Leo Igwe is the executive director of both the Center for Inquiry in Nigeria and the Nigerian Humanist Movement. It would be difficult to find a humanist activist with greater courage, determination, and persistence anywhere in the world. On more than one occasion, Igwe has been physically attacked by religious extremists. He has been pursued by would-be muggers in Lagos, one of the world’s most dangerous cities, while trying to apply for a visa. He has heroically challenged homophobia, sexism, misogyny, theocracy, child abuse, faith-healing claims, alternative medicine, pseudoscience, female genital mutilation, and many other harmful ideas and practices. He has courageously struggled to foster humanist ideals and skepticism against untested claims to knowledge throughout Africa, with negligible funding. Igwe is not interested in or motivated by personal financial gain; rather, he is concerned with positively transforming life for Africans.
In May 2009, Igwe initiated the Center for Inquiry’s anti-superstition campaign in Accra, Ghana. The event was attended by Christians, Muslims, traditional religionists, representatives of human rights organizations, women’s and children’s rights activists, and others. He later spread the campaign to Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria, and other countries. The Center for Inquiry in Uganda is now planning to embrace the campaign and introduce it to young people throughout that country. The Center for Inquiry in Senegal and groups in other African nations also plan to get involved.
The campaign is largely focused on the belief in and practice of witchcraft. Igwe maintains that it is not enough to educate people not to harass, stigmatize, harm, or kill alleged witches; a belief in the power of witchcraft must also be opposed.
As part of the campaign, Igwe stepped up his criticism of one of Nigeria’s most notorious witch hunters and leader of the Liberty Gospel Church in Nigeria, Helen Ukpabio. Members of Ukpabio’s church have repeatedly accused their children of practicing witchcraft, causing them psychological and physical harm. On July 29, 2009, at a conference on witchcraft and children’s rights, a mob of roughly 150 members of the Liberty Gospel Church attacked Igwe. They broke his eyeglasses and stole his camera, cell phone, carrying bag, and a copy of his speech. Ukpabio attempted to sue Igwe for a mind-boggling $1.3 billion (U.S.) for allegedly infringing on her religious beliefs by merely questioning them and allegedly holding two of her church members against their wills. However, the Federal High Court in the State of Calabar dismissed the frivolous case in February.
Unbelievable as it might sound, this was a relatively mild predicament for Igwe. He also attempted to bring an alleged rapist to justice. Dr. Edward Uwa, a fifty-five-year-old university lecturer, is accused of raping ten-year-old Daberechi Anongam in 2006. In reaction, Ethelbert Ugwu, an associate of Uwa’s, accused Igwe and members of his family of murdering a man whose death certificate shows that he died of AIDS. As a result of the accusation, Igwe and some of his family members have been arrested, threatened by police, and interrogated by the feared State Security Services (SSS). They also have been charged with conspiracy, murder, and attempts to conceal murder. However, Ugwu has repeatedly failed to show up at the police station in Umuahia, Nigeria, with witnesses. Meanwhile, notoriously corrupt policemen have forced Igwe and his family members to pay them exorbitant sums, by Nigerian standards, for “bail.”
Even with these problems swirling around him, Igwe remains focused. He never abandoned the Center for Inquiry in Nigeria’s plans to celebrate Darwin Day. He continues to write and speak out in defense of humanist ideals. However, he maintains that it is difficult to promote humanism in a land where there is no social, economic, or legal justice.
In his essay “Humanism and the Quest for Justice in Africa,” Igwe writes:“Justice, they say, is the first condition of humanity. That means justice is imperative for human existence and coexistence. Justice is necessary for any society to grow, develop and flourish. Any movement that gives primary consideration to the human being must take the quest for justice—the enthronement of a just society—seriously.”
African Americans in particular often complain about police corruption and brutality—and rightfully so. Corruption is much more endemic in Africa, due largely to grinding poverty. Police and soldiers routinely shake down law-abiding citizens for money. Police will often demand to be paid by civilians before they make arrests. Legal “justice” is sold to the highest bidder. In a posting on a humanist discussion group, Igwe writes: “Normally in cases of malicious allegations, the petitioners disappear as soon as the suspects ha[ve] been arrested, beaten, tortured, and money extorted from them for bail. The petitioners reappear any time they feel aggrieved, and then ‘mobilize’ the police to reopen the file, [and] appoint new investigat[ive] officers who will re-invite and re-arrest the suspects.... These malicious allegations are avenues police officers use to make money for themselves.”
These are not exactly the social conditions the intensely political rap group Public Enemy complained about when they urged their fans to “Fight the Power” in 1989. However, Igwe believes that injustice does not wear only a White face; he recognizes that all of Africa’s problems cannot be blamed on Whites, the West, imperialism, and so on. In “Humanism and the Quest for Justice in Africa” he writes: “Surely, injustices predate and post-date colonialism in Africa. Unjust acts have been going on in Africa for ages.”
Igwe is a long-standing foe of cultural relativism. He believes in holding Africans to the same high standards he has for everyone else. He finds insulting what George W. Bush referred to as “the soft racism of low expectations” for Blacks and other historically oppressed groups.
As an opponent of injustice in Nigeria, Igwe is not alone. The late Nigerian musical superstar and social activist Fela Kuti was jailed several times and often protested against police brutality and government repression. The late secular humanist Tai Solarin was jailed and fought against military rule. The International Academy of Humanism laureate Wole Soyinka, Kuti’s cousin, has spent his life fighting against military rule in Nigeria and demanding that the Nigerian government respect basic human rights.
Given what Igwe and other African humanists are up against, it seems sad that so many humanists in the United States are still afraid to come out of the closet. Here, best-selling books on atheism and humanism abound. Nonreligious Web sites and discussion groups are plentiful. The nonreligious in the United States do not have to worry about being harassed, beaten, tortured, or killed by religious fanatics because of their views. Many African humanists would love to have it so good. Yet so many American unbelievers refuse to stand up and be counted.
Igwe has received great support for his plight from humanists all over the world. However, every person and organization has a breaking point. Igwe is faced with an overwhelming financial burden and needs help in this regard.* More important, though, as he writes in the aforementioned essay: “Humanists must be involved in changing and challenging unjust institutions, customs, and traditions. Humanists must work to dismantle all machineries of oppression, exploitation and dehumanization in Africa. The humanist movement must lobby the governments or petition them before international bodies so that they [wIll] take action against injustice.”
Indeed, humanists must lead the way in insisting upon a single standard of justice for all. Humanists in the United States live in a time when the president acknowledges their existence and welcomes them into the fold. One might argue that there has never been a better time to be a secular humanist.
There have been many encouraging developments throughout the world. Secularists in Italy challenged the display of crosses in public schools and won the support of many in the European Union. People all over Malawi are learning about secular humanism as a result of a debate aired on national radio featuring George Thindwa of the Association of Secular Humanists of Malawi. James A. Haught and others report that faith is fading across much of the world, including the seemingly religious United States (see Haught’s “Fading Faith,” FI, February/March 2010).
Igwe would like to see advocates of justice remind the Nigerian authorities of their responsibility to assure justice for all Nigerian citizens. He would like to see the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, and other influential bodies come to the fore and demand justice for all in Nigeria. Meanwhile, he will continue to engage in humanist activism and do what he can to make the world a better place.
Norm R. Allen is the executive director of African Americans for Humanism.