Last year a court in Southern Nigeria remanded in custody 4 persons for allegedly killing a hunchback woman, Mrs Ifeoma Angela Igwe for ritual purposes. According to the report, the hoodlums went to the woman’s house and kidnapped her. They took her to a nearby bush where they beheaded her, butchered her and removed the hunch. It is believed that the hunch contains ‘magical substance or mercury’ which can make people rich. I do not know how Nigerians came about this erroneous idea.
Killing people for ritual purposes is a common practice in this part of Nigeria. Often ritualists target and kill family members or vulnerable members of the society particularly women, children, the elderly or people living with disabilities, to harvest body parts for rituals or for preparation of charms. The belief that ritual sacrifice can make people rich and successful is very strong among the local population including people of different faiths and educational backgrounds. The people who carry out these killings or indulge in ritual sacrifice are not necessarily traditional fetish illiterates.
In 1996 police in 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 and ritualists. Otokoto and his syndicate were arrested and put on trial, and in February 2003, they were sentenced to death by hanging.
Even after that the atrocious act of killing people for rituals did not stopped. The prosecution and conviction of Otokoto and others did not bring an end to ritual killings in the country.
Personally I maintain that this criminal practice will not go away until people abandon the mistaken belief in the potency of ritual sacrifice including the efficacy of charms prepared with body parts. While efforts must be made to bring to justice those who kill or maim anybody for rituals, more efforts must be made to educate and enlighten Nigerians to understand that the belief in the potency of rituals, whether conducted with animal or human body parts, is superstitious, and lacks basis in reason, science and commonsense. There is no shred of evidence at all that ritual sacrifice can make anybody rich, powerful or successful.
Sadly, the superstitious brainwashing which Nigerians are subjected to from cradle to the grave is at the root of the problem. From childhood, most Nigerians are taught to embrace magical thinking and mystical mindset. In Nigeria, we are made to understand that ritual sacrifice is a demonstration of faith. That ritual sacrifice is necessary for progress and excellence, and for understanding and enhancing success. Our educational system does not help matters at all. In most cases they reinforce this magical mentality or help the ‘educated’ to find ways of justifying these misconceptions and superstitions. That is why in our schools, colleges and universities criminal youth gangs operate as cult groups and some ‘intellectuals’ identify witchcraft and occultism as African science.
So our school system is doing little or nothing to combat the irrational beliefs, hence they proliferate and spread and cause people to commit atrocities.
Of course, the religious groups sanctify these so called occult practices by propagating similar or related versions as demonstrations of faith. One clear example is the case of Abraham who almost murdered his only son as a demonstration of obedience or faith in god, or the horrifying crucifixion of Jesus which is believed by Christians to have universal and eternal salvation value. Though the dominant religious of Christianity and Islam preach love and care for one’s neighbor, their histories and sacred texts contain messages that reinforce the belief in ritual sacrifice.
From the homes to the schools and then to the churches and mosques, Nigerians have no place or space to question, challenge or critically evaluate the nonsense and unreason associated with ritual killing.
Even when there are institutions and programs to help enlighten the people, like the police and the courts, the national orientation agencies, the educational institutions, non-governmental organizations etc, these agencies do not really fulfill their missions because those who head them, or anchor the programs subscribe to these irrational beliefs.
Agreed, it is difficult to change people’s mentality or abolish traditional practice even when they are harmful. But people still change their mindset anyway. And history is filled with instances where people have abandoned harmful traditional practices. I think in this case of ritual killing, the horrendous act can stop and has to stop.
Nigerians need to abandon this primitive and outrageous belief that the ‘hunch’ contains mercury or any substance of magical value. A little knowledge of human biology reveals the crass ignorance and misconception underlying this thinking. A hunchback is actually a ‘condition of over curvature of the thoracic vertebrae, a result of degenerative disease or developmental problem’. Hunch back is a health problem. The hunch does not contain any mercury or magical substance.
People with hunchback, like other persons living with disabilities, need love, care and protection from the society. They should be treated with dignity and respect. We should strive to dispel and debunk all superstitious and irrational beliefs that put them at risk, or expose them to danger, mutilation or death.