The tireless, courageous Humanism of Leo Igwe
As executive director of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) in West Africa and director of Centre for Inquiry Nigeria, Leo Igwe has often suffered for his tireless, humanist commitment to justice and the value of human life.
In 2009 he was assaulted by witch-hunters at an anti-witchcraft conference he organised, and then sued by the very church behind the attacks. (See a video of the “protest” against the conference. Note that most of the delegates remain calm and seated for some time while the church members riot through the building.)
Today, allegedly due to his calls for justice in the case of a man accused of raping a 10-year-old girl, Leo and his father have been arrested, purportedly in connection with a murder. According to a friendly local source:
Leo Igwe and his family have known no peace as several pettitions have been witten against them to intimidate them to submission and to abandon the struggle for justice. This latest one, they have been accused them of mudering an idividual who doctors provided a death certificate saying the man died of HIV and AIDS complication.
When the Calabar anti-witchcraft conference was invaded by members of Helen Ukpabio’s Liberty Foundation Gospel church in July last year, Josh Kutchinsky, a Trustee of the British Humanist Association, said, “Leo is a dear friend. He is knowledgeable, wise and courageous. … His intervention in individual cases of injustice, no doubt involve some personal risk.” Now, Leo’s friends and family locally fear that he and his father risk being tortured or murdered in police custody for their role in seeking for justice for the alleged rape victim, Ms Daberechi Anongam.
As well as organising and speaking at conferences on issues like witchcraft, Sharia and women’s rights, Leo has also worked with Amnesty International and Stepping Stones Nigeria. He writes and publishes on issues which, in the context of an often corrupt legal system and a culture saturated by ‘traditional’ values, are deemed controversial to the point of heresy. But he does not court danger for the sake of it. Here we collect some extracts from the writing of Leo Igwe which express principled stances on a number of issues. Even those who are conservative or ‘traditional’ enough to disagree with any of his sentiments must surely see that Leo’s position comes from a place of passionate concern for the well-being and flourishing of human life.
Like the traditional African value system, most traditional African practices are fundamentally biased against women and gender-insensitive. Little wonder, then, it is upheld as a traditional practice in many parts of Africa for girls as young as seven to be married to men old enough to be their fathers, and in some cases, grandfathers.
The practice of female genital mutilation (fgm)-otherwise known as female circumcision-prevails as a tradition in Africa. This process entails the partial or total cutting away of the external female genitalia. Traditional healers, birth attendants, or elderly women usually carry out the practice. The procedure is often carried out in a septic environment with crude instruments such as knives, razor blades, and broken glasses, without anesthetics, or, at best, herbal medication to check bleeding and lessen pain. This crude and hazardous procedure is grounded in and surrounded by various myths, misconceptions, and superstitious nonsense. For instance, the ritual is performed as a rite of passage, for preparing young girls for womanhood and marriage. Many also believe that it prevents a woman from giving birth to a stillborn child. In some parts of western Nigeria, it is regarded as a taboo for the head of the child to touch the mother’s clitoris during delivery.
As a religious norm, Muslim women and girls are subjected to various forms of victimization and discrimination. They are not allowed to move about unveiled, nor are they allowed to vote, hold public office, or have social, political, or economic power. They are not given the freedom to choose their marriage partners. Their parents betroth them to the Mallams and the Alhajis in order to cultivate friendship, and to extend and cement bonds between families. For instance, in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria, child marriages and arranged marriages are still commonplace. Consequently, the dreadful disease called vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF) is widespread and endemic.
One of the most interesting and challenging experiences I have had as a humanist in the past couple of years has been trying to persuade my people to abandon these horrible and primitive customs. I have tried to persuade them to see the need for progress and improvement in our attitudes, value and society. We must openly examine the traditions we have held and accepted as sacrosanct. Many of these traditions are founded on traditional dogma, ignorance, and superstition.
So, for Europe, the 18th Century “Age of Light” was a true Enlightenment. But for Africa, it was not. Because, while Europe was glowing with the light of reason and science, Africa was groaning under the burden of European slavery, tyranny and imperialism. It could be rightly said that the European Enlightenment caused darkness in Africa. It dislodged Christian theocracy and expelled to the black continent the forces of unreason and superstition.
