Bulletin N°48

avril 2024

Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Hate Speech Laws in Africa – English version

Jeffrey Haynes

This article discusses apostasy, blasphemy, and hate speech laws in Africa[1]The article focuses mainly on sub-Sahara Africa. The United Nations Development Programme uses the ‘sub-Saharan’ categorisation in relation to 46 of Africa's 55 countries, excluding Djibouti, the … Continue reading. Drawing on recent reports from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the article concludes that many such laws, as practised and implemented in Africa, should be reconsidered or dismissed given their sometimes-problematic implementation.

In Africa, as elsewhere, there is a complex relationship between the laws of religion and human rights laws of freedom of expression or opinion. To go against a law of religion necessarily violates a law of freedom of expression. USCIRF notes both sets of laws come under the international rubric of ‘human rights’.  On the other hand, the always-complex relationships between laws of religion and human right laws of freedom of expression or opinion are often seen in Africa. This is not to suggest that African states are unique in this respect as almost everywhere, including Western Europe, the most secular of regions, there are sometimes frictions between these two sets of laws[2]Jeffrey Haynes, "Blasphemy and law", in Anne Stensvold (ed.), Blasphemies Compared, London, Routledge, 2020..

Some African countries have religious laws which critics believe are used primarily to suppress and silence those citizens who wish to exercise their human right of freedom of expression, belief, and opinion including in relation to religion[3]United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, "Factsheet. The Condition of Nonbelievers in Africa", 2021. [Online] … Continue reading. A recent USCIRF report, which identifies blasphemy laws as those "speech or acts that disrespect God or the sacred’, notes that such laws are widespread in Africa [4]USCIRF, "Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Hate Speech Laws in Africa. Implications for Freedom of Religion or Belief", 2017.T he Oxford English Dictionary defines blasphemy as "the action or offence of … Continue reading. Such blasphemy laws may be normatively "harsh" or "mild" or somewhere in between; yet, all significantly deviate in some degree from freedom of belief and expression that international norms seek to uphold. The 2017 USCIRF report globally identified 71 countries that punish blasphemy, ranking them according to severity. Countries were assessed on the basis of the harshness of their penalties, the vagueness or precision of offences, and the degree to which blasphemy laws were used to deepen or highlight discrimination against some religious groups. USCIRF noted that some countries in Asia and Africa, including Pakistan and Egypt, use blasphemy laws as a form of anti-minority oppression. In addition, a 2014 Pew Research Center report found that 20 or more countries have laws or policies penalising apostasy[5]"YourDictionary" defines apostasy as "abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle" (https://www.yourdictionary.com/apostasy).. Pew found that laws restricting apostasy and blasphemy "are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 18 of the region’s 20 countries (90%) criminalize blasphemy and 14 (70%) criminalize apostasy’. Apostasy laws also exist in two other regions of the world – Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa[6]Angelina Theodorou, "Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy?", Pew Research Center, 29 July 2016. [Online] … Continue reading. From these various recent reports, we can see that Africa, along with several other regions, including the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, have various laws in relation to apostasy, blasphemy, and hate speech.

It is not however the case that in such laws, one size fits all. That is, laws dealing with offensive or vilifying speech, including those linked to blasphemy, vary in the kinds of dangers that they seek to address. Perceived offence is the oldest justification for legal censorship; and this is where many African countries continue to draw the line. Yet, such laws are themselves typically discriminatory, seemingly designed to protect primarily or solely a religious doctrine supported by the state or one that is religiously or demographically dominant, for example, Islam in Sudan or Christianity in Zambia. Objects of the law are usually adherents of sects, denominations, and/or minority faiths whose practices the state regards as an affront to the country’s religious orthodoxy.

