Leo Igwe, from Mbaise in Imo State, south eastern Nigeria, started the humanist movement in Nigeria in 1994, and since then he has been in the forefront of the campaign against “witch hunting” in Nigeria and Africa.
He is currently doing a doctoral program in religious studies at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, University of Bayreuth in Germany. In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Cletus Ukpong, Mr. Igwe argues on why the belief in the existence of witchcraft is destroying Nigeria.
PT: You have been a strong campaigner against torturing and killing of people accused of being witches. When and how did you get involved in the campaign?
Leo Igwe: For me there is no evidence that witches exist as claimed by witch hunters, and that they take human forms particularly female or child human forms.
I grew up in a community where people believed in witchcraft and occasionally I witnessed elderly women tortured or abused for allegedly perpetrating witchcraft. In 1994, I started the Nigerian Humanist Movement and made the campaign against witchcraft accusation and witch hunting one of my main priorities. With both local and international support, the campaign gathered momentum and today we have activists and affiliate groups that are working and campaigning to stop these horrific abuses in different parts of the country and continent.
PT: How did you get involved in the humanist movement? Were you influenced by your parents, peers, or books?
Leo Igwe: I discovered the humanist movement when I was in the seminary. That was in the course of reading any book I could lay my hands on. In the course of my studies, there was growing dissatisfaction with the dogmatic approach to life and knowledge. The answers I was getting in response to my questions were not adding up. I realized in the course of my reading that both questions and answers, flimsy or factual, reasonable or unreasonable, sacred or profane have one reference point – that is the human being. Hence, I found it outrageous that human beings are tortured and killed by fellow human beings in the name of imaginary beings and imaginary crimes. That is the worst form of human debasement.
PT: Some years back, there was this British documentary, Dispatches: Saving Africa’s Witch Children, which prompted global outrage against the ill-treatments and killing of children in Nigeria. And that put a lot of pressure on the Nigerian government. Do you consider the documentary a milestone in the campaign against child witch killing in Africa? Again, does it mean the authorities in Nigeria were not aware that this problem had existed in that magnitude?
Leo Igwe: First, on the documentary, it is a shame that it took a documentary by friends from the UK for us in Nigeria to apparently wake up to the heinous crimes of witch hunting and child witch killing.
Well, has the documentary made much difference? In some respect, it was a milestone in the history of the campaign, but I am afraid it might not have given the mileage and push Nigerians need to stop witch persecution and killing because witch killing has been going on since the documentary was released.
Of course, Nigerians and their authorities were aware of the magnitude of the problem even before the documentary was released but the real challenge is that those who make up these “authorities” are witchcraft believers or even if they are not, are not willing to go against the magical grain. That is why witch killing is still going on. Witch finders are still going about their business even when there are laws at the state and federal levels that can be used to penalize and deter them! So unfortunate!
PT: Talking about laws, why is the Child Rights Law in Nigeria not effective in protecting vulnerable children from being labelled witches?
Leo Igwe: For laws to be effective in addressing problems such as child witch killing and stigmatization, we need the police to enforce the law and court magistrates and judges to interpret them. But we have a sorry situation in Nigeria because on this issue there is a failure of the justice system. Nigeria lacks a critical mass of police and court officials to make the law effective.
The police cannot enforce the law because police officers are afraid of the alleged child witches and of witchcraft. So they operate as if that law was not in the statute book, the same with our judges and magistrates. In fact, some of the police and court officials are pastors, imams or spiritualists who identify and exorcise witchcraft.
So, how do you expect them to firmly and effectively enforce the child rights law which punishes their fellow accusers, labellers and identifiers of witches, and protects these innocent children? That is the dilemma that does not give hope to the cause and campaign. But we shall not give up. The fight goes on.
PT: Is child witch killing in Nigeria common only among the predominantly Christian south or do we also have this problem exist among the country’s Muslims in the north?
Leo Igwe: That is what the evidence and statistics show in particular if we consider what has been going on in the predominantly Christian southern Nigeria. However, the practice of killing, of abusing children in the name of magical or occult beliefs predates Christianity and Islam in Nigeria and again the victims are those who are unable to resist such abuses.
So, the practice of torturing and killing children who are accused of witchcraft or evil magic may still be going on within the Muslim population but surely not in the scale or magnitude we have seen in some part of Christian southern Nigeria.
