By Douglas Anele
The worldwide lockdown in response to the novel coronavirus or Covid-19 pandemic has compelled a significant number of people to spend more time than they did before on thinking about their lives, the meaning of human existence in general, and other thought-provoking perennial questions that have motivated philosophers over the ages.
Consequently, any adult that has not yet used this forced stay-at-home situation for meaningful introspection has actually wasted a wonderful opportunity to meditate about life, about what is really essential and what is not for the good life in order to make positive lifestyle adjustments for the future.
This is a good time to decide that from now henceforth one would pay more attention to things that really matter and stop worrying unnecessarily about those things that are not important for true happiness and wellbeing, such as buying things one does not need and other forms of self-indulgent consumerism. The good life, the way I see it, is an ideal: it is the kind of life inspired by humane feelings and guided by knowledge and universal moral values.
Now, because the novel coronavirus pandemic has prevented people from engaging in the usual quotidian details of life such as work, entertainment and socialising, a sizeable number of people across the globe are recalibrating their priorities. In other words, more people have realised that a lot of those things they stressed themselves for before the lockdown are activities or engagements they can forgo without harming their lives in any significant way.
For example, although going to stadiums and sports arena to watch sporting events, visiting cinemas and other entertainment venues to socialise and relax reduce boredom by adding variety to people’s lives, many of us are now coming to terms with the fact that life is still great without watching La Liga or Premier League matches, the latest blockbuster movies, and so on. The main problems arising from the lull in these activities are job losses and the attendant economic hardship for those whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on sports and entertainment.
It is noteworthy that the lockdown has demonstrated clearly that staying at home in Nigeria for prolonged period of time is quite demanding. It is physically and emotionally challenging considering the harsh human conditions aggravated by the mediocre leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari. For those who earn money on a daily basis in order to survive the lockdown is devastating, and their problem is compounded by a nagging or troublesome spouse and children that must be taken care of, not to talk of the discomforts arising from epileptic electricity supplied by underperforming Power Holding Company (PHC).
For sure, as the lockdown bites harder with each passing day, the situation becomes increasingly tough for my colleagues and I who have not been paid in the last three months for complying with the directive from the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) not to enrol in the centralised problematic IPPIS payment system introduced to all federal universities by government. In that regard, management of the University of Lagos, Akoka, must be commended for the help it has rendered to staff members to cope with the ugly situation.
Needless to say, the atrocious Operation Starve the Lecturers has put many university teachers under severe pressure because they are increasingly incapable of meeting their financial obligations to family members and dependants. Yet, it must be admitted that ASUU committed a strategic blunder by hastily declaring an indefinite strike just when it was obvious that universities will be closed as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Now that the general lockdown has rendered the strike somewhat ineffectual at this point in time, ASUU has lost some of the moral high ground and public goodwill it would have enjoyed had the union waited until normalcy returned and given the government a realistic deadline for negotiations to end at the end of which, if no agreement was reached, the union can then direct its members to go on indefinite strike.
Despite ASUU’s strategic mistakes over the years, the recurrent tactic of arm-twisting and punishing lecturers by withholding their emoluments is counterproductive. No country maltreats academics and intellectuals persistently without paying dearly for it. On the other hand, ASUU must start thinking of a less disruptive strategy of engaging with government because frequent strikes are doing serious damage to the quality of teaching and learning in our universities.
I suggest that the union should set up a powerful lobbying team comprising retired senior academics, influential captains of industry, first-class traditional rulers, and eminent professionals to interface between it and government as the occasion demands. For now, ASUU and federal government must find a common ground as soon as possible to avert unnecessarily prolonged stoppage of academic work after the lockdown had ended.
Like Covid-19 which disrupts the normal cellular machinery of infected persons, failure by government to implement agreements and indefinite strikes by ASUU are inimical to the healthy functioning of our tottering but redeemable ivory towers.
Moving on now to other matters: a disquieting news item in the media which caught my attention last week was the ordeal of Muhammad Mubarak Bala, an atheist and President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who was arrested and detained unlawfully by officers of the Kaduna State police command after a group of muslim lawyers petitioned the state commissioner of police demanding that he (Bala) should be prosecuted. Bala’s alleged “offence,” according to the report, was that he posted messages in Facebook where he described Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist and criticised Islam.
Other claims by Mubarak Bala that could be used against him in a sharia court by Islamist bigots include: “There are no flying horses; there is no Allah. Islam is exactly as Boko Haram practices it. Whoever believes religion has been duped. Religion is not a person. Long dead people are dead. Gods do not exist; so why fear analysis and critique on works attributed to them? Allah does not exist; do not pray against Covid-19. Act against the disease.”
Now, before evaluating Bala’s messages to determine whether he deserves his current persecution and possible punishment for expressing his freedom of thought and belief, I must point out that as an atheist myself who strongly believes, with good reasons, that critical thinking and scientific worldview are superior to religious superstition of any kind, the continuing harassment, intimidation, and persecution of unbelievers, including the highhanded arrest and detention of Mubarak Bala, is totally unacceptable, morally reprehensible, and unjustified.
It is also unconstitutional: despite its grave flaws, one of the redeeming features of the 1999 Constitution is chapter IV which spells out the fundamental rights of Nigerians. It stipulates “freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change one’s religion or belief,” all of which entails freedom to believe in unbelief and express same publicly.
Ignorant devout muslims who erroneously believe that the best way to practise their faith is to curtail the freedom of others, amongst whom might be the policemen that arrested Bala, appear to be unaware of this fact. Being an apostate from a muslim background and living in the north, Mubarak Bala has been persecuted and his human rights violated severally for courageously affirming his irreligious beliefs publicly. He is not one of the cowardly closet atheists who profess religious views in public but are either agnostics or atheists in their private moments.
In fact, Bala has paid a hefty price for his nonconformist beliefs. For instance, in 2014, he was taken by force to a psychiatric institution in Kano and kept for eighteen days. While there, he was forcibly drugged and subjected to vicious human rights abuses. Fortunately, Bala remains undaunted and steadfast in his core humanist atheistic beliefs. He argues correctly that abandonment of religious fairytales and adoption of reason and science is the only way to ensure human flourishing and wellbeing.
His valiant refusal to be intimidated by brainwashed irrational bigots deserves the support of all right-thinking individuals who understand that the path to self-actualisation is laid on the bedrock of freedom of thought, the freedom to hold controversial nonconformist views in spite of the dangers, societal pressures and intimidation.
Bala is detained for blasphemy. Now, the concept of blasphemy in Islam is a salad bowl of utterances and conducts considered un-Islamic or anti-Islam by muslims. According to Wikipedia, the Holy Quran does not explicitly prescribe any earthly punishment for blasphemy, and in relation to mocking of Allah or any of the prophets recognised in Islam (including Muhammad of course), it advocates a non-violent response if the person involved is a non-muslim (Quran 4: 140).
However, a variety of punishments, including execution, has been instituted in Islamic jurisprudence or sharia law that draw their sources from the hadiths, the principal source of sharia second only to the Holy Quran. In recent times, actual prosecution and punishment for blasphemy varies from one jurisdiction to another. In Nigeria, particularly northern states that have instituted Islamic law, a sharia court may treat blasphemy as deserving of several punishments up to, and including, death penalty.
To be continued…