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Ritual Killing and Pseudoscience in Nigeria

Leo Igwe

Volume 14.2, June 2004

The murder in London of a Nigerian boy, simply named Adam by the British Police, might have brought to international focus and attention one of the most dreadful and horrifying practices in Nigeria - ritual killing.

In September 2001, the mutilated body of “Boy Adam” was found by the British Police floating in the River Thames, near Tower Bridge in London. A top police source suspected that Adam might have been a victim of a style of ritual killing practiced in west and southern Africa. And forensic examination revealed that Adam lived in southwestern Nigeria.

So, early this year, British detectives arrived in Nigeria in search of Adam’s killers. Both the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and Nigerian soccer player Nwankwo Kanu, made passionate appeals for clues and information leading to the arrest of Adam’s killers.

In July, Police arrested a 37-year-old Nigerian, Sam Onogigovie (in Dublin), and twenty-one other Nigerians in Britain in connection with the murder of Adam. Generally, ritual killing is a common practice in Nigeria. Every year, hundreds of Nigerians lose their lives to ritual murderers, also known as headhunters.

These head hunters go in search of human parts-head, breast, tongue, sexual organs-at the behest of witchdoctors, juju priests, and traditional medicine men who require them for some sacrifices or for the preparation of assorted magical potions.

Recently, there have been several reported cases of individuals who were kidnapped, killed, or had their bodies mutilated by ritualists in Nigeria. The most notorious of them is the one associated with one Chief Vincent Duru, popularly known as Otokoto.

It happened this way: In 1996, the police in the southern Nigerian city of Owerri arrested a man, Innocent Ekeanyanwu, with the head of a young boy, Ikechukwu Okonkwo. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered the buried torso of Ikechukwu on the premises of Otokoto Hotel, owned by Chief Duru, and uncovered a syndicate that specialized in ritual killing and the sale and procurement of human parts. The horrifying discoveries sparked off violent protests in the city of Owerri which led to the burning and looting of properties belonging to suspected killers. Otokoto and his ritualist syndicate were arrested and put on trial, and in February 2003, they were sentenced to death by hanging.

Apart from the Otokoto incident, there have been other instances of ritual murder and mutilation in other parts of the country. For instance, in Calabar, two men plucked out the eyes of a young lady, Adlyne Eze, for money-making ritual. And in Ifo, Ogun state, a businessman inflicted the same harm on his younger sister. In Ibadan, the police in December arrested a taxi driver, Abbas, who used his fourteen-month-old baby for rituals. Abbas killed his child in order to secure a human head, which was one of the materials listed for him by a local witchdoctor for a money-making ritual.

And in another act of ritual horror in Onitsha, Anambra State, two young men, Tobechukwu Okorie and Peter Obasi, seized a boy, Monday Emenike, and cut off his sexual organ with the intention of delivering it to a man, who allegedly offered to pay 1.5 million naira ($11,000) for it. In Kaduna, Danladi Damina was arrested after he exhumed the corpse of a 9-year-old boy, plucked out his eyes and cut off his lips, intending to use them for charms. Recently a woman was caught in a bush in Warri, Delta State, decapitating a four-year-old boy for ritual purposes. And while writing this piece, I read in The Guardian (Nigeria) a report of the murder of an 18-year-old girl, identified as Chioma, by suspected ritualists in Mbaise, Imo State.

The question is: why do Nigerians still engage in such bloody, brutal, and barbaric acts and atrocities even in the twenty-first century? For me, there are three reasons:

  1. Religion: Nigeria is a deeply religious society. Most Nigerians believe in the existence of supernatural beings and that these transcendental entities can be influenced through ritual acts and sacrifices. Rituals constitute part of the people’s traditional religious practice and observance. Nigerians engage in ritual acts to appease the gods, seek supernatural favours, or to ward off misfortune. Many do so out of fear of unpleasant spiritual consequences if they default. So religion, theism, supernaturalism, and occultism are at the root of ritual killing in Nigeria.
  2. Superstition: Nigeria is a society where most beliefs are still informed by unreason, dogmas, myth making, and magical thinking. In Nigeria, belief in ghosts, juju, charms, and witchcraft is prevalent and widespread. Nigerians believe that magical potions prepared with human heads, breasts, tongues, eyes, and sexual organs can enhance one’s political and financial fortunes; that juju, charms and amulets can protect individuals against business failures, sickness and diseases, accidents, and spiritual attacks. In fact, ritual-making is perceived as an act of spiritual fortification.
  3. Poverty: Most often, Nigerians engage ritual killing for money-making purposes. Among Nigerians, there is a popular belief in a special kind of ritual, performed with human blood or body parts that can bring money or wealth, even though such a belief lacks any basis in reason, science or common sense.

For example, there has never been a single proven instance of any Nigerian who became rich through a moneymaking ritual.

And still the belief in “ritual wealth” or “blood money” remains strong among the people and features prominently in the nation’s media and film industry. Most times, what we hear are stories and speculations founded on ignorance and hearsay. For instance, Nigerians who enrich themselves through dubious and questionable means, like the scammers who swindle foreigners, are said to have indulged in money-making rituals using the blood or body parts of their parents, wives, children, or other close relations.

So driven by ignorance, poverty, desperation, gullibility, and irrationalism, Nigerians murder fellow Nigerians for rituals. But ritual killing is not a practice limited to Nigeria. Ritual sacrifices also occur in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, like in Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Uganda, etc. In fact in some parts of Uganda, a child is sacrificed before a major building is erected. There is therefore an urgent need for an international campaign to end this murderous practice and other horrifying traditions and superstitions in Africa. Personally, I am recommending that the United Nations’ Inter-Africa Committee includes ritual killing in its programs and campaigns as a harmful traditional practice.

Also, skeptics groups should strive to expose the ignorance, superstition, and unreason that underlie the belief in and practice of ritual killing by organizing public education, awareness, and enlightenment campaigns on science education, critical thinking, and rational inquiry.

The case of Adam underscores the need to internationally confront and combat religious obscurantism, dogmatism, and occultism in Africa and the world at large.

In 2001, there were so many cases of ritual killing in the Lagos metropolis that one of the nation’s major newspapers, The Punch, published a scary headline: “Ritualists Lay Siege to Lagos.”

Personally, I think that caption would have better read: “Pseudoscience Lays Siege to Nigeria.” Because that was the case. And that is still the case.

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.