As George notes "[i]nternational human rights law rejects offence as a legitimate justification for restricting speech" More widely, jurisdictions characterised by liberal values, examples in Africa include Ghana, typically believe that condemnation of particular ideas and institutions is unacceptable, even when expressed in language which some may find extreme or hurtful. According to George, "Liberal norms now recognise only flesh-and-blood victims of hatred, not abstract concepts or deities[7]Cherian George, Hate Spin. The manufacture of religious offense and its threat to democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2016, p. 34". Some liberal democracies in Africa, such as Ghana, do not criminalise blasphemy. Ghana’s 1992 constitution, which ushered in the country’s current three decades of liberal democracy prohibit religious discrimination, stipulating that individuals are free to profess and practice their religion. Although registration is required for religious groups to have legal status, this normally granted, an inclination that Ghana is fairly rare among African countries in its high degree of de facto tolerance in regard to religious differences[8]Jeffrey Haynes, Revolution and Democracy in Ghana: The Politics of Jerry John Rawlings, London, Routledge, 2023..

Ghana is not however the norm. On the one hand, there is a de facto African consensus that incitement to violence – including in relation to those accused of blasphemy or apostasy – calls for state protection of those threatened. On the other hand, state policies towards incitement to discrimination do not always support this aim; across the region, they vary markedly. Typically, many forms of racist propaganda are protected by constitutions, which may favour free speech over protection of hurt feelings, including religious sentiments.

In Africa, various freedoms – including of opinion, expression, and freedom of religion or belief – are often rather intricately intertwined; violations against one often lead to abuses against another. These human rights are protected under articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), yet around the world, including in Africa, governments still pass and enforce laws that restrict such freedoms, including the right to criticise religion. Laws that restrict apostasy (that is, public renunciation of a person’s religion), blasphemy (that is, the insulting of a religion, religious objects or religious place), and hate speech (that is, communication regarded as prejudicing a particular religious, racial or ethnic group) collectively limit freedom of expression. In addition, such laws have significant implications for someone’s ability to express and practice their faith. Within Africa, such laws are quite common: it is estimated that nine countries have apostasy laws, more than 25 criminalise blasphemy, and around 30 have laws against hate speech. Given that there are 55 states in Africa, it is clear that such laws are common throughout the region, irrespective of a country’s majority religion.

According to USCIRF[9]USCIRF, "Factsheet. The Condition of Nonbelievers in Africa", 2021, op. cit.. [Online]  https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2021-07/2021%20Factsheet%20-%20Nonbelievers.pdf., many African countries have blasphemy and/or apostasy laws which are typically rather blunt swords, that is, they may be used somewhat indiscriminately against a variety of religious expressions. Such laws typically violate international human rights law as expressed, for example in the UDHR, and the view of the international community, especially Western countries, is that they should be promptly repealed. On the other hand, the view of Western countries, which reflects their individualistic human rights interpretations, is not replicated in various African countries, including Algeria d Sudan. In both countries, stringent laws prohibiting proselytising and conversion from one faith to another are examples of governments seeking actively to control and limit citizens’ religious identity and their ability to express religious preference. This highlights their governments’ chief human rights priority in relation to issues pertaining to religion freedom: protection of the collective rights of followers of the majority religion in both countries, which is Islam.

In addition to international human rights agreements, such as the UDHR, Africa also has regional human rights instruments which theoretically protect the rights of religious minorities. For example, Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) which came into effect in 1986, explicitly guarantees "freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion". The ACHPR forbids regional governments from limiting or preventing these rights in nearly all circumstances, except when governments deem it necessary in order to maintain law and order. Article 9 of the ACHPR stipulates that "[e]very individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinion within the law". Finally, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights ruled in 1993 in a judgement against the state of Nigeria that states may only impose necessary restrictions to those rights protected by international human rights instruments. In addition, the judgement stated that no situation justifies wholesale violation of rights.

Similarly, hate speech laws are also often both vague and wide-ranging, often employed to limit religious expression. Consequently, such law should be fine-tuned to comply with international standards as expressed in the UDHR. This is because, according to international law, free speech should only be limited in specific, limited circumstances. These include where hate speech is reasonably expected to make imminent incitement likely. In addition, free speech should not be restricted because it is deemed to criticise or insult certain religious groups’ beliefs and values. Finally, governments should take necessary steps to defend those accused of going against hate speech laws which actually function as blasphemy laws. Both the Gambia and Eritrea are examples of states which have laws which fit both categories of speech restrictions.

