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Can Humanism Help Advance Human Rights in Africa?

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was located on Equal Times on April 28, 2021.


By Amy Fallon

It was a story that you could say caused a bit of a buzz. Bees ’arrest’ suspected burglars in Busia, screamed the headline of a March 2021 story from the Ugandan newspaper, the Daily Monitor. The article, which attracted much derision on social media, told the story of a burglar who appeared to find himself apprehended by a swarm of bees after the victim of the house he had broken into decided to seek justice via a witch doctor rather than the police.

In a country where there is a strong belief in the supernatural, such headlines are not uncommon. “Some traditional healers exploit the ignorance of the population,” says Kato Mukasa, a human rights lawyer and chair of the Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO). “[There’s] a category that pretends to have spiritual healing powers. They cause a lot of mayhem.”

While belief in witchcraft is commonplace across the continent, Africa is also considered one of the most religious parts of the world. According to 2017 research from the Pew Center, by 2060, 42 per cent of Christians and 27 per cent of Muslims will live in sub-Saharan Africa. In October, openDemocracy reported that more than 20 US Christian groups opposing LGBTI rights, safe abortion access and sex education have increased their spending to the tune of at least US$54 million in Africa over the past 13 years.

Despite this, humanism – a philosophy and way of life that stresses reason and free inquiry and opposes theism and supernatural views among other characteristics – is making headway on the continent.

“In many African countries humanist groups and individuals are working to make the wider public rediscover their own African humanist tradition, the concept of Ubuntu [a Zulu word and pan-African philosophy which roughly translates to mean “I am because we are”], a secular and humanist framework for compassion, reciprocity, dignity, harmony, and humanity for the purpose of building and sustaining community with justice and mutual concern,” says Giovanni Gaetani, membership engagement manager for Humanists International (HI), the global body of the humanist movement.

When HI was founded in 1952, there were just five member organisations; now, there are more than 170 from 75 countries, including 10 associations in Africa. HI holds a general assembly annually and its World Humanist Congress normally takes place every three years. At a local level, humanist organisations hold physical and (increasingly since the pandemic) virtual meetings for participants to learn and exchange ideas, to allow like-minded people to meet up, and to carry out voluntary work.

“New and emerging humanist organisations are sprouting all around the African continent, for example Humanists Liberia, Humanists Malawi and Secular Humanists Mauritius,” says Gaetani. And beyond humanism, secularism is also making its presence felt. Gaetani points to Sudan, which embraced a secular constitution in September 2020 after decades of Islam as the state religion. Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, the government has “taken strides to promote secularism despite the absence of an organised secular society,” according to Takudzwa Mazwienduna, a Zimbabwean-born humanist and author of the upcoming book A Vehicle for Progress, which looks at humanism in southern Africa, noting the government’s 2016 decision to ban prayer in schools and restrict religion to private spaces only.

Anti-atheist backlash, and advancing rights

While there has been some growth in the humanist movement in Africa, there has also been a backlash in some places, which is unsurprising given the stigma attached to atheism. “In Uganda and Africa, when a child is born, they are automatically inducted into religion,” says Dr Frank Mugisha, who despite being an LGBTI activist has been a Catholic “all my life”. “Atheism is rare and frowned upon so much in wider society,” he says. “To fit in, everyone has to belong to a religion.”

Nigeria – a secular country as set out in its constitution and where 49.3 per cent of citizens are Christian and 48.8 per cent are Muslim – has become the “epicentre of a new anti-atheist backlash,” particularly in the north of the country, according to Gaetani. The country’s most famous atheist Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, will mark one year in jail on 28 April.

Bala was arrested at his home in the predominantly Muslim, north-western state of Kaduna before being detained in the neighbouring state of Kano over a Facebook post that authorities claim breached Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act by insulting the Prophet Muhammed and being “provocative and annoying to Muslims.” Bala is the son of a prominent Islamic scholar whose family had him forcibly sectioned when he first renounced Islam and declared himself an atheist in 2014.