European Christian Missionaries invaded Africa in search of “believers” in what they self-styled a civilising mission “La mission civilatrice”. And European merchants thronged the continent in search of raw material to feed the industrial revolution. In actual fact, what Europe rejected and abandoned to get ‘enlightened’ was forced and foisted on Africans as a civilising or enlightening matrix.
As if that was not enough, as Christian crusaders were ravaging the continent, Arab jihadists were fighting, raiding, enslaving and killing their way to enlighten Africans on the basis of Islam and the Arab culture.
The real tragedy is not that Europeans and Arabs infiltrated and darkened the continent with their cultural myths and superstitions. After all, Africa has its own traditional myths and taboos, which have also undermined the process of African enlightenment and emancipation. But that Africans have at the end of the day – blindly embraced these alien dogmas and misconceptions at the expense of social peace, intellectual growth, moral progress, truth and originality.
In Nigeria, thousands of people have lost their lives to religious riots, and clashes since independence. Muslim fundamentalists have foisted Sharia law on the Islamic majority states in the North. Throughout the continent, religious fanatics are prosecuting an inquisition. They oppose the legalisaion of abortion and gay marriage, the abolition of the death penalty, female genital mutilation, child marriage and homophobia.
Traditionally, there are two classes of people in Igboland – the Nwadiala and the Osu. The Nwadiala literally meaning ‘sons of the soil’ are the freeborn. They are the masters. While the Osu are the slaves, the strangers, the outcasts and the untouchables. Chinua Achebe in his well-known book, No Longer At Ease asks: What is this thing called Osu? He answers: “Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man Osu, a thing given to the idols, and thereafter he became an outcast, and his children, and his children’s children forever” The Osu are treated as inferior human beings in a state of permanent and irreversible disability. They are subjected to various forms of abuse and discrimination. The Osu are made to live separately from the freeborn. In most cases they reside very close to shrines and marketplaces. The Osu are not allowed to dance, drink, hold hands, associate or have sexual relations with Nwadiala. They are not allowed to break kola nuts at meetings. No Osu can pour libation or pray to God on behalf of a freeborn at any community gathering. It is believed that such prayers will bring calamity and misfortune.
Indeed, the blood of “unbelievers”, the oppression of the poor, the exploitation of the weak and ignorant, the discrimination against women, the persecution of sexual minorities and the abuse of children have watered the tree of Islam in Northern Nigeria. And today, Sharia has become a potent tool in the hands of Islamic Jihadists for human rights violation, oppression and exploitation in the name of Allah.Sharia has become a weapon for islamic inquisition in Nigeria. There are no women among the Sharia court judges. Sharia does not recognize the rights of all individuals to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It has no place for equal rights of all human beings regardless of religion or belief. Sharia accords second-class status to non-Muslims. Some Sharia States in Nigeria have carried out amputations, and have flogged convicted offenders including Christians. Some years ago, international outcry saved the lives of Safiatu Hussein and Amina Lawal who were sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. Many people convicted under Sharia law- to be stoned or amputated – are languishing in jails across Northern Nigeria.
On “witchcraft” and Child Rights in Nigeria:
Child witchcraft is the superstitious belief that children can be witches and wizards or that infants can or do magically turn themselves into birds or insects to suck blood or mysteriously inflict harm. It is the belief that children have evil powers which they use or can use to destroy people, particularly their family or neighbours.
The effects of accusations of witchcraft on children take three forms: accusation, confession and persecution.
Children are accused of being witches and wizards. They are blamed for whatever goes wrong in their families. This could be death, disease, business failure, accidents or childbirth difficulties. Children are accused of witchcraft at home by parents and family members; in churches by ignorant and unscrupulous pastors; at shrines by primitive-minded traditional medicine men or witch doctors; or on the streets by mobs and gangs.
Children are forced to confess to being witches and wizards or to have taken part in witchcraft activities by family members or by mobs, in most cases through physical and mental torture.
