Conversation on Humanism, Irreligiosity, and Education in Nigeria with Dr. Leo Igwe — Session 1

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Image: Dr. Leo Igwe.

Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and former Western and Southern African representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He holds a Ph.D. from the Bayreuth International School of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, having earned a graduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Calabar in Nigeria. In this educational series, we explore Nigeria through Dr. Igwe’s expertise.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We were discussing the possibility of a series. In particular, I pitched an idea of a conversational, educational series to educate on the situation in Nigeria, with your broad-based and competent expertise in the science and superstition within the culture. You know a lot. What is the main problem regarding the educational system in Nigeria?

Leo Igwe: The main problem is lack of effective education. By this I mean, that what is called or impacted, as education, with the aim to lead the people of out ignorance, is not educative enough. This is connected with history; that is, the history of how the formal school system started.

Christian missionaries, whose aim was to spread Christianity, introduced the educational system as we know it today. Their Muslim counterparts have since joined in this education-for-conversion program. Thus, when it comes to schooling, religious ideology or tradition trumps education.

Of course, there are other problems with the school system such as distance and poverty, lack of learning aids, child marriage, and corruption and mismanagement. The fact is that in situations where the problems are not so pronounced, ideologies associated with religion often undermine the quality of what is taught in classrooms.

The ideological battle is pitched between the ‘Eastern’ Islamic and the ‘Western’ Christian interests. It is important to mention here that the name of the Islamic terrorist group that operates in Northern Nigeria is called Boko Haram, which roughly translates ‘Western education is forbidden.’

So, education, when it is available and affordable, goes through a religious ideological filter, which distorts and corrupts the content of what is learnt and makes education less educational, an extension of religious indoctrination.

Jacobsen: What have been proposed as solutions to it?

Igwe: There have been efforts to address the ideological issue and dispel the religious ghost that haunts the educational system in Nigeria. In the 70s, the state tried to secularize the education system. Government took over schools from the missionaries after the civil war and tried to disentangle education from religion.

This decision did not go down well with the Christian establishment that controlled most of the schools. The state takeover of school eventually succumbed to religious pressures and politics in the regions. State schools in Muslim majority areas first became quasi-Islamic schools.

The same applied to state schools in Christian dominated sections of the country. Following the adoption of Sharia law in northern Nigeria, state schools became full blown Islamic schools and after many years of campaigning to have back their schools, some governments in Christian dominated sections of the country handed these schools back to the churches.

So, it was back to square one!

Jacobsen: How can those within the country with secular values help — and those from outside too?

Igwe: They need to support the secular education project in Africa such as the secular schools in Nigeria and Uganda. More secular schools are needed in the region to counteract religious indoctrination.

We should not think that the gains of promoting secular values go to the country, in this case Nigeria alone. The benefits are global because the threat of religious extremism is. Promoting secular values should be seen as a global campaign and responsibility.

Jacobsen: What is the extent of humanism with the country? How about the continent? Has there ever been discussion of a continent-wide organization to bring together all humanist and associated associations, collectives, and organizations into one umbrella — outside of internationalist organizations such as IHEU or IHEYO, more in conjunction and cooperation with them?

Igwe: There has been a growing visibility of humanism in the region especially since the 90s. Individual activists and groups have been emerging and focusing on different projects. Many of these initiatives have stagnated or fizzled out after some time. Some have blossomed.

So, there is need for sustainability. We need to sustain the humanist momentum in Africa. It is only through a sustainable organized humanism that we can achieve a continent-wide organization that brings together all humanist and associated associations, collectives, and organizations into one umbrella.

To this end, African humanists need to come up with a way of organizing humanism that reflects the socioeconomic realities in the region. Sometimes, we make the mistake of thinking that we can organize humanism in Africa exactly the way it is organized in Western countries forgetting the structural realities are not the same.

African humanists need to put in place an organizational model that works for them; models that are effective and sustainable with or without external funding. This organizational model must work at the national level before we can aspire towards anything continental.

Africa needs working local organizations to build a regional umbrella. In 2004, there was an initiative to start a regional body. African Humanist Alliance was inaugurated at the IHEU conference in Kampala. But the body could not function because there were no effective national organizations to shoulder regional responsibilities.

A sustainable model of organizing humanism in the region was missing. Organizational culture capacity and experience was lacking. So, we need to put in place effective national humanist groups first. It is only on these functional national humanist initiatives that a functional regional body could rest and flourish.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Leo, been a pleasure.