Slightly overdue, but here is my impression of  the highly stimulating 2011 National Humanist Convention in Nigeria held in Abuja at the beautiful Vines hotel over two days.

The Nigerian Humanist Movement was started by Leo Igwe in 1996. People gave it a short shelf-life and warned Leo he was starting on a fruitless and impossible quest to bring non-religious ideas to a fiercely religious country. 15 years later the organisation is still going and growing and conducting campaigns not just in Nigeria but in other parts of Africa too.

This was my first convention of this sort as was the case for many of the participants. Because of this, the convention played an important role in linking isolated humanists who’d never come face to face with another non-believer. This was evident in the passion and excitement with which people spoke and their desire to express their opinions.

Most surprising were the broad alliances that had been forged, leading to the attendance of Christians and Moslems, many who were university students. It was also clear that not all the speakers were atheists but were there to present issues that were important to humanists. This was not a conference that was merely preaching to the converted but was seeking points of commonality with the broader community.

The conference was preceded by an attack on the organiser, Leo Igwe, in the Nigerian Guardian accusing him of all sorts of nonsense focused around promoting ‘non-African’ ideas! Apart from this, and an interview at the BBC, none of the invited press attended. This is a major problem for the movement where the press is religiously biased and controlled and lacks the appreciation that alternative views should be heard and are good for a democracy.

So what goes on at such an event? Here briefly is a list of many of the topics that were presented and discussed:

  • Humanism as the next step for Nigeria
  • Invitation to Humanism – what’s on offer?
  • Combating religious fundamentalism
  • Combating Religious Exploitation
  • Miracles and fear: Religion’s lethal weapons
  • Witchcraft and Law in Nigeria
  • Abolishing the caste system
  • Towards an Inclusive society (on people with disabilities)
  • A presentation about the death penalty
  • A new Nigeria is Possible with Attitudinal Change and Religion tolerance
  • Religion is not the only source of Morality
  • On humanist ceremonies
  • On ritual killing and sakawa
  • Humanism and the rights of religious minorities

Two of the presentations which stood out for me were Dr Jide Akeredolu’s “Combating religious fundamentalism” and “Religion is not the only source of Morality” by Bashir Ahmed both of which were entertaining and informative and provoked much discussion.

I now feel I have a clearer picture of the numerous problems facing not just humanists but all Nigerians; from the grip religion has on the population, to ritual killing, the caste system, the laws surrounding witchcraft and the problem of superstitious belief in Nigerian scientists, academics and leaders.

There were a lot of topics to cover and the participants’ desire to engage in debate meant that almost every presentation overran despite attempts of the organisers to keep contributions to a set time. But apart from this the conference felt well-organised, undoubtedly due to the efforts of Leo Igwe who worked unobtrusively to ensure everything ran smoothly.

I was in the presence of a crusading journalist who now travels through the bush expounding humanist ideas mirroring what he used to do as a Pentecostal Christian. A study of comparative religion and the history of the missionaries in Nigeria led him to humanism and his belief in its importance for Nigerian development.

The mild-mannered doctor whose bible study led him to atheism. Working in a small village, expressing his humanism in the care he gives his patients and the understanding he provides them of their medical conditions, his care for the children he adopts and the financial support to his community. Watching Cosmos on TV as a child showed him the wonder of the natural universe. His desire is to find this series and show it to the children of the village so they too can learn about stars and atoms.

The smart young lawyer working with Stepping Stones Nigeria helping stop the stigmatisation of children through labelling them witches and his continued battle against self-styled witch-hunter Helen Ukpabio. And the numerous others who I now feel privileged to call friend.

It was inspiring to be in the presence of so many Nigerian thinkers as the only non-Nigerian and to be the only foreigner ever to present the Humanist Day Talk. The comradeship, love, care, solidarity and support I experienced were a real demonstration of the principles of humanism.

Back in Ghana, we are slowly seeking out other non-believers and the hope is that we will soon be in the position of having our first convention using this one as a model. A small group is forming yet to be formalised.

Further Reading:

The role of the internet in spreading humanism

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