Humanism and Witch Hunt in Nigeria

A conference introductory speech presented by Leo Igwe, Executive Secretary, Nigerian Humanist Movement at the Nigerian Humanist Movement’s National Conference on Witch-hunt, Christian Fundamentalism and Child Abuse
Date October 21, 2009. Venue: University of Uyo Community Centre, Uyo Akwa Ibom State
The Guest Speaker, Dr Nkopuduk Etuk
The Executive Secretary of NAPTIP represented by its Uyo zonal head, Mrs Elizabeth Ekaette,
Other governmental and non governmental agencies
Members of the Press

Fellow Humanists, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is my honour to welcome you all to this national conference of the Nigerian Humanist Movement taking place here at the University of Uyo Community Centre. This is the first humanist event to be organised by the Nigerian Humanist Movement in Akwa Ibom State. And I would like to thank all of you who have come from far and wide to attend this conference. Your presence is a demonstration of your support for the humanist cause particularly your commitment to eradicating witchcraft related abuses in Akwa Ibom State and in Nigeria as a whole. This conference is organised to provide a humanist response to the problem of witch hunt and child abuse. By a humanist response I mean a way of looking at or addressing a problem using reason and experience, science, critical thinking and human rights. Humanism offers us a veritable framework to tackle this problem that has outraged the conscience of the world. So I can authoritatively say that here is a problem that confirms the fact that Akwa Ibom State needs humanism, that Nigeria needs humanism.

But I know not all of us in this hall are humanists, not all of us in Akwa Ibom state are humanists. But whether we are humanists or not, I believe all of us in this hall are in agreement with the fact that abusing any child or any adult in the name of witchcraft is wrong. Am I correct?

Participants: Yes.

Leo: Thank you.

It was the American president Barrack Obama who during his campaign, popularized the saying “Yes we can”. Dear Friends, concerning the eradication of witch hunt in our society, I want to hear all of you say Yes we can.

Participants: Yes we can.

Leo : Thank you once again. Yes we can put an end to this shameful practice of torturing and abusing those alleged to be witches and wizards in our families and communities. We can stop this primitive habit of blaming witches and wizards for our problems. We can stop the atrocities of child abuse and abandonment in the name of witchcraft.

Fellow humanists and human rights activists, last December, the government of Akwa Ibom state said “Yes we can” when it signed into law the child rights act which criminalized the accusation and stigmatization of children. The office of the first lady said yes we can when it took off the streets children abandoned due to witchcraft and put in place programs to rehabilitate them. You can also say “Yes we can” by ensuring that no child or adult is abused, persecuted or killed in the name of this primitive superstition in our families and communities. On behalf of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, I want to thank the governor and the first Lady of the state for their commitment to the protection of the rights of the child. Particularly I want to thank the governor for his support and intervention following the raid on the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network by the agents of Helen Ukpabio and the Liberty Gospel Church on July 3 2009. On July 10 the governor visited the Center, pledged 10 million naira and promised the children scholarships and security to the staff. I hope other states will emulate the initiatives of Akwa Ibom state and put in place mechanisms to protect the rights of the child.

Friends, you will agree with me that a lot of work still need to done before witchcraft related abuses are consigned to the dustbin of history. For instance the government of Akwa Ibom is currently prosecuting some pastors alleged to have abused children. But the prosecution is stalled because people are not coming forward to testify against these suspects.

My good people of Akwa Ibom state, witch hunts will not stop unless witch hunters are punished for their crimes. So we must help the government bring these criminals to justice. And to the government I have this to say. You should be ready to protect and guarantee the security of those who testify against child abusers including those working to defend the rights of persons accused of witchcraft. People are not coming forward to testify because they fear for their lives. As you know children constitute a vulnerable group. And many of those who abuse children like parents, pastors or witch doctors are powerful or have powerful networks which they could use to victimize those who testify against them. If a child testifies against a parent who abused her, will the state provide her care and support? If a child testifies against a member of the community, will the government give him protection? If a child or a church member testifies against a pastor who tortured her during exorcism, will the government provide her security?
To all these questions the government of Akwa Ibom and of Nigeria must answer an emphatic YES!

