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Ask Leo 1 – Humanism in Africa


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/11/02

Dr. Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and former Western and Southern African representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, now Humanists International. He is among the most prominent African non-religious people from the African continent. When he speaks, many people listen in a serious way. 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.

Here we talk about the character of the humanist traditions in Africa.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The character of Africa spans an enormous range. Traditional African ways of life and superstitions from the influence of the pre-colonial eras and remain influenced by the Christian and Islamic colonial periods.

All, now, influenced by modernity, cosmopolitanism, science, and technology. Humanism in its modern incarnation is new. It arose, in Nigeria, through you. What is the character of African Humanism?

Dr. Leo Igwe: Delineating the character of African humanism is problematic, especially within a historical context  that is largely based on western, not African, representation of Africa or the African. Such a project is helpful, remedially useful in shedding some light on a phase described as dark, and in ascribing something, or better somebody, to a place, a time when ‘there was nothing’. The humanist cosmological outlook, as culturally linked to Europe, to the European renaissance or to the West seldom provides a coherent articulation of human centeredness, human assertiveness that speaks to ancient Africa, and the evolution of African humanism.  

Humanist antecedents in Africa have largely been ignored or deemphasized because ancient African had been sliced from the tree of common humanity, leaving behind a gapping hole that yearns to be filled. Invariably, as an outlook that has humanity as its central element, the character of African humanism draws from varied sources and encounters, from the existential struggles in the precolonial, colonial and post-colonial formations. It is in this variety that the true character of African humanism rests. It’s in diversity that the strength of African humanism can be found. Indeed it’s only in such situation of the African human that the humanistic tendencies can be properly articulated. While, in the precolonial phase, superstitions wielded enormous influence, humanity overcame and overwhelmed the primitive tendencies. Although identified with ‘civilization’, the African contended with the malign influence of colonial- Christian and Islamic- religions. These contentions have continued in the post colonial era as the superstitious synergy of these foreign religions and their traditional counterpart pummels and tries to hinder and hamper the progressive emancipation of African human spirit. Thus the character of African humanism is summed, and can only be embodied in the virtues of defiance, resistance and affirmation, not in blind faith, unquestionable obedience and submission and passivity.

Jacobsen: How does this differ from the Nigerian type of humanism?

Igwe: Nigerian humanism is only a sub category of the African humanist formation. The Nigerian type