PT: If the law has failed to protect vulnerable children, how then can these children be protected within the same society that has failed them? More so, how can prophets who prophesy that these kids are witches be held accountable for the destruction they have caused?
Leo Igwe: Laws do not enforce themselves, people enforce them. For now, the laws are paper tigers but we need to turn them into “real tigers” so that with their teeth they can bark and bite. Nobody will do that for us. Another documentary on saving Africa’s witch children will not do that. Our police and court officials need reorientation so that they become more proactive and responsible, and not allow their superstitious beliefs to come between them and the performance of their duties.
There were similar practices in Europe some centuries ago and at a stage some Europeans rose up and ended the scourge. This is what Nigeria should do and must do. Nigerians must expose the so called prophets and their dim witted prophecies; Nigerians must rise up and bring these charlatans to justice and ensure that the justice system begins to work for them and these vulnerable children. The test of any justice system is its ability to protect the weak and the vulnerable. Europe stopped this atrocity three hundred years ago But we can stop it today .We can start now.
PT: You posted on Facebook in July, a graphic photo of someone being burnt to death in Akpabuyo, Cross River State. You said in that post that two men accused of being witches were gruesomely murdered by their accusers. You were frantically mobilizing people to put pressure on the police, the state and the federal government to investigate the incident. What has become of the case?
Leo Igwe: Police arrested some of the suspects and asked to be allowed to carry out investigation. My suspicion is that the matter would die that way because nothing has been heard regarding the case since. In fact, I was informed that when the police went to make arrests, some people suspected to have been involved in the incident shot and wounded one of the officers. I think the police must have abandoned the case as they often do.
PT: We are aware that the most vulnerable children are those from the poor and uneducated family background. Are the children of the rich, educated and powerful immune to this problem? Have you ever come across rich kids who were also affected?
Leo Igwe: I have not encountered children of the rich who were accused and abused. Children from poor homes are those who are prone to being abandoned by their parents or relative; they are the ones who are given out to relations to serve as house helps. Children from poor homes are those who are often abused with impunity or be scapegoated because there is nobody to defend or protect them. They are the one on whom the label can easily be applied.
This is not to say that children of the rich are not accused or abused. Since both the rich and the poor in Nigeria believe in witchcraft, it is likely that children of both the rich and the poor are victimized in the name of this vicious belief but children of the poor are the ones whose abuses are more visible. So, we should not think that children of the rich are not accused and maltreated as witches. They are!
PT: We do also have situations where children also torture or even kill their parents whom they accuse of being witches?
Leo Igwe: Yes, we have such cases of parricide but in actual fact the perpetrators are usually not children in the sense of being minors. They are usually youths and adults. Again, no one knows the scale of the problem in this case. It may be worse than one could imagine. Witchcraft is a killer belief. It turns children against their parents and parents against the children.
PT: Do you think Nigerians really understand the severity and magnitude of this social problem?
Leo Igwe: I think Nigerians do. But the strong belief that witchcraft is real drains their sense of compassion and fellow feeling. Nigerians are petrified by occult anxieties, and the pervasive poverty, misery and insecurities in the country have worsened the situations. The fear of witches deadens their conscience and makes them unable to care or appreciate the scale and severity of the problem.
Actually, Nigerians are more worried about the imagined scale of witchcraft assaults, not witch persecution or the killing and abuse of alleged witches in the country. Nigerians spend much time worrying about the next ‘witchcraft attack’, not the maltreatment of alleged witches. And the witch imaginaires are recharged everyday at prayer meetings, house fellowships, at churches and mosques by pastors, and ministers, mallams and imam. In fact, Nigerians are in a vicious circle when it comes to witchcraft related abuse. A critical force of enlightenment is needed to break this vicious circle and consigned it to the dustbin of history.
PT: What ways could the Church be better engaged, if we are looking at how to solve the problem?
Leo Igwe: The churches in Nigeria should emulate their counterparts in other parts of the world where witch persecution is now a thing of the past; it is for them to stop using the idiom of witchcraft to make sense of people’s problems and misfortune. They should stop attributing sickness, disease and death, infertility, marital or child birth difficulties, business failures to witchcraft.
