The arrest and subsequent disappearance of Mubarak Bala, an avowed atheist from a prominent Muslim family in Kano and an engineer by profession, illustrates the fragility of human rights and the rule of law when an individual directly challenges the norms of conservative society in Nigeria. Bala says he rejected Islam and embraced atheism following exposure to a video of the beheading of a Christian woman in 2013 "by boys about my age and speaking my language." The immediate cause of his arrest was his Facebook post calling the Prophet Mohammed a terrorist; a group of lawyers in private practice complained about it to the police. According to Bala's wife, following his arrest four months ago, he has been denied access to a lawyer, contrary to a court order. She has been unable to contact him, and the authorities have refused to respond to inquiries about him. Now she is asking for "proof of life," implying the possibility that he has been extrajudicially murdered. The response of Bala's father and older brother to his 2013 profession of atheism was to have him committed to a mental hospital where, he says, he was beaten, sedated, and threatened with death.
Under a northern Nigeria version of sharia (Islamic law), blasphemy is a capital crime, though execution is rarely carried out. Under nation-wide, secular law, the penalty is two years imprisonment. Assuming Bala is still alive, the disposition of his case may depend on the legal system under which he is tried. Nigeria's federal constitution explicitly guarantees absolute freedom of religion; yet, in a seeming contradiction, blasphemy (of which Bala's Facebook post would seem to be a clear example) is a crime, though lesser than under sharia.
If Bala is dead, it should not be assumed that it was necessarily at the hands of the security services. Conditions of incarceration promote disease, especially when prisoners are denied access to their families, as Bala has been. It is also possible that fanatics have taken justice into their own hands and murdered him, perhaps in an "honor killing." Nigeria, alas, has a culture of impunity; if Bala died under embarrassing circumstances, authorities at any level might successfully cover it up.
The Bala case raises multiple hot-button issues. His public embrace of atheism is a direct challenge to the patriarchal authority of his father, his elder brother, and, indeed, his entire distinguished Islamic family. His profession of atheism is a direct assault on traditional, northern Islamic society when it is under siege from the radical Islam of Boko Haram, but also (perhaps more assiduously) secularism and Christianity in the more advanced southern part of the country. Blasphemy is viewed as warranting death in other conservative Islamic societies, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as well as among northern Nigeria's Muslims. Bala's lack of access to a lawyer despite a court order highlights the weakness of the rule of law.
Atheism is seen as an assault by both Christian and Muslim Nigerians, even if the focus of the two is often different. Popular reaction to atheism is reminiscent to that of homosexuality. The draconian laws against the latter, including the possibility of the death penalty, were equally supported by Christians and Muslims during a particularly intense period of religious rivalry. Atheism, blasphemy, and homosexuality are perceived as, somehow, assaults on the family. Yet, as governance at all levels deteriorates, it is the family that provides the context and the safety net in which Nigerians live out their lives.