Many African countries have laws restricting the freedom of the media and press. Such laws may be used to prohibit hate speech, with reference to strictures on the abuse of an individual or group in relation to their race, ethnicity, or religion. The aim, of course, is to protect the various individual identities found within a country. On the other hand, governments may use such laws for political purposes. For example, the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Kenya, South Sudan, and Sierra Leone, have all been noted as exemplars of governmental overreach, whereby twin freedoms – of expression and religion – are put at risk.

Hate speech laws may also be problematic. This is because they often lack independent oversight mechanisms while meting out what many would regard as unnecessarily harsh punishments. In addition, the aim of hate speech laws may be to integrate such concerns into wider programmes and policies to try to reduce societal intolerance and hatred. When free speech is protected and thus not limited by legislation, governments may seek to use alternative strategies and methods to try to address hate speech problems and discrimination against certain groups. To achieve these goals, it is appropriate for governments to strike up and develop meaningful and inclusive partnerships with civil society organisations which aim to improve human rights within their countries.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a report in 2021 which highlighted the sometimes-problematic implementation of religious freedom issues in Africa[10]USCIRF, "Factsheet. The Condition of Nonbelievers in Africa", 2021. [En ligne]  https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2021-07/2021%20Factsheet%20-%20Nonbelievers.pdf.. The USCIRF report is the most comprehensive and up to date report available, detailing incidents of arrests, detention, and imprisonment of religious nonbelievers and those accused in African countries of blasphemy and apostasy, those holding or advocating for the right to hold non-religious beliefs, and hate crimes issue. Reports from USCIRF (2017, 2021) provide examples from several sub-Saharan African countries, including, Rwanda, South Africa, Mauritania, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya, which are briefly described in the following paragraphs.

Rwanda experienced a very serious civil conflict between April and July 1994. During this time, members of the Hutu majority killed at least half a million people, predominantly members of the Tutsi minority. Following the killings, the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda considered the role of hate speech in precipitating and perpetuating the conflict in what was known as the "Media Trial", following which two media executives were convicted for the crime of direct and public incitement to genocide[11]USCIRF, 2017, op. cit., p. 23..

Article 15 of South Africa’s constitution protects freedom of religion, belief, and opinion. Article 16 protects freedom of expression, stating that this right "does not extend to … (b) incitement of imminent violence; or (c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm’" In December 2023, the South African parliament passed a new law criminalizing broad categories of speech, including hate speech. Prior to its passing, South Africa’s parliament vigorously debated the bill, which also saw energetic debate among civil society organisations. The bill was advanced after years of growing examples of hate crimes and hate speech, often related to racism and xenophobia, as well as specific religious groups/or individuals, including against Muslims and Jews[12]Ibid., p. 26..

The government of Mauritania criminalises both apostasy and blasphemy under Article 30 of the country’s criminal code which in 2017was updated with harsher language. Critics believe that Mauritania’s amended law might rank as the most draconian and stringent blasphemy law in the world, surpassing that in Iran which has long achieved that dubious distinction. Mauritania’s law permits the severest penalty – that is, death – without concern regarding whether an accused individual chooses to repent for the alleged ridicule/insult. In addition, the law also condemns Muslims who persist in failing to perform prayers to be executed. Finally, the "law severely limits the freedom of religion in terms of the rights to speak about religion critically, to convert, or to manifest religion in any particular way[13]Ibid., p. 37.".

Mubarak Bala, president of the Nigerian Humanist Association, was arrested in April 2020 by Kano state, northern Nigeria, authorities. Mr. Bala publicly declared his atheism in 2014 and from that time was a forthright advocate for Nigerian nonbelievers’ rights. Mr. Bala was arrested by Nigerian authorities and held without charge for several months. On 5 April 2022, Mr. Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison at a (secular) high court in the northern state of Kano, pleading guilty to 24 charges relating to a Facebook post, one pf which read: "the fact is, you have no life after this one. You have been dead before, long before you were born, billions of years of death" Mr Bal was also accused by lawyers in Kano state of posting items on Facebook that, they claimed, were "insulting to Muslims". State authorities restricted Mr. Bala’s access to his lawyer and for months refused to confirm his whereabouts and wellbeing, prior to the trial. Despite a federal court in Nigeria’ capital, Abuja, ruling Mr. Bala’s detention unconstitutional and ordering him to be released, Kano state authorities refused and continue to incarcerate him at the time of writing (April 2024)[14]USCIRF, "Factsheet. The Condition of Nonbelievers in Africa", 2021, op. cit., p.2..

