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Humanism in Nigeria

Watch humanist Leo Igwe describe his and other humanists work in Nigeria
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What being a humanist means to me is taking a stand with humanity, taking a stand inspired by human rights and human values. Being a humanist means campaigning for the betterment of humanity, for human emancipation.
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As a child growing up in a village in southeastern Nigeria, I was appalled by
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some of the cultural practices going on in my community, like: the Osu caste system; ritual killing; witchcraft accusations. Occasionally we had cases where elderly women who should be cared for, who should be tended to, who should - actually - people should act towards them with compassion. I witnessed them being beaten up and oppressed in the name that they were witches. I couldn’t take this.
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I was asking myself: What kind of value system, what kind of outlook, could I use to express solidarity with people whom I knew were suffering innocently? And I searched for value systems, principles that could help me make a strong case against these practices, and I found that within the humanist framework.
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So when I was growing up, we used to have these cases where people were beheaded people had their hands and limbs and private parts chopped off, and they, we were told that they wanted to use those parts for rituals, and which was for what? They said they wanted to make money; they wanted to succeed in the election; they wanted to be saved; they wanted to spiritually fortify themselves; and there were so many other claims, and as I was growing up I found that these claims were not compatible with reality. They were not adding up because people I see very poor; people I see dying; people are still suffering so many misfortunes and all that.
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So, I mean, I was shocked therefore the time I said ‘look, these people are being killed just for nothing.’ So I was, like, I said ‘okay, I needed to put in place a campaign to educate people and highlight the fact that ritual fortune, fortune via ritual or human sacrifice, is just criminal behaviour - atrocious - is a form of atrocity and has no basis in reality.
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In Nigeria, we have a history, we have a mixed history in terms of religion, and we have Christianity, Islam, and the traditional religion as the dominant religions. Now these religions are not just beliefs, they are also the basis of power, rulership, and control. And when you challenge, when you express sceptical views, those views threaten the power base of religion because religion wants to still maintain control over the people. So sceptical views are seen as - sceptics are seen as rebels - they’re seen as deviants, the sinners, people who betray the society. This is how Europe got its enlightenment, it didn’t get its enlightenment on just a platter of gold and all that, no.
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They got it through struggle, through efforts, and all that, and this is the way I think that we will succeed in spite of the challenges we are facing in getting rid of caste system; in getting rid of ritual killing of albinos and people with hunchback; in getting rid of religious extremism; and building a society characterised by tolerance, freedom to embrace religion and freedom to renounce religion without fear.
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There are so many people that this campaign has made differences in their lives, and that gives me also some kind of fulfillment, and it motivates me to continue. So when I remember this, that there are some people who otherwise would have been dead today but who have benefited from our campaign, I get motivated. When I receive feedback from people, victims in so many ways who benefited from our campaign, I feel motivated, and I still think that even though we have a long way to go, we have actually left, we have departed, you know, from a point and we’re making progress and, I hope that the progress will continue.

Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and the former Western and Southern African representative of Humanists International. He has specialised in campaigning against and documenting the impacts of child witchcraft accusations. He also campaigns against ritual killing and caste discrimination. In 2014 he was chosen as a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, and in 2017 he received the Distinguished Services to Humanism Award from Humanists International.

Question: Should people have the right to carry out cultural practices when they cause harm? If not, what is the best way to go about changing them?

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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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