Despite his current detention, he is yet to be charged with any crime. His case had been adjourned until 20 April, but the hearing did not go ahead because of an industrial strike. James Ibor, who heads Bala’s legal team, says they are “exhausting all legal avenues” but are calling on the United Nations to impose sanctions on the Kano state governor and members of his cabinet. “We are also pressuring the UK embassy, the US embassy and the EU delegation in Nigeria, to get in touch with the government and put pressure on them over this,” adds Dr Leo Igwe, chair of the board of trustees for the Humanist Association of Nigeria, and a close friend of Bala.

Rare wins for Nigeria’s non-believers – who number between 50,000 to 100,000 according to Igwe, with only a tiny fraction openly declaring their beliefs – include holding Africa’s first humanist conference in 2001, and the recent launch of the non-profit Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW) which uses the philosophy of humanism as a vehicle to save the lives of those impacted by superstition.

Humanists in Africa’s most populous country hold onto their beliefs, despite the dangers. Igwe has faced death threats for his support of Bala and he even had to temporarily flee his apartment. Femi (not his real name) lives in the south-western city of Ibadan and has been a humanist for nine years but says that he still does not feel comfortable going public with his beliefs. “It’s hard. Many of us get dumped by our romantic partners for being humanists,” he says, adding that his Christian mother would be “heartbroken” if she ever found out, although “that’s still better than the north [of Nigeria] where your family member may poison you for being godless.”

Igwe says that while he fears that there may have been an increase in witchcraft accusations in the face of the global public health crisis caused by Covid-19, the pandemic has shown that humanism is needed more than ever to strengthen rights and promote science. “Covid-19 has once again made it clear that superstition, paranormal beliefs and faith-based narratives offer us nothing in terms of our growth or progress in the face of diseases,” Igwe tells Equal Times.

For Amina Ahmed – the wife of Mubarak Bala, who is herself a humanist – humanism “can help women to stand up for their rights” and advance the cause of gender equality in Nigeria as “most women are being [metaphorically] caged due to religious beliefs.” For Roslyn Mould, former president of the Humanist Association of Ghana and the first African woman to be elected to the board of HI, humanism could be a crucial tool for wider gender and sexual emancipation across the continent. “As an African, humanism teaches us to decolonise our minds from dogmatic cultural and religious ways of thought that create divisiveness among our genders and diverse sexualities and hinders our development as a people. It is important that we drive equality, taking equity into account, on our continent amongst men and women.”

Flourishing in Uganda, despite the challenges

In the continent’s east, humanists are watching the Bala case daily. Africa’s humanist roots are firmly planted in Uganda. It was the first country to register a humanist organisation (UHASSO) in the mid-1990s and it is one of the few African countries to have a humanist organisation in every region. Still, according to various sources, less than one per cent of the Ugandan population describes itself as ‘without religion’, in a Christian-majority country within a secular state.

In 2014 a notorious act was signed into law to make homosexuality illegal, driven by foreign and local evangelicals, before being struck down, but religion continues to have a grip on Uganda. Bodies like the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda are still involved in politics and before the pandemic it was not uncommon for flamboyant prophets to commandeer packed megachurches.

But an increasing number of atheists are asserting their presence in the public space. Mukasa can often be seen on TV, while Robert Bwambale is renowned for founding the Kasese Humanist School, in the west of the country, where educators teach LGBTI and women’s rights, climate change and democracy.

Despite facing backlash – Mukasa’s car was set on fire and his workplace was vandalised, while Bwambale was the victim of a community smear campaign – humanists in Uganda won’t stay silent.

About 31 of the country’s groups, led by the newly formed Ugandan non-profit African Humanist Celebrant Network (AHCN), which trains humanist celebrants (someone who officiates non-religious marriage, funeral or other ceremonies) across Africa, are petitioning the Ugandan parliament to change the country’s Marriage and Divorce Bill to allow for humanist ceremonies. Apart from South Africa, humanist ceremonies are banned across the continent but Uganda’s humanists claim that the nation’s constitution contains protections against discrimination for non-believers, and argue that the ceremonies “give us a platform to show the world that it is perfectly fine to live a life without God”.

