Humanism as the Next Step for Nigeria

A conference introductory speech delivered by Leo Igwe at the National Humanist Convention at Vines Hotel Durumi, September 23 2011.

Fellow humanists, and dear friends of humanists,

I want to join the Chairman in welcoming you all to this historic meeting. For a long time we at the Nigerian Humanist Movement have longed to bring our convention to Abuja. We have desired before now to get our politicians to understand that there are Nigerians who are openly, proudly and publicly non-religious and non-theistic. We have longed to register our presence here at the Federal capital territory and to get the politicians and people of this country to understand that Nigeria is not just a country of Christians, Muslims and traditional religionists alone; that in this vast and diverse nation, there are citizens who are non-believers and who call themselves by different names – atheists, agnostics, rationalists, freethinkers, skeptics, brights, naturalists etc; that there are Nigerians with unconventional, unorthodox and non conformist views about religion; and that these Nigerians exist and should be treated with dignity and respect.

But, friends, lack of funds and limited local active contacts here in Abuja have hampered our efforts to realize this dream. But this year, we decided to take the bull by the horns and make the dream of bringing humanism to Abuja a reality. Thanks to the support of the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Gay Humanist Charity, the Pink Triangle and some of you humanists here present, others around the world who couldn’t make it to this event, the bull has not flung us away. We have kept this date with history. I can proudly say that as from today, humanism has come to stay in Abuja, never to depart.

Distinguished colleagues, this convention is being held in a year that marks the 15th anniversary of the Nigerian Humanist Movement. When I started NHM in 1996, most people including my family members thought I would not succeed. They thought I would get burnt out after a while, and NHM would pack up. Most thought it was a waste of time and energy, that I was just hitting my head against a wall, that NHM would not survive.Their thought was that a movement that promotes reason, freethought and critical thinking had no future in this country; that it would not and could not thrive.

But Friends, today I can say that we have proved them wrong. We have survived amidst so many odds. NHM is 15 years old and still counting. And I want to thank all of you who have, over the years, worked, sacrificed, volunteered and contributed your time, energy and money to ensure the growth and survival of our Movement. I hope we will continue to work together to get NHM going and growing for the next 15 years and beyond.

Dear Friends, as you know we are meeting at a time of so much fear, uncertainty and apprehension. We are gathering here at a period when most Nigerians fear for their lives, for their security and for their future. When I arrived Abuja a few days ago I sent a message to inform friends that I had arrived, and one of us living here replied saying ‘Welcome to the city of fear’. Yes, fellow humanists, Abuja has become a city of fear. Nigeria has become a nation of fear, and Nigerians a people crippled by fears. I guess most Nigerians have been living in fear before now – at least the fear of the unknown, the unseen and of the incomprehensible, or the fear of God which a misguided scriptural writer identified with the beginning of wisdom. The fear of terrorists or of terrorist attacks is just a new addition to the stockpile of fears killing and crippling our nation and its people. What a shame!

Ladies and gentlemen, we are meeting here at a time of mourning and tears, at a time many families are weeping and grieving the loss of their loved ones across the country beyond. As you know, in August, a bomb blast at the UN building left at least 21 people dead and many more injured. The mindless shooting of innocent citizens continues in Bornu state. There is still no end in sight to the bloodletting in Jos. In the past 6 months, over 200 people have been slaughtered, including family members murdered while sleeping at night.

Friends, may we rise for a minute in honour of those who lost their lives to these mindless killings and attacks. The names and ideologies of those who perpetrated or masterminded these vicious and atrocious acts will live in infamy.

The general belief in our society is that the dead are resting in peace. Ladies and gentlemen, in this country both the living and the dead will not know any peace until this killing spree stops and those who planned, carried out or masterminded such killings and attacks, including their sponsors and financiers, are exposed and brought to justice. There will be no peace till local authorities stop this blame game and rise up to their duties of protecting Nigerians and Nigeria.

We shall not know peace until the root causes of religious fundamentalism and terrorism are identified and addressed. We shall know no peace until the armed gangs give up their weapons and destructive ideologies including the superstitious belief in an afterlife with virgins in the elusive and illusive paradise, and adopt a civil, rational and non-violent way of making their agitations and registering their demands.

