The Critical Thinking Social Empowerment Foundation welcomes the opportunity to ponder and critically reflect on issues and challenges facing us as a society. The university, as an ivory tower, remains our best hope of expressing and exercising academic freedom and furthering intellectual debate, awakening, and enlightenment.
But from recent developments, the culture of intellectual freedom is in danger. Academic freedom is eroding very fast. In the past months, I have been traveling across the country working with local partners to address abuses linked to paranormal or superstitious beliefs. The stories that I have heard are shocking, mind-boggling, and traumatizing. I was in Abuja where we have been pressuring the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Commission (NSCDC) to hand over to us a young man who was manhandled by their officers for disappearing someone’s manhood. They have not done that and may never do so.
You may have seen a video that went viral on social media, where officers of the NSCDC were seen beating, hitting, and kicking this innocent man, urging him to ‘return it’. Return what? You may ask. That is, the penis he magically stole. Nobody has bothered to query this absurd claim. Can someone’s manhood or womanhood be magically stolen, or be disappeared as popularly believed?
What does it mean to steal or disappear one’s private part?
From there I traveled to Lokoja where we honored a road safety officer and a couple who helped save the lives of two alleged penis snatchers. Many people have been beaten and killed for magically snatching someone’s penis. A claim that has no basis in reason, science, or reality. From Lokoja I traveled to Calabar where a Nigerian artist, Etinosa Yvonne, and the Basic Counsel Rights Initiative staged an exhibition on witch persecution. The program focused on stories of accused persons and the impact of witchcraft accusations on victims and their families. The exhibition was like a horror movie. It used real photos and illustrations to show the pain and agony, inhuman and degrading treatment of alleged witches. In the case of Martina Itagbor, some youths driving, and drunk had an accident and two persons died. Those who survived accused this innocent woman. Some youths abducted, tortured, and lynched her. Now if I may ask, can an old woman in the village magically cause accidents on the road? Are there blood-sucking demons on our highways as many churches preach?
From Calabar, I traveled to Abakiliki for the inaugural meeting of the Critical Thinkers Corner. At this event, someone told us about a village in Cameroon where dead people built some houses. Dead people built houses? I was shocked to hear that. When I queried further to know if they were still maintaining the houses or if they built the houses and left them unoccupied, the person backtracked saying it was a story. Earlier I was in Owerri where beliefs spiritual husbands and wives, in the magical infliction of diabetic sore also known as acha ere, stealing of destinies are destroying families and communities. In a particular case, a woman who had dementia left her apartment in Oguta and could not find her way back. Unfortunately, some people saw her the following day and accused her of being a witch who crash-landed while flying to a coven. Let me ask you again, can people spiritually fly around at night as popularly believed?
Another lady with mental health challenges was branded a flying witch and brutalized by a local mob. Still, another was accused of magically tying up the destines of people in the community and subsequently banished. These stories and incidents are too many to be recounted. I was at a Navy School in Ile Ife for a lecture on archiving indigenous knowledge accessories.
And some military officers in my class argued vehemently for the efficacy of the anti-bullet charm called Odeshi. For hours we intensely debated the issue. I thought that, based on their profession, military officers would know better but they did not. One told me that Odeshi had different categories made for different rifles and bullets. I mean, what is going on in this country?
A military officer recounted that they were pursuing and shooting at some cultists in Lagos but the bullet was not penetrating. I told him to return to the military school to relearn and retrain on how to shoot rifles. He was not pleased by my response. But I meant it. Another officer told me that there was a magical tree somewhere that did not appear when photographed. I said in response that if such a tree existed, it would be a tourist attraction.
On WhatsApp platforms, some of my old boys, former catholic seminarians, make incredible claims. One said that he witnessed an incident where someone turned into a tuber of yam in Owerri. Hey, a tuber of yam? Just imagine that. Another one claimed that he encountered Jesus and recorded it in a video. When he was asked to share the video, he declined. Another former colleague claimed that a dead person spoke to him. I mean if a dead person speaks then the person is not dead. It is contradictory to say that a dead person has spoken to someone. Of course, the interesting thing is that these dead people usually speak the language that the claimants understand.
Still, another said a person who died in his area in Imo state was seen in Port Harcourt in River state. The man was married and had a family. But at the point he met someone who knew him, and he immediately vanished. I asked him, did the person vanish with his phone, clothes, and money? I queried what happened to all these people turning into yam and birds or appearing and vanishing. I asked to know if and how they announced the obituaries. As expected, the claimants do not have any good or intelligent answers. Their responses are usually that these accounts are personal experiences. As if the fact that certain experiences are personal or subjective makes them true and immune to error.
Look, the people making these claims are not babies. They do not show signs of mental health challenges. They are not illiterates or village people in rural communities. These claimants are adults, teachers, lecturers, and graduates from our universities. Some are living and lecturing abroad. Many have first, second, and third degrees in philosophy, science, and other disciplines. They are in leadership positions in various sectors. We should not forget that one, who used to lecture here at the University of Lagos, said in a video that he made the Christian deity suspend the winter while he was visiting the US. He reportedly claimed that he traveled miles with an empty fuel tank. Look, these claims may sound innocuous but they are insidious. They are mentally and socially damaging and poisoning. We can no longer look away, ignore, and allow these charlatans to spread these incredulous messages unchallenged. We need to deploy skeptical accessories to tackle them and push back this tide of nonsense that is charging and threatening to engulf us.
Look, some days ago, a friend went to a funeral in Ogoja. A young man who worked with the Immigration died in a motor accident. At the funeral, an immigration officer spoke and wondered why people from Obudu, Ogoja, and Ibekwere were fond of killing their children. He then said: “Whereas the Igbos kill their young ones to make money, those from Ogoja, Obudu, and Ibekwere kill to destroy homes and families”. He added that given the deceased achievements and prospects if he had been killed by an Igbo, a lot of money would be made from the death and sacrifice. He now prayed to god to ensure that those responsible for the sudden death suffered the same fate. And many people in the audience chorused Amen.
Just imagine that. Imagine this immigration officer openly displaying his stupidity and ignorance, and profiling Igbos as ritualists. Is he not a fool? Now let us pause for a moment and ask: Can people magically make money by killing or sacrificing other persons and body parts as popularly believed? Does ritual sacrifice enhance the fortunes of fraudsters popularly known as yahoo boys? There is no evidence for that, no evidence in the case of the Yahoo boys, no evidence in the case of the Igbos or any other ethnic constituents. But the misconception and superstition potently persist in the minds of people including many in this hall. And as you can see, this absurdity could be used to incite and sanctify hatred and violence. Atrocities linked to these make beliefs rage across cities and communities.
So measures must be taken to beat back this dark and dangerous trend. Efforts must be made to protect our campuses, especially now this vicious trend is extending to our tertiary institutions. Many students described as Yahoo boys have reportedly murdered their girlfriends and relatives. Some youths have stolen female pants or sanitary pads for money ritual purposes. You may have heard that recently, the police stopped students at a polytechnic in Adamawa from lynching some suspected penis thieves. And in Markurdi, a lecturer suspected of magically disappearing someone’s manhood was mobbed. So, nobody is safe. Nowhere is safe. Anyone could be a victim. We should not fold our hands, as the society is ravaged, and many young people are misled due superstitious claims. It has become necessary to promote skepticism and critical examination of claims on our campuses.
Leo Igwe, director of Critical Thinking Social Empowerment Foundation, sent this piece from Ibadan, Oyo state.