Unsurprisingly, there has been some opposition, with Bishop Jacinto Kibuuka, who leads the Christian Ecumenical Council of Uganda, vowing in December to draft an opposition petition, although nothing has happened yet. “Those voices who claimed same sex relations were a culture war by the West against Africa and the Church will re-emerge and cast humanist marriages as market entry for same sex marriages – precisely because they are non-denominational, promote free choice and individuality,” says Ugandan analyst Angelo Izama.

But whatever happens, Mukasa says the country’s humanists are here to stay. “When we registered our first organisation, there were very few people saying ‘I’m an atheist’. But right now if you follow our page online you would be surprised at the number of people saying ‘to hell with religion,’” says the activist. “We are eating into [religion], we are weakening it, even when [their followers] are making inroads we are making inroads too.”


Citations, References And Other Reading

  1. Featured Photo Courtesy of:  https://holylandmap.blogspot.com/2013/05/human-face-of-africa.html
  2. https://www.equaltimes.org/can-humanism-help-advance-human
  3. https://www.amyfallon.com/

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

Mubarak Bala: One Year After

On April 28, 2021, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released the following statement regarding Mubarak Bala.

You may also wish to read Wole Soyinka’s letter on the 100th day of Mubarak’s detention.


One year after: Authorities must comply with Federal High Court decision to release Mubarak Bala on bail

GENEVA (28 April 2021) – UN experts* today called on Nigerian authorities to comply with the decision of the Federal High Court to release the prominent humanist and rights defender Mubarak Bala on bail.

“Today marks one year since Mr. Bala was arrested and detained in Kano State, without any formal charges, on allegations of blasphemy. His arbitrary detention has continued despite our appeals to the Government in May and July last year,” the human rights experts said.

As president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, Mr. Bala had led human rights education campaigns promoting freedom of religion or belief and worked to raise awareness about religious extremism. His arrest on 28 April 2020 followed a petition filed with Kano police a day earlier alleging that he had insulted the Prophet Muhammad in Facebook posts.

“The arrest and prolonged detention of Mr. Bala is not only a flagrant violation of fundamental rights, but it has also had a chilling effect on the exercise of fundamental freedoms in Nigeria,” the UN experts said. “Through his continued detention, the Government is sending the wrong signal to extremist groups that the silencing and intimidation of human rights defenders and minority non-believers is acceptable.”

On 21 December 2020, the Federal High Court in Abuja ruled that Mr. Bala’s detention, as well as the denial of his ability to choose his own legal representation, constituted gross infringements of his rights to personal liberty, fair hearing, freedom of thought, expression and movement. The Court ordered his release on bail and that he be awarded damages of 250,000 Naira (about 650 US dollars).

“We are disappointed that the respondents failed to comply with the Court’s order and blatantly undermined the competence of the judicial system,” said the experts. “The Government must take action to ensure that the responsible authorities respect the due process and enforce the judicial ruling.”

On 27 January, Mr. Bala’s lawyer filed another petition to the Federal High Court in Abuja to summon for Mr. Bala’s bail pending trial, if any. A hearing was scheduled for 20 April, which has not yet taken place because Courts are on strike.

“As soon as the Courts resume, the hearing of the new petition must proceed promptly and the authorities must end this unjustified prolonged detention of Mr. Bala for good,” the experts said.

“We remain deeply concerned for Mr. Bala’s security due to continuous death threats and his overall well-being in detention. Such prolonged incarceration may also amount to a form of psychological torture that could severely impact on his mental and physical health in consequence.

“International law protects everyone’s freedom of thought, conscience and religion or beliefs and the right to opinion and expression but it does not protect religions or beliefs per se. The use of blasphemy law is against international human rights law and the imposition of death penalty based for blasphemy is doubly egregious,” stressed the experts.  