Children alleged to be witches and wizards are persecuted through torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, which sometimes leads to their death. Such children are starved, chained, beaten, matcheted or even lynched. At the churches, pastors subject children alleged to be witches and wizards to torture in the name of exorcism. Witchdoctors force such children to drink potions (poison) or concoctions which can kill them or damage their health.
In Akwa Ibom State, superstition about child witchcraft is common and widespread. Most people in this state, as in other parts of Nigeria, believe that children can indeed be witches and wizards or that children can take part in witchcraft activities.
Nigeria is a very religious country with most of its population mired in superstition. This is not limited to the illiterate rural folks but is also applicable to the urban elite and literati. In Nigeria there is a strong and widespread belief in juju and charms, witchcraft, ghosts, astrology, divination, reincarnation, miracles, private revelation, fortunetelling, etc. These beliefs are fostered and reinforced by the many prophets and prophetesses, gurus, miracle workers, faith healers, and soothsayers that lurk in every nook and cranny of our cities and countryside.
These charlatans claim to have divine powers-the power to bilocate and predict the future, the ability to heal all diseases-even AIDS-and the power to make people rich or live longer.
All of this happens despite the fact that these beliefs and claims have not stood the test of time, science, and reason, and that contradictory evidence emerges every day. We have yet to see an organized and coordinated attempt to challenge and unmask these scientific pretensions and irrationalisms.
Instead, our schools, colleges, and universities as well as the local newspapers and film industry have continued to misinform the public by distorting science and packaging and presenting pseudoscientific beliefs as genuine science. In fact, some of our scholars have gone to the extent of defending these paranormal claims as “African Science,” taunting skeptics as Western apologists.
There is an urgent need to raise the level of critical thinking, scientific literacy, and understanding. African skeptics must see this as their primary responsibility. African skeptics must rise up to this great challenge now because all that is needed for superstition to thrive and triumph is for skeptics to do nothing.
They then said the camera had broken and all of them pounced on me and started hitting me on the head and back. They snatched my bag containing my digital camera, conference papers and some cash. They smashed my glasses and made away with my mobile phone. Some friends who tried to rescue me from the mob were also beaten. The mob left with some of our conference banners and some anti-witchcraft T-shirts and caps, which we gave to participants.
For more on the work of Leo and the Nigerian Humanist Movement see IHEU’s articles on Nigeria.
You can also listen to Leo on the BBC World Service last year talking about the way that ‘tradition’ holds back the development of Africa.
Recently on his blog at culturekitchen.com, Leo speaks in broad terms about the many ways Africans are dying.
Africans are dying because most people in Africa are living false lives. People are afraid of being themselves, of living their own lives, and of asserting their own uniqueness and originality. Many people are living under illusions and deceptions. The real tragedy is that over the years, these lies and illusions have been institionalized and normalized to the extent that no one dares change them or challenge them. They have become a way of life.
When Leo spoke to the Central London Humanist Group in the summer, he seemed oddly cheerful, until Josh Kutchinsky, a long-time friend of Leo’s and chairing the discussion that evening, pointed out that Leo laughs in inverse proportion to the seriousness of what he is talking about. It’s not a cruel laugh, or a carefree laugh, of course. It’s like a bubble – his sense of the ridiculousness of it all – escaping from the boiling pot of his rational distaste for ignorance and injustice. Leo acknowledged the idiosyncrasy of his laughing in all the wrong places, and from that point on his delivery became more understandable, as well as more tragic. Because Leo laughs a lot when discussing the abuses and betrayals of Africans by Africans.
It’s the only defence mechanism of a man challenging all the “lies and illusions” in a country blood-drenched in prejudice and superstition.
Bob Churchill is Head of Membership and Promotion at the British Humanist Association
- Prominent Nigerian Humanist Arrested for Murder after Speaking Out on Behalf of Rape Victim « Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion
- Leo Igwe’s Father Loses Eye in Attack by Gunmen « Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion
- Leo Igwe’s family attacked in Nigeria | HumanistLife