Just-world Humanism Africa Nigeria

Humanism: Realising and Resisting Change in Africa

In 1994, a student gave me a book, and one of the lines in the book read, “If you want to change the society, start a movement”. I did not understand the full importance of this statement but the insight struck me and stuck with me, and never left me since then. In 1996, I started the Nigerian Humanist Movement, not exactly sure how it would help transform society, but at least I hoped it could provide a platform to make a case for change, to stimulate and help bring about desired transformations through opposition or proposition.

I created a humanist platform in response to the enormity of harm and destruction that was caused by superstitious beliefs, as a countermeasure and counter mechanism to the deleterious effects of religious dogma and extremism, and to the shackling impact of magical and supernaturalist thinking. In pursuing the spiritual sense of life, people in my country and continent committed heinous crimes, atrocious and horrific abuses, suicide, infanticide, parricide, uxoricide, and genocide; brutal acts that shamed our humanity and called into question human wisdom and decency.

Nigeria Humanist activist
Leo Igwe is a Nigerian human rights advocate and humanist. Igwe is a former Western and Southern African representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and has specialised in campaigning against and documenting the impacts of child witchcraft accusations


This flip side of humankind was evident in the manifestation of caste discrimination and the twisted thinking that informed and has sustained it. This obnoxious practice, which has condemned a significant percentage of the Igbos in southeastern Nigeria to a life of servitude, has not disappeared. The notion that some members of a lineage were sacrificed to the gods, the shrine gods of the pre-Christian era has persisted. On account of that, ‘Osu’ people are trapped in an inescapable and irredeemable untouchable caste. The Osus are treated as socially dirty, as forbidden people who should not marry, hold leadership positions or live among the ‘free-born other’. They were condemned to this social prison for life, for generations unending.

Even at death the stigma is not mitigated, because the Osu are treated with the same contempt as when they were alive. The ‘lower caste’ people are in some places accorded less dignified burial in the forests, away from the community of the so-called ‘free-borns’. The intriguing thing is that today the Igbos are mostly Christians and no longer profess belief in these shrine gods, at least not in any open or official way.

There has been a theistic change of guard but this development has not significantly diminished or led to the disappearance of caste discrimination as one would imagine or expect.

The fact that the so-called gods which the Osus were sacrificed to had no longer much creedal currency and hold among the people should be a reason to do away with this cultural pestilence or at least consign it to the margins of social praxis. But that has not happened.

The fact that gods are imaginary entities, human creations, is an incontrovertible reason for a radical social change. That deities are bereft of such existence and powers, which we accord them, powers that made them worthy of sacrifice, is a clear basis for a cultural (revolutionary) paradigm shift and a total abandonment of this vicious custom.

Or take the case of the belief in ritual wealth, which often motivated ritual killings. As a child, I had a close encounter with cases related to ritual sacrifice. When I was ten, a man confronted his brother over an alleged rumour that the sons unsuccessfully wanted to use the wife for rituals. One morning, the two sons accosted this relative and insisted that he should disclose who informed him that they wanted to use the wife for rituals but the man refused. The two men beat this man to a coma. Fortunately, he survived.

Another elderly man was not as lucky. A young high school boy, in the quest for a magical breakthrough, went to a medicine man who asked him to bring the head of somebody in the family for some ritual sacrifice. This boy lured his uncle to a nearby bush and cut off his head. The boy took the head to a medicine man who told him that it was not the type of head that he needed for the sacrifice. The boy went and dumped the head in a place where the relatives later found it.

In the 90s, the Otokoto story made headlines in Nigeria. A middle-aged man beheaded a boy on the premises of a hotel in Southern Nigeria. Luck ran out of the man as he was taking the head of the person who allegedly asked him to bring it. The police arrested and prosecuted all those who were implicated in the murder. One of those who was convicted, Vincent Duru, who also owned the hotel, was hanged in November last year.  The case of the suffering of albinos in east Africa is well known.

The underlying superstition is that ritual sacrifice with human body parts could make people rich, prosperous or successful. Ritual sacrifice constitutes a poverty alleviation scheme, right? In Nigeria, and across the region, ritual wealth is not treated as a form of make-believe. The idiom of occult wealth is often used to explain situations whereby persons who were poor suddenly became rich. It is said that the human head that is used in this ritual is kept in a small apartment where it vomits money, very often in the local currency.

Some of these stories are captured in home videos and Nollywood films and many people mistake these narratives as evidence that ritual sacrifice of human body parts could actually yield wealth and good fortune.

Efforts are seldom made to investigate, examine or interrogate these claims or try to understand the conditions, if at all, under which human body parts could turn into money or good fortune. Instead, claims of ritual wealth are accepted blindly without question. Asking for evidence for the efficacy of ritual sacrifice constitutes a veritable weapon in the attempts and initiatives to weaken the grip of this superstitious belief on the minds of the people.