Friends, how can we know peace in this country when the hands of Anwalu Abubaka and Lawalli Musa could be amputated on October 8 in Zamfara state for stealing a bull – in a state where corrupt officials who abuse their office and abuse children are moving about freely. How can we live in peace when in Bauchi state, Adama Mamuda and Ibrahim Shehu Ganye are languishing in jail because a local witchcraft-believing magistrate misapplied and misinterpreted the law and convicted them for ‘practicing’ witchcraft. We cannot know true peace when most people in our society still believe strongly that their problems, poverty and misfortune are caused by witchcraft and black magic. I mean how can we live in peace when our children, women and elderly persons are still branded witches and wizards, tortured, incacerated or killed as Europeans did centuries ago. We shall not have peace when witch hunting is condoned, not condemned, in our courts, mosques, churches, homes, streets and communities, and witch hunters like Helen Ukpabio have not been brought to justice.

We shall know no peace till these fake priests, pastors, prophets, witch doctors, sheikhs, imams, alfas, marabus who kill, torture, maim, oppress, decieve, exploit, extort money and abuse poor, ignorant, guilible folks in the name of religion are brought to book. We can only know peace when we begin to teach our children to know that religion is not by force, that religion is by choice; that they are free to profess any religion or belief; free to change their religion, free to criticize religious dogmas or to renounce their religion. We shall know some peace in this country only when we begin to realize that religious teachings are human teachings.They are not eternal truths which we cannot question.

The holy books are products of certain times and circumstances – ancient, fearful and ignorant times and circumstances. Religious doctrines are subject to revision in the light of reason, science, common sense and human rights. We shall not know peace till we abandon superstition and embrace science, till we begin to question dogmas and encourage critical thinking in all areas of human endeavor; till we stop ritual killing and human sacrifice and discard this irrational belief that money can be made and one’s fortune can be enhanced through ritual sacrifice, and the use of juju and charms. We shall not have peace till our government begins to uphold the equal rights of all persons regardless of religious belief or unbelief, sex or sexual orientation, social origin and birth status. Our government should strive to abolish the death penalty and stop supporting homophobic legislation and resolutions locally and internationally

We shall not know peace until we commence the projecting of realizing a New Age of Reason and Enlightenment in this country, and in this continent.

Fellow humanists, many people across this country and across the world are looking up to us and to meetings like this to spread the message of reason and free inquiry and usher in an era of postive and progressive change, hope and light. That is why we have invited distinguished scholars and activists to lead the debate and help us generate ideas. We have invited an eminent scholar and philosopher to make a keynote presentation and set the tone for this conference. One thing about our keynote speaker which I find interesting is that he argued for secular and critical thinking-oriented education decades ago when there were few Nigerians who could do so, and some of what he thought many years ago is still applicable, useful and relevant to us today. So friends join me in welcoming Prof T Uzodinma Nwala to this event. There is another scholar and scientist who is here to stimulate us. Part of the tragedy in our country is that we have and produce scientists who are not scientific and who do not encourage scientific thinking. We have intellectuals but lack an intellectual culture. Our philosophers are theosophers.

Part of the reason for our national underdevelopment is that our country is filled with superstitious scientists. But we have here today a professor and scientist with a passion for scientific rationality. He is not like them. I got to know him through one of his writings on science in Africa. He is not just a scientist but also a popularizer of science and a promoter of scientific thinking. He has spoken at our past conferences in Ikenne and Benin. Please join me to welcome Professor Steve Okecha to this event. Also to lead the discussion is Dr Jide Akeredolu who was our world humanist day lecturer in 2008. His briliant and well argued article on Why I am a Rationalist, published in the Guardian in 2009, remains one of the best articles I have read in the local dailies.

We have another guest here today. He is a British citizen living in Ghana, and visiting Nigeria for the first time. Tomorrow he will make history. He will become the first non-Nigerian to deliver NHM’s world humanist day lecture. Please join me in welcoming Mr Graham William Edward Knight to this event and to our country Nigeria(a nation of fear!) Permit me to recognize other guest speakers……………..

As you can see in the program we have speakers from different organisations and institutions who will handle other topics. I must underscore the fact that we did not invite our speakers because they are humanists or because they subscribe and agree totally with the humanist outlook. No, not at all. At the humanist movement we often say that we are like minds we do not share similar views. We humanists cherish free and independent thought.

So we invited our speakers based on the fact that they espouse thoughts and ideas, or work on issues which are of interest to us at the Nigerian Humanist Movement.

And these are the thoughts, ideas and issues we need to discuss, debate and deliberate upon in the next two days as we explore the theme, Humanism as the next step. Once again welcome to this humanist feast of ideas.

I wish you all very fruitful and stimulating deliberations.

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