Earlier, in May 2017, Sudanese authorities arrested Mohamed Salih because he made a request to change the religious status on his national identification card from Muslim to non- religious. As a result, a judge declared him mentally "disturbed" and "unfit" to stand trial. Prior to the Sudanese revolution in April 2019, the government had applied a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam both to Muslims and non-Muslims. The country had draconian apostasy and blasphemy laws to try to prevent conversion from Islam to any other faith or non-belief, as with Mohamed Salih. Although in 2020 Sudan repealed this law, the country still faces challenges to ensure full religious freedom, including liberty not to follow a religious tradition[15]Ibid., p. 3..

In 2020, two leaders of Uganda’s Humanist Association for Leadership Equality and Accountability (HALEA) were physically attacked and the HALEA offices vandalised following the organisation’s public promotion of freedom of thought and belief. No one was arrested for these crimes. In the same year, Tanzanian’s government failed to protect Ms. Zara Kay, activist and founder of Faithless Hijabis, following accusations of advocating for apostasy and blasphemy in the country’s capital, Dar es-Salaam. Members of her community declared that she was an apostate (in Arabic, murtad)– that is, a Muslim who has abandoned Islam in thought, word or deed - and she also received threats. When Ms. Kay’s case was reported to authorities, the government declined to take measures to protect her[16]Ibid..

The cases of briefly described above, from various African countries, collectively illustrate that both individuals and representative organisations are accused in various sub-Saharan African countries of blasphemy, apostasy and hate crimes. The role of parliaments and governments in these issues is noted and it is clear that practices regarding these issues vary widely in Africa.


This article has described how in Africa those accused of blasphemy, apostasy and/or hate crimes, as well as and activists and organisations advocating on their behalf, face massive challenges to their ability to express their views publicly and to living according to their beliefs. In several regional countries, such people face significant discrimination and stigmatisation in relation to education and employment, including in both public and private sectors. Typically, governments fail to protect those accused from societal harassment and threats because they fear a societal backlash if they do: it is easier to "go with the flow" and join in the persecution rather than take a principled stand. The consequence of government inaction is that those accused of blasphemy, apostasy and/or hate crimes may have to put up with constant fear from discrimination, stigmatisation and harassment from the state and certain individuals and/or groups.

To improve this situation in African countries, urgent steps should be taken, nationally and internationally, to address discrimination and stigmatisation in African countries. The aim should be to encourage state neutrality in regards to matters of religion and, where constitutionally relevant, protect a country’s secular status. Often, those accused of blasphemy, apostasy and/or hate crimes are both discriminated against and stigmatised because of a lack of government commitment to protect them; state and nonstate agencies and individuals responsible for such actions may escape being penalised, even when they are clearly violating the rights of those they accuse[17]Humanists International, « New report sheds light on persecution of non-believers in Africa », 2021. [Online]  … Continue reading.

International human rights law makes it clear that no one who holds nonreligious and nontheistic beliefs should be killed or imprisoned. In addition, no one should be penalised for renouncing or criticising a religion, that is, declared an apostate and suffering the consequences, including persecution and in a small number of cases the murder of nonbelievers. The international community, including Western governments, can support Africans in protecting the freedoms of expression and religion in various ways. First, they can encourage African governments to repeal laws relating to blasphemy and apostasy. Second, African governments can be encouraged to evaluate and where necessary reform or do away with hate speech laws that to not conform to international standards. Third, aid civil society organisations financially in their efforts to counter identity-linked hate speech and violence. Fourth, documenting hate speech laws and their impact, and publish the results in annual reports, as USCIRF is already doing. Fifth, encourage African governments to ensure that social media and communications platforms’ laws and rules adequately protect the rights of religious minorities. Finally Western governments should work closely with African governments, perhaps conducting regular workshops with relevant African officials which focus on internationally recognised responsible government practice, including approaches to minority community needs.