Distinguished guests, combating witch hunt requires not only legislation or prosecution but also education. The prevalence of witchcraft related abuses is not only a failure of human rights and the rule of law but also a failure of public education and enlightenment. Once again we must commend the government of Akwa Ibom state for introducing free education up to secondary schools for children in the state.

As part of the free education scheme, we enjoin the government to encourage the inculcation of scientific temper and critical thinking skills. Because today most people believe in witchcraft, indulge in and endorse witchcraft related abuses due to lack of scientific temper and critical thought. If most people in our society today believe in witchcraft, it is because superstition, religious indoctrination, brainwashing and dogma direct our educational system and family upbringing.

Dear Friends, if we are meeting here early in the 21st century to discuss how to tackle the menace of witch hunt. It is a clear demonstration of how disconnected our society is from the rest of the world. It is an indication that we Nigerians are poor students of history. Because witch hunt is a problem which ‘the civilized world’ tackled and resolved centuries ago. Witchcraft is a non issue and has no place in any modern and developed society. Because witchcraft is superstition- that is a belief informed by fear and ignorance. And witchcraft related abuses prevail in our society because, over the years we have, by omission or commission, by benign neglect, indifference or apathy, allowed fear and ignorance to corrupt our minds and intellect. We have allowed the medieval mindset and stone age mentality to rule and ruin our culture.

We have allowed dogma, blind faith and religious fanaticism to drive popular thought and conscience. What a shame.

Distinguished guests, witch hunt is not new to our society. The persecution of those alleged to be witches and wizards has been going on for ages and predates the advent of christianity and other alien faiths and traditions. But you will agree with me that the wave of witch hunt that is currently sweeping across Akwa Ibom and other states in Nigeria is mainly driven by fundamentalist christianity and the literalist interpretation of the Bible. Some churches and prayer houses are fueling witchcraft accusation and stigmatization of children, women and the aged. Some pastors habitually attribute the problems in our families and communities to witches and wizards, and other agents of darkness (whatever that means). Pastors perpetrate various human rights abuses in the name of exorcising witchcraft. They incite their members to attack anyone alleged to be a witch. And in most cases they use Biblical verses like Exodus 22:18 to sanctify this message of hatred, this campaign of terror and violence.

The time has come for us to call such churches to order and expose those unscrupulous pastors The time has come for us to stop all forms of witch testing, witch screening and witch deliverance sessions anywhere in the country.

We must let everyone know that:

Those who believe in witchcraft are ignorant. Those who refrain from challenging the claim of witchcraft are cowards. Those who defend the belief in witchcraft are slaves.

Those who promote the belief in witchcraft are fools. Those who blame their problems on witches and wizards are idiots. Those who claim to deliver people from witchcraft like the Apostle in Calabar, are charlatans. Those who torture, persecute or kill persons alleged to be witches are criminals.

Friends, I am not unaware of the risks, dangers and challenges facing us as humanists and human rights activists in the fight against witch hunt and religious fundamentalism in Nigeria. Particularly in a situation where many penticostal churches and their so called pastors, bishops, prophets, apostles, men and women of God have built their ministries on witch testing, screening and deliverance. As some of you may have heard, in July some members of the Liberty Gospel Church invaded the venue of our child rights conference in Calabar.

They attacked me, and snatched my bag, my digital camera, and mobile phone. They tore my Tshirt and destroyed my eyeglasses. The police intervened and arrested one of them, Jeffrey Bassey who in his statement confirmed that they were sent to disrupt the event by Helen Ukpabio. Unfortunately, the police have yet to bring to justice those who perpetrated and masterminded the attack.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to make this clear. We shall not flee from witch hunters. We shall not be silenced by these charlatans and their gangs and goons. We shall not be cowed by the criminal plots of these evangelical throwbacks who use the pulpit to spread lies and hatred. We at the Nigerian Humanist Movement are determined to use reason, science, critical thinking and human rights to defeat these agents of Dark Age and barbarism. But we know we cannot do it alone. That is why we have invited you all to this event. We know we need your support and cooperation to win this battle against a cultural scourge. I hope this conference will offer us a veritable opportunity to identify and articulate strategies to tackle and combat witch hunt, christian fundamentalism and child abuse nationwide. Thank you.

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