It’s a challenge keeping up with Leo Igwe, who was, until recently the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s (IHEU) Representative for Western and Southern Africa. This one-man human rights dynamo has championed causes that few would dare touch, and in doing so has earned the admiration of thousands around the world, and the hatred of many others who regard his efforts – including his championing of gay rights – as unacceptable meddling in religion and politics.
Igwe, who recently left IHEU in order to research African witchcraft at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, last month returned from a two-day conference on a problem endemic in Nigeria and other parts of Africa: the branding of children as witches, something which is also occurring in the UK.
The conference was organised by a UK-based charity, Africans United Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA). Its aim was to mobilise faith communities against the practice of witch-branding by highlighting the negative impact of this practise on African children in the UK and in Africa.
“Africa,” said Igwe, “is deeply religious, and very often faith, dogma, and tradition trump human rights. Faith, or rather religion, is at the root of most problems that plague the continent. Sadly, many Africans are reluctant to acknowledge this.
“Many Africans do not want to question or be seen to be criticising witchcraft belief. They often refrain from demanding evidence or proof of witchcraft claims. Many Christians in Africa find justification for witchcraft-related abuse in the Bible, which they believe to be the literal word of God.”
When Igwe stepped down from IHEU, the organisation’s President, Sonja Eggerickx said: “Humanists will miss Leo’s work in Africa, and Africa will miss Leo’s work for Humanism. He has been a true champion of Humanism, even risking his life to save the victims of religious abuse. I’ve lost count of the times he has taken a stand for Humanism only to be paid back with arrests and beatings. We have never been able to thank him enough for his inspiring leadership and courage, but perhaps his best reward is to know that his work will continue in the form of dozens of activist Humanist groups across Africa who have been inspired by his wonderful work.”
Leo Igwe first contacted IHEU in the 1990s after he formed the Nigerian Humanist Movement, and he attended the 14th World Humanist Congress in Mumbai, India, in 1999. He went on to help organise IHEU conferences in Uganda and Nigeria in 2004.
In May 2007, IHEU hired Igwe as part of its push to help take Humanism in Africa to the next level. Igwe worked alongside Deo Ssekitooleko, IHEU’s Representative for East Africa, who is based in Uganda.
Since he started working for IHEU, Igwe has greatly boosted the presence, visibility, and influence of Humanism in Africa. His work to start new Humanist organisations, and to nurture and strengthen fledgling groups, has helped the growth of organised Humanism in Malawi, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, Gambia, Senegal, Benin, and Ghana. His articles and activities are frequently featured in newspapers in Nigeria and across Africa. And his work combating witchhunts, especially in Nigeria and Malawi, has been featured on TV and radio in Europe and as far afield as Australia and North America.
On several occasions, Igwe has personally saved children who have been beaten, raped and faced death because they have been accused of witchcraft. It is to build on his work to combat witchhunts that Igwe decided to move to the University of Bayreuth in Germany in October, 2011.
Tribute was also paid to Igwe by Josh Kutchinsky, a trustee of the British Humanist Association, who said: “Leo is a dear friend. He is knowledgeable, wise and courageous. … His intervention in individual cases of injustice, no doubt involve some personal risk.”.
As well as organising and speaking at conferences on issues like witchcraft, Islamic sharia law and women’s rights, Leo has earned the admiration of beleaguered lesbians and gay men in Nigeria.
When a homophobic senator – Domingo Obende – sponsored his infamous Bill for an Act to Prohibit Marriage Between Persons of Same Gender, Solemnization of Same and for Other Matters Related Therewith earlier this year, Leo Igwe, said: “We in the Nigeria Humanist Movement are deeply concerned by yet another move by the Nigerian Parliament to criminalise same-sex marriage in the country. This Bill is a big distraction and a waste of Nigeria’s limited legislative resources. It will worsen Nigeria’s human rights record and undermine the efforts by Nigerians to foster true democracy, national dialogue and tolerant pluralism.”
He added: “Nigerian Humanists are wondering why the current members of the parliament deemed it necessary to bring up this Bill again at a time when the nation is facing clear and urgent threats and challenges of insecurity, crime and conflict, religious fundamentalism and terrorism, poverty and social unrest.
“It is difficult to comprehend why the Nigerian Parliament wants to set the country on a path against the global trend of abolishing homophobia and ending all forms of discrimination against persons on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
He added: “Nigerian Humanists hereby urge the lawmakers to shelve this Bill and instead to consider decriminalising homosexuality and taking other legislative measures to promote, protect, uphold and enforce the full human rights of all persons whatever their race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, religion or belief.”
In sponsoring the Bill, Senator Obende noted that while there was a growing trend of approval of the practice of same-sex marriage in other countries, Nigeria should act fast to prevent it from taking root in his country. He railed: “Same-sex marriage cannot be allowed on moral and religious grounds. The Muslim religion forbids it. Christianity forbids it and the African traditional religion forbids it. It should not be allowed because it will lead to a breakdown of the society.”
He predicted that children would be morally affected; families would decay; childless relationships and increased sexually transmitted diseases would be rampant, and gay marriage would eventually create “a godless society.”
Commenting on Igwe’s reaction, George Broadhead, Secretary of the UK gay humanist charity the Pink Triangle Trust (PTT) said: “We warmly welcome this reaction and the support the NHM has given to LGBT rights over many years. Since its founding in 1996, the NHM has taken part in campaigns against anti-personnel landmines, child labour, female genital mutilation, ritual killing, witchcraft, caste discrimination, Sharia law and homophobia.
“Whilst the various religious institutions are in the main overtly hostile to LGBT relationships and rights, the humanist movement worldwide can be relied upon to champion them.”
With regard to women’s rights, Igwe has highlighted problems inherent in traditional African value systems, saying that most traditional African practices are fundamentally biased against women and has spoken out against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) – otherwise known as female circumcision. This process entails the partial or total cutting away of the external female genitalia. Traditional healers, birth attendants, or elderly women usually carry out the practice. The procedure is often carried out in a septic environment with crude instruments such as knives, razor blades, and broken glasses, without anaesthetics, or, at best, herbal medication to check bleeding and lessen pain. This crude and hazardous procedure, he says, is grounded in and surrounded by various myths, misconceptions, and superstitious nonsense.
He is also a vociferous opponent of the subjugation – a religious norm – of Muslim women and girls, who are subjected to various forms of victimisation and discrimination. They are not allowed to move about unveiled, nor are they allowed to vote, hold public office, or have social, political, or economic power. They are not given the freedom to choose their marriage partners.
“One of the most interesting and challenging experiences I have had as a Humanist in the past couple of years has been trying to persuade my people to abandon these horrible and primitive customs. I have tried to persuade them to see the need for progress and improvement in our attitudes, value and society. We must openly examine the traditions we have held and accepted as sacrosanct. Many of these traditions are founded on traditional dogma, ignorance, and superstition,” Igwe said.
On the need for more scepticism in Nigeria, Igwe said: “Nigeria is a very religious country with most of its population mired in superstition. This is not limited to the illiterate rural folks but is also applicable to the urban elite and literati. Instead, our schools, colleges, and universities as well as the local newspapers and film industry have continued to misinform the public by distorting science and packaging and presenting pseudoscientific beliefs as genuine science. In fact, some of our scholars have gone to the extent of defending these paranormal claims as “African Science,” taunting sceptics as Western apologists … There is an urgent need to raise the level of critical thinking, scientific literacy, and understanding. African skeptics must see this as their primary responsibility. African sceptics must rise up to this great challenge now because all that is needed for superstition to thrive and triumph is for sceptics to do nothing.