Nigeria's fragile democracy is under fire. Nigerian Islamists in the highly religious Islamic north of the country have been targeting a marginal non-profit organization of secularists, the Humanist Society of Northern Nigeria (HSNN). The problem is worth examining.
Since the return of democracy to the largest African country in 1999, freedom of speech has been expressed mostly on social media. Nigeria has one of the highest numbers of internet users in Africa -- about 91 million. Yet, as is the case across the globe, the platforms of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and others are a double-edged sword. They are used for a disseminating information, but also for spreading disinformation and lies, as well as for recruiting fighters to the Boko Haram terrorist group, based mainly in Northern Nigeria, and responsible for the bulk of the suicide bombings and other mass murders committed in Africa.
To understand the significance of HSNN, one must grasp that 18 years ago, with the introduction of multiparty elections in Nigeria, most of the northern states used the ballot box to choose a system of Sharia (Islamic religious law).
HSNN describes itself on Facebook as "A Society of Northern Nigerian Humanists, Philosophers, Scientist and other thinkers," and says, "If you're a Northerner who thinks Human beings of every creed, society, race and tribe deserved to respected and their lives cherished then this is place for you." It has garnered only 16 members of in their 20s and 30s since its establishment. It is, however, part of a wider movement that aims to encourage "critical thinking" across Africa. It was, for example, among the participants of the 2nd Annual African Humanist Youth Days event in Lagos in July 2017.
The logo of HSNN proudly displays the Union Jack, an apparent nod of solidarity with the West -- which Islamists fiercely oppose. Also noteworthy is that one of its members, when asked by a hostile Facebook commenter where he was located, replied by claiming, falsely, that he was in the southern part of Nigeria. That reply indicates a worrisome level of fear on the part of members of the group that their lives could be in danger due to their lack of faith in the tenets of Islam.
Although such people have the same constitutional rights as anyone else in Northern Nigeria, if they try to express their political beliefs in the 2019 presidential election, they are liable to face persecution in different forms, including through the penal code.
Prior to the adoption of Sharia in most Northern Nigerian states in 2000, the penal code was limited to personal status and civil issues. After that, criminal cases were placed under the jurisdiction of Sharia courts. Suspects began being tried for offenses such as blasphemy and adultery. To make matters worse, even when some of these cases were overturned by the Nigerian Supreme Court, the accused remained stigmatized in their communities. This is likely to be the fate of the members of the Humanist Society, particularly if they are perceived to pose a political threat in the next elections.
There is also no indication that the authorities will protect them in such an event. Such a betrayal is unacceptable in a country that says it prides itself on being a democracy. The Nigerian government needs to act swiftly and forcefully to ensure that the rights of all of its citizens, regardless of religious or political affiliation, are upheld and safeguarded.
Nuhu Othman is a Senior Consultant on Political and Security Risks at Atta Zubairu & Associates, Abuja, Nigeria.