Leo Igwe, a friend of the BHA and Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Humanist Movement was attacked yesterday during a raid by 150-200 members of a Christian church sect at a conference he had organised on “Child Rights and Witchcraft” in Calabar.
Leo had recently returned from London where he attended a BHA day conference and other international humanist events held at Conway Hall, including the world’s first international conference on “Untouchability” where he was invited to speak on the social problems caused by caste discrimination in Nigeria. Whilst in London he also spoke to the BBC on the problems faced in Nigeria due to religious superstition.
Helen Ukpabio and her church, the Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, have run a campaign of terror against children and those committed to fighting for their rights, of which yesterday’s raid was only the latest development. The conference had been organised by the Nigerian Humanist Movement and the UK charity Stepping Stones Nigeria in response to the widespread abandonment, torture and killing of children in Akwa Ibom and Cross River State due to the belief in child “witches”.
As the anti-witchcraft conference began at around 10.30am, the religious protesters dressed in orange raided the venue and began protesting loudly. The extremists were carrying a number of banners with slogans such as, “This protest is organised by The Akwa Ibom State Government”, “We give freedom to the witches” and “Stepping Stone is not a registered organisation”.
Among the other delegates attacked, Leo was beaten, had his glasses smashed and his bag, phone and camera stolen by the mob, who were alternately singing and aggressively disrupting the conference. After an hour and a half, the police turned up and dispersed the mob. One person was arrested.
Speaking after the event Leo said: “The conference was a peaceful meeting for people to openly debate what could be done to prevent the abuse of child rights linked to the belief in witchcraft. This attack by Helen Ukpabio’s supporters once again highlights the depravity of this so-called “woman of God”. Such false prophets should be immediately arrested and prosecuted under the child rights act”.
Despite the raid the conference, which was well attended by representatives of the Cross River State Government, UNICEF, NAPTIP and a wide range of traditional rulers, students and NGOs, still went ahead successfully.
The issue of child witchcraft has attracted a great deal of media attention since the broadcast of the documentary, Saving Africa’s Witch Children. The documentary, which won the prestigious BAFTA and Amnesty Film awards highlights the role that Helen Ukpabio has played in spreading the belief in child “witches” in South-Eastern Nigeria. Teachings such as the one offered by Helen Ukpabio in her book, Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft, which states that, “a child under two years of age that cries at night and deteriorates in health is an agent of Satan”, have caused wide spread international outrage and condemnation of her practices.
Josh Kutchinsky, a Trustee of the British Humanist Association, said today, “Leo is a dear friend. He is knowledgeable, wise and courageous. I know that he is outraged by the damage done by superstition and irrational religiosity to the potential for development in Nigeria. One of his principal methods he uses to combat these problems is to write well crafted and cogent articles. These have been published in national media and have gained considerable attention. His other methods are to organise conferences and to visit others in support of them as individuals or their organisations. He is working with Amnesty International and Stepping Stones Nigera. He is the IHEU representative in West Africa and a representative on the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.
“His intervention in individual cases of injustice, no doubt involve some personal risk. He and his fellow Nigerian Humanists have been awarded the Rainbow Humanist Award by Nordic Rainbow Humanists for their risky public support of LGBT rights in Nigeria.”
Speaking from Stepping Stones Nigeria’s office in UK, the charity’s Programme Director, Gary Foxcroft, said: “The prevalence of the belief in child witchcraft in South-Eastern Nigeria can be linked to the books, movies and teachings of Helen Ukpabio. She has made a great deal of money by promoting this superstitious belief and seems willing to do anything to protect her interests. We call upon the Nigerian Federal Government and the Inspector General of Police to act urgently to prevent Helen causing any further embarrassment to Nigeria’s reputation.”
In solidarity with the Nigerian Humanist Association, the British Humanist Association has called on the Akwa Ibom State Government to uphold the terms of its Child Rights Act, which was enacted precisely to make accusations of witchcraft against children illegal. On its website the Akwa Ibom State Government states that it “will not fold its hands and watch evil elements of society dehumanise, demoralise, bastardise, displace, stigmatise, or persecute our children for personal gains.”
The Government then states that it will:
- Place full legislative machinery against labelling of children as witches
- Advance high powered investigation into every element of the issues involved and all allegations against persons involved in stigmatisation of children as witches
- Prosecute all persons found culpable of this crime of child labelling
- Deploy social resources for the support, comfort and enjoyment of all categories of children all over the state
- Possibility of closure of every organisation involved in this evil stigmatisation of children
- Government will not spare any culprit involved
Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs at the BHA, said today, “Humanists internationally, and many other people who are concerned and appalled by accusations of witchcraft, not least against children, are paying attention to Akwa Ibom State, and will continue to pay attention. The state government must live up to its promises.”
The image above show Leo Igwe speaking on caste discrimination in Nigeria at the IHEU conference on “Untouchability” held at Conway Hall, June 2009.
A petition has been set up to help make Helen Ukpabio face justice. Details can be found at:
For further comment from the British Humanist Association please contact Andrew Copson on 020 7079 3584.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity representing and supporting the non-religious and campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief. It is the largest organisation in the UK working for a secular state.