The Ghanaian singer Mzbel recently found herself embroiled in controversy after she said she didn’t believe in Jesus. She didn’t renounce her faith in God; she just said she didn’t believe the Jesus narrative. Yet she was lambasted from all corners for simply stating her personal beliefs.
On many Nigerian blogs and social media pages (like this one), the comments were appalling. They were vile, incendiary and violent. Some commentators wished for her death and others threatened her life.
As a Nigerian who is a professed atheist and secular humanist, the hateful vitriol hurled towards Mzbel wasn’t surprising. I know commentary like that quite well. That said, the problem is bigger than people who are irreligious; it affects believers a great deal as well. In Nigeria, the conviction in your faith must be unwavering. You cannot question or reject aspects of your faith without suffering some kind of consequence.
The country prides itself on being a democracy and a free society, but it’s certainly not one in practice. It might be politically democratic, in that elections are held where the populace votes, but it is socially theocratic.
Systems that operate from the authority of God are disastrous for people who are on the margins, whose lives, identities and beliefs fall outside of what is deemed acceptable by the religious authorities. You can be detained for things like apostasy, as Mubarak Bala found out. He was held against his will for 18 days in a psychiatric ward for being an atheist. Thankfully, he is now free.
Piety rules the land in Nigeria. How else can one explain that a parallel sharia system is in place in Northern Nigeria, complete with religious police known as “Hisbah” who go around enforcing Islamic jurisprudence? Why do they exist at all? You cannot claim the country is free, secular or democratic when you have religious law enforcement operating in large parts of the land. I have encountered many Northern Nigerians who talk about liberty and freedom, but see no contradiction in a parallel sharia system and Hisbah law enforcement.
A little over a month ago in Kano, the Hisbah arrested a dozen young men and charged them with planning a gay wedding. Considering that homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria, the charge was absurd. It wasn’t a gay wedding; it was a birthday party. The Hisbah arrested them because some of the celebrants were effeminate men.
When a system infringes on the rights of people in such unfair ways, then something is blatantly wrong with the system. We cannot keep touting the so called freedom and secular democracy Nigeria has when you can be arrested by religious law enforcement and have your life ruined.
This display of sanctimonious piety is why many Nigerians lead double lives. They simply cannot be themselves because the community at large is vehemently opposed to who they really are. Many Nigerians who are irreligious, atheist, agnostic and even those questioning their faith do so in the shadows. Heaven forbid if you are an atheist and not heterosexual. Good luck to you.
Many irreligious Nigerians feel forced to maintain a facade of faith because the consequences of openly rejecting the dominant religious beliefs of their community is something they can’t do easily. They will be judged harshly and negatively by their family and friends. Their opinions and personal beliefs (or lack thereof) will not be respected. No one respects people who don’t believe in God in Nigeria. Who wants to be rejected? Who wants to be ostracized? It’s not a good feeling. Thus, many feel forced to live a lie. Such people are all around us. Walking around pretending to be pious because living that lie is the only way to maintain their family relationships and keep order. They swell the ranks in religious spaces; too afraid to be honest because they know the people around them will inflict harm if they dared to be honest. I hear their stories because they often tell me.
When I began writing about being a Nigerian atheist years ago, an interesting thing happened. Aside from the usual hate mail condemning me to hell and eternal damnation, calling me an infidel, a kuffar and an arna (Hausa word for heathen or non-believer), a lot of Nigerians started reaching out to me about their true feelings regarding religion. They questioned many things about their faith and religion, but still kept up appearances because they were afraid of being ostracized. Some thought they would be harmed.
The harm they feared wasn’t just physical. Sometimes it’s the verbal barbs that sting the most. The pain from a blow to the head will subside. Painful words last forever and many didn’t want to disappoint their parents or bring shame to their families. With all these issues to consider, it’s easy to understand why some choose harmony, cohesion and peace at the expense of their true identities. To them, it’s better to live a lie and have relative peace than to be honest and have your life in shambles. What good is honesty if rejection comes with it?
How do we get to the point where people won’t have to hide for acceptance? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but espousing secularism and respect for all people is a start. There has to be a point where we should be able to collectively respect the humanity of others. This includes Nigerians who reject organized religion and those who question it. They are also citizens. You don’t have to agree with their choices or beliefs, but they have autonomy and rights. You don’t have the right to abuse and malign them for it. That’s just basic decency.