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The Need for Skepticism in Nigeria

Leo Igwe

Volume 11.3, September 2001

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. In Nigeria there is a strong and widespread belief in juju and charms, witchcraft, ghosts, astrology, divination, reincarnation, miracles, private revelation, fortunetelling, etc. These beliefs are fostered and reinforced by the many prophets and prophetesses, gurus, miracle workers, faith healers, and soothsayers that lurk in every nook and cranny of our cities and countryside.

These charlatans claim to have divine powers-the power to bilocate and predict the future, the ability to heal all diseases-even AIDS-and the power to make people rich or live longer.

All of this happens despite the fact that these beliefs and claims have not stood the test of time, science, and reason, and that contradictory evidence emerges every day. We have yet to see an organized and coordinated attempt to challenge and unmask these scientific pretensions and irrationalisms.

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 skeptics as Western apologists.

There is an enormous need for skepticism in Nigeria in order to identify, separate, and distinguish the pseudoscientific from the scientific in the so-called “African Science.”

Skepticism will provide an antidote and a counterbalance to superstition and fringe science. It will help critique local paranormal and supernatural claims, and critically examine age-old myths, fantasies, illusions, and errors that support various (sometimes harmful) traditional practices. Skeptical viewpoints would help expose the tricks and fakery of godmen and make the local media more balanced, objective, scientific, and responsible in their reporting and programming.

They would empower people to develop the courage to think, and through thinking liberate themselves and their communities from mental slavery, dogmatism, and religious claptrap.

The skeptical viewpoint is critical to the future and promotion of science education in our schools, colleges, and universities. It would motivate students to think rationally and scientifically about controversial topics and equip them with the necessary skills to evaluate and distinguish between scientific and pseudoscientific ideas.

Furthermore, skepticism will help reduce ignorance and gullibility and protect people against deception, manipulation, indoctrination, exploitation, and death. For instance, skepticism will provide hope to many innocent old women who are routinely targeted, tortured, or burnt to death in the name of witchcraft and bring succor to a number of girls and ladies whose social and marital prospects are in great peril because they are believed to be Ogbanje (a child that comes and goes) or mamiwota (a mermaid or water spirit).

The skeptical view will therefore help improve the quality of life of the people by improving the quality of what they know, what they believe and accept, and facilitate the process of change and secularization of our society, particularly in this era of African renaissance.

At the last World Humanist Congress, I participated in the session on combating superstition. I was delighted with the spirited efforts being made by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in America and Asia to promote the cause of reason and science. Inspired by their noble and courageous initiatives, I have, since my return to Nigeria, been trying to reach out to skeptic-minded individuals who must stand together in other to wrest our nation from the fangs of superstition and pseudoscience.

Science and technology remain the touchstones of modern civilization and development, and if Nigeria-and in fact Africa as a whole-hope to become economically developed and technologically advanced come next century, these issues must be addressed.

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 skeptics must rise up to this great challenge now because all that is needed for superstition to thrive and triumph is for skeptics to do nothing.

Afroskepticism, why not?

Leo Igwe

Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and currently a research fellow at Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, University of Bayreuth, Germany.