In pursuit of such aims, the United Nations’ Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes (colloquially known as, the "Fez Plan of Action"[18][Online] (https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/publications-and-resources/Plan_of_Action_Religious-rev5.pdf).) was launched in 2017. The Fez Plan of Action recognises that religious leaders play a particularly influential role in stopping or encouraging incitement, because they are well positioned to influence the behaviour of those who follow them and share their beliefs. The Fez Plan of Action emerged after a long process of consultation, dialogue, and discussion religious leaders around the world. Its recommendations include that religious leaders should take specific actions to prevent and counter incitement to violence and to strengthen and consolidate their capacity to avert incitement to violence. The overall aim is to counteract incitement to violence and instead build peaceful, inclusive, and just societies which recognised the rights of all citizens.

Development of the Fez Plan of Action involved regional consultations aimed at contributing recommendations to broader UN plans. In the Fez Plan of Action, religious leaders noted that "incitement to hatred, hostility and violence is prevalent in Africa, as it is in all regions" and committed "to respect and promote human rights; respond to and counter incitement speech; increase interfaith collaboration; and partner with traditional and new media, as well as with state authorities and education institutions, to prevent and respond to incitement to violence and build communities that support each other, across faiths, and are resilient to incitement to violence[19]United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, "Plan of action for religious leaders and actors to prevent incitement to violence that could lead to atrocity crimes … Continue reading" ( 2017).



1 The article focuses mainly on sub-Sahara Africa. The United Nations Development Programme uses the ‘sub-Saharan’ categorisation in relation to 46 of Africa's 55 countries, excluding Djibouti, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Somalia, and Sudan
2 Jeffrey Haynes, "Blasphemy and law", in Anne Stensvold (ed.), Blasphemies Compared, London, Routledge, 2020.
3 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, "Factsheet. The Condition of Nonbelievers in Africa", 2021. [Online] https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2021-07/2021%20Factsheet%20-%20Nonbelievers.pdf. .
4 USCIRF, "Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Hate Speech Laws in Africa. Implications for Freedom of Religion or Belief", 2017.T he Oxford English Dictionary defines blasphemy as "the action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk" (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/blasphemy).  
5 "YourDictionary" defines apostasy as "abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle" (https://www.yourdictionary.com/apostasy).
6 Angelina Theodorou, "Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy?", Pew Research Center, 29 July 2016. [Online] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/29/which-countries-still-outlaw-apostasy-and-blasphemy/
7 Cherian George, Hate Spin. The manufacture of religious offense and its threat to democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2016, p. 34
8 Jeffrey Haynes, Revolution and Democracy in Ghana: The Politics of Jerry John Rawlings, London, Routledge, 2023.
9 USCIRF, "Factsheet. The Condition of Nonbelievers in Africa", 2021, op. cit.. [Online]  https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2021-07/2021%20Factsheet%20-%20Nonbelievers.pdf.
10 USCIRF, "Factsheet. The Condition of Nonbelievers in Africa", 2021. [En ligne]  https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2021-07/2021%20Factsheet%20-%20Nonbelievers.pdf.
11 USCIRF, 2017, op. cit., p. 23.
12 Ibid., p. 26.
13 Ibid., p. 37.
14 USCIRF, "Factsheet. The Condition of Nonbelievers in Africa", 2021, op. cit., p.2.
15 Ibid., p. 3.
16 Ibid.
17 Humanists International, « New report sheds light on persecution of non-believers in Africa », 2021. [Online]  https://humanists.international/blog/new-report-sheds-light-on-persecution-of-non-believers-in-africa/.
18 [Online] (https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/publications-and-resources/Plan_of_Action_Religious-rev5.pdf).
19 United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, "Plan of action for religious leaders and actors to prevent incitement to violence that could lead to atrocity crimes », 2017. [Online] https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/Plan%20of%20Action%20Advanced%20Copy.pdf
Pour citer ce document :
Jeffrey Haynes, "Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Hate Speech Laws in Africa – English version". Bulletin de l'Observatoire international du religieux N°48 [en ligne], avril 2024. https://obsreligion.cnrs.fr/bulletin/apostasy-blasphemy-and-hate-speech-laws-in-africa-english-version/
Numéro : 48
avril 2024

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Jeffrey Haynes, London Metropolitan University

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