Humanist Activist Leo Igwe Arrested for Rescuing Children Accused of Witchcraft

by Erin Williamson

In the Nigerian state of Uyo Akwa, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) representative to West Africa, Leo Igwe, was arrested and imprisoned by authorities on charges of attempted kidnapping. Igwe is a humanist activist whose current pursuit was rescuing children who have been accused of witchcraft by their parents, other family members, or neighbors.

While removing two children from abusive foster homes where they were kept after being abandoned by their families, Igwe and his driver and photographer were seized by police. The cops accused Igwe and his team of kidnapping the children, and they were arrested and thrown into a prison cell full of other men. Access to facilities, hygiene, food and water, and legal representation was withheld.

Although the IHEU is one of the foremost humanist non-governmental organizations in the world, the Nigerian authorities claimed Igwe was falsifying his representation in order to profit from anti-witchcraft campaigns. After a few days of imprisonment, Igwe and his team were freed by another humanist.

There are several disturbing facets to Leo Igwe’s experience. First and foremost, children in Nigeria are being accused of witchcraft and abandoned by their parents. Secondly, activists operating under a global NGO are subject to arrest, beatings, and miserable conditions. And thirdly, respect for rule of law is practically nonexistent in so many parts of the world.

Despite these challenging and life-threatening conditions, it is heartening to see fieldworkers and human rights activists doing such compelling work under the banner of humanism. Too often it seems that humanists get categorized as god-hating cynics, perhaps somewhat due to the humanist movement’s battle against the religious right in America. While it is a necessary battle, Leo Igwe reminds us all that humanism at its core is holding a deeply profound respect for humanity, especially those too vulnerable to care for themselves. Missionaries doing service work in underserved communities abroad in places like Nigeria often get much attention in the media. Clearly they are motivated by their religious beliefs to help those in need. But Leo Igwe and other humanist activists are motivated to do good in the world by compassion and desire to improve the lives of others.

I hope that humanist organizations like the IHEU will broaden their approach to a more direct application of humanism. Undoubtedly there are hundreds of organizations worldwide that do fieldwork making a difference in lives of individuals, families, and the marginalized. Leo Igwe, and his tenacity in pursuing respect and equality for everyone in the face of difficulty, should be an example to humanists and the international humanist movement. The arresting authorities had never heard of IHEU, and probably had never heard of humanism. With more humanists out there working on the ground without any ulterior motive than the goal of improving humanity, like Leo Igwe, perhaps humanism will reach even the direst situations.

Erin Williamson is the development and communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.