*The experts: Mr. Ahmed Shaheed,Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or beliefMs. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defendersMr.Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishmentMs. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental healthMr. Morris Tidball-BinzSpecial Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions;  Mr. Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issuesMs. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression; and Mr. Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.

Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Check the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

UN Human Rights, country page: Nigeria

For more information and media requests please contact: Ms. Chian Yew Lim (+ 41 22 917 9938 / clim@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact: Mr. Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org)Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

Concerned about the world we live in?
Then STAND UP for someone’s rights today.
#Standup4humanrights and visit the web page at http://www.standup4humanrights.org

Citations and References

  1. https://humanists.international/2020/08/wole-soyinka-sends-message-of-solidarity-to-mubarak-bala/
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/aug/06/wole-soyinka-protests-imprisonment-of-nigerian-humanist-mubarak-bala
  3. https://freemubarakbala.org/
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wole_Soyinka
  5. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=27033&LangID=E
  6. https://allafrica.com/stories/202104280898.html
  7. https://religionnews.com/2021/04/30/global-pressure-mounts-for-nigerian-atheists-release-after-year-in-detention/

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.


Wole Soyinka : A Letter to Mubarak Bala

On August 6, 2020 Humanists International published a letter by Nobel Prize winning writer Wole Soyinka in support of Mubarak Bala.

According to Humanists International’s campaign website, Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was arrested on April 28, 2020 following allegations that he insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad on social media. Bala’s current arrest is not his first experience of systemic faith-based oppression. In 2014, Bala was detained on the grounds that he was an atheist.

In his letter, Soyinka wrote, “As a child I remember living in a state of harmonious coexistence all but forgotten in the Nigeria of today, as the plague of religious extremism has encroached.” Throughout Soyinka’s life, he has been a leading voice opposing injustice and corruption in Nigerian Society. Following a military coup in 1966, Soyinka sought to avert a Nigerian civil war. This attempt to work toward peace resulted in Soyinka’s imprisonment for 22 months.

Soyinka continued in his letter to Mubarak, “When I accepted the International Humanist Award at the World Humanist Congress in 2014, I spoke of the conflict between Humanists and Religionists; one of enlightenment versus the chains of enslavement. Your arbitrary incommunicado detention over the last 100 days is the cruel reality of this conflict. All too often these chains of enslavement lead directly to the gallows or a prison cell.

Harassment, imprisonment and other forms of violence and oppression by authoritarian ideological regimes is both an ancient and a contemporary theme. In recent years, one need only recall the cases of Raif Badawi, Noreen “Asia” Bibi, Avijit Roy and a long-list of others from nations around the world to recall that freedom of expression may be contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it is far from universally protected.

Mubarak’s legal team claims that they have been unable to access Mubarak and have asked Nigerian authorities to clarify where he’s being held.

Why Activist Mubarak Bala Was Arrested For Insulting ...
Mubarak Bala

Humanists International has stated that their perspective that Bala is being targeted solely for exercising his rights of freedom of belief and freedom of expression, as contained in international and regional instruments to which Nigeria is a signatory as well as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution.

Despite the modest media attention that Mubarak Bala’s case has created and may continue to receive, the plight of a Nigerian humanist and human rights activist is still quite far from the attention or concern for those who may currently be living in ideologically comfortable settings. Perhaps letting this situation slip one’s notice is a dangerous apathy. We may not be so very far removed from extreme embodiments of ideological cancel cultures as we would like to think.

Signing Humanists International’s statement regarding Mubarak Bala could be an excellent place to show support for global freedom of expression and opposition to all forms of ideological oppression.

Citations and References

  1. https://humanists.international/2020/08/wole-soyinka-sends-message-of-solidarity-to-mubarak-bala/
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/aug/06/wole-soyinka-protests-imprisonment-of-nigerian-humanist-mubarak-bala
  3. https://freemubarakbala.org/
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wole_Soyinka

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

Featured Photo Courtesy of Humanists International.


Version History: This article was originally published on August 8, 2020 and was updated on August 9, 2020.