A related practice targets persons who allegedly have powers to cause sickness, accidents, and deaths through magical means. These persons are designated as witches and are attacked, tortured, subjected to trial by ordeal, prosecuted or imprisoned, banished, lynched or summarily executed. Africans use the idiom of witchcraft to make sense of misfortune in particular cases of abnormal harm. Persons who are designated as witches are usually elderly men, women, children or persons living with disabilities because they are those ti whom the label of witchcraft could easily be applied. The underlying belief is that misfortune can be metaphysically orchestrated. That the occult forces manifest through human agents and instruments. So when physical explanations seem unsatisfactory, metaphysical interpretations are deployed to make sense of unfortunate events.

In pursuing mystical explanations, causal agencies are imputed on persons who are certified through dreams and divinations to be responsible for these misfortunes. In the absence of effective contestations or interventions by the state, alleged witches often resign to the label applied to them. They flee their communities to live on the streets, or at witch sanctuaries, that is if they were fortunate enough to escape alive.

People maltreat alleged witches because they think that magical causation of misfortune is a fact as certified through dreams, divinations, and prophecies. These beliefs predate Christianity and Islam. Still, these notions are pervasive in Christian and Islamic Africa because these religions are also conceptions informed by magical and mystical formations. In fact, Christian and Islamic clerics are mainly the modern day witch hunters and finders in the communities.

Thus skeptical dispositions, which demand evidence for claims of mystical causation of disease and death, constitute a vital resource. They hold the means for change in the short and long term because the skeptical outlook reckons with the observable and the demonstrable, the logical and the empirical, the material and physical as the basis for guilt, and causation of harm or injury, not the imaginings of those petrified by occult fears and anxieties or the subjective accounts, intuitions, and testimonies of prophets, dreamers and diviners.

We have also witnessed attacks, persecutions, and killings linked to blasphemy and desecration of texts. Militants, religious zealots, of Islamic persuasion are the main culprits in this case. They unleash assaults and other forms of inhumanities on ‘other confessors’ under the pretense of provocation or offense of their religious sensibilities. And curiously these are adherents of a religion that was introduced by those who, going by their verbiage, blasphemed against African traditional deities, destroyed and desecrated traditional religious sites and sometimes enslaved or killed the worshippers.

The same acts of bigotry have continued and are perpetrated by militant groups such as Boko Haram to compel people to embrace a more purist vision of Islam. There has been a violent reaction by those who took offense at the visit of a popular evangelist to Muslim majority city. Those alleged to have dumped the Quran on the floor or used the pages as a waste paper have been beheaded or lynched.

There have been barbaric killings by jihadists campaigning for the enshrinement of the sharia law. Islamic militants violently protested the staging of a beauty pageant or the cartoon of prophet Muhammad or alleged blasphemy against Islam, Allah or its messenger. In fact, they went to the extent of attacking and killing persons in the region who had no connection with these acts.

However, there is a growing momentum of change. An intellectual awakening to the fact that religions and their gods are human creations, has inspired piecemeal actions with revolutionary prospects and potentials.

For instance, the humanist movement has been a resource in resisting the spread of homophobia and the enthronement of anti-gay laws in countries across the region. Many nations in Sub-Saharan Africa have moved to tighten laws against homosexuality. They presented gay sex as antithetical to the African essence, hence the statement that homosexuality is unAfrican.

Too often religion, culture, and tradition have been used to legitimise hatred and discrimination against homosexuals. God, Allah and other constructs of this imaginary asexual entity have been invoked to sanctify opposition to the human rights of gay persons.

Texts that were written by human beings centuries and millennia ago but which clerics and preachers,godmen and women, theologians and faithful scholars have refused to disclose their true authors and intent have been used to justify norms that are spiteful of human rights of women, children, and minorities.

A process of change motivated by humanity and critical thinking has become urgent. Such a process is an imperative for sociocultural renewal and rebirth in Africa.

And to this end, the humanist movement has convened meetings and conferences to highlight the dangers and destructive effects of superstitions and irrational beliefs. There have been gatherings where the challenges to eradicating Osu caste discrimination were discussed. Campaigns to raise awareness of ritual killing, witch persecution, and religious extremism have been organised.  Marches and protests have been staged to mobilise and conscientise the public, and lobby politicians and lawmakers against homophobic laws, or policies that violate the reproductive rights of women. Petitions have been sent to local, state and regional governments in furtherance of policy change and revision.

These efforts have yielded piecemeal developments, support for victims of caste discrimination, ritual killing, witch persecution and religious fanaticism. These developments still fall short of the revolutionary outcomes and changes which are expected when critical thinking, not dogma or blind faith, becomes the driving force and the defining canon of resistance, and the realisation of social change in Africa.


Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.

Article Discussion

  • Posted by 1980-f

    15 May, 2017 at 10:05 am

    Simply superb. All power to you, Leo. I'd be interested to know how much the international development agencies working in Nigeria - Oxfam, Unicef etc. - have done to promote the humanist cause against these traditional cultures and beliefs.

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