, which has a large following across West Africa, “was bigger than Prophet Muhammad”. On 4 March, protestors reportedly burned down Sharif-Aminu’s home and demanded that the Islamic police, Hisbah, take action against him. It is understood that Sharif-Aminu has filed an appeal against his conviction and sentence.
The same Shariah court in Kano state sentenced 13-year-old Umar Farouq in August 2020 to 10 years in prison with menial labor for ‘blasphemy’. Farouq was found guilty of offending God, as he had used “foul language” against God during an argument with a friend. Farouq has appealed the judgment.