If religious clerics stop blaming people’s problems on witchcraft, there will be no need for witch hunting or witch finding. Those who make people believe that witchcraft is real indirectly validate witch persecution and witch killing. Church ministers should leave health issues to health workers and refer church members who have health issues to health experts for advice and treatment. Church ministers should stop claiming that they can identify and exorcise witchcraft. To smell out something, the thing has to be, it has to exist.
PT: Do you also find the Nigerian media guilty in any way?
Leo Igwe: Yes, I do. Because media reports of witchcraft stories are often not balanced. There is seldom a critical perspective in most of these reports. In fact, the reports are highly unprofessional. They largely lack fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship. The media, just like our Nollywood films end up reinforcing the witchcraft beliefs. So, there is an urgent need of rational media reporting in Nigeria.
In fact, many times when I read some of the reports in the newspapers such as the ones I read some time ago that a ‘witch’ crashed landed in a church compound or that a woman turned into a bird in Lagos, I ask: Is there nothing like critical journalism in the Nigerian media industry. Again I say, journalists are after all not too different from the police or court officials, they allow their beliefs to come between them and their profession. So, yes the Nigerian media are part of the problem, but they can become part of the solution. It is not too late.
PT: With the gloomy picture you have painted of the situation, one is tempted to ask about what significant achievements your organisation and others have made in the campaign again stigmatisation, torturing and killing of people accused of being witches.
Leo Igwe: There have been achievements, but we have not reached a critical mass. Accusations are still pervasive. Torture and killing of alleged witches continue to take place. Gains have been made in beating back the tide of witch persecution but those gains are under serious threat. Nigeria has not gotten the stage where I could confidently say “yes at last we have achieved victory at last.” Nonetheless, there is hope.
First of all we organised a public enlightenment campaign in all the local governments in Akaw Ibom. We used the program to sensitize and educate the people. There are child rights groups and activists in many part of the country. There was nothing like that a few years ago. One of them is the Basic Rights Counsel in Calabar (Cross River State). In fact, it was the director, James Ibor who drew my attention to the case which I publicized some months ago. We did not have any such mechanism in Calabar a few years ago. To make witch hunting history we need many more of such groups and activists in states across Nigeria. In particular we need activists and whistle blowers to monitor what goes on in churches and prayers centers.
PT: If poverty is believed to have contributed to the problem, can we then conclude that with this economic recession, the situation may likely degenerate?
Leo Igwe: It has been acknowledged by scholars that there is an increase in witchcraft accusation in times of stress. So, one should expect cases of accusation as people try to scapegoat others to make sense of the economic recession. So it is important to inform Nigerians that economic hardship in the country has nothing to do with witchcraft.
PT: Now, let’s go back to your seminary experience. Isn’t it ironic that it was at the seminary – a place where men are trained to become priest – that you learned about and embraced atheism?
Leo Igwe: Well, it may seem so to those who do not know what goes on in seminaries. To become a priest one is required to study philosophy which exposes one to logical and critical thinking. In the seminary, people are trained to be priests, not necessarily to be believers. Just like people can be a teacher without believing in education, a police officer without believing in the rule of law, one can be trained as a priest. In fact one can become a priest, without believing in God.
PT: You are an atheist. An average Nigerian, being deeply religious, may naturally see you from a negative perspective. How do you deal with this?
Leo Igwe: I deal with it by living my life and doing what I think is good, right and helpful. I deal with it by finding ways to add value and improve the lives of Nigerians in any way I can. I deal with it by putting my knowledge, energy and money in service of the good of Nigeria and Nigerians, despite the religious or ethnic affiliation. Yes I deal with it by trying to be an effective “witches’ advocate” in Nigeria, and in Africa. I deal with it by campaigning for the abolition of blasphemy laws. I deal with the negative perception by campaigning to ensure that victims of blasphemy killings get justice. I deal with the negative perspective by campaigning for the rights of Muslim and other religious minorities in Northern Nigeria, by asking the Buhari government to stop killing Shiites and stop sanctioning the use of state money to fund religious pilgrimages. I deal with it by asking the Jigawa state government to stop using state funds to build mosques when those who would be praying inside these mosques are dying of hunger and the country is in recession. I deal with it by ensuring that Nigerians and Nigeria benefit from my atheism whether they believe in God or not, whether they perceive my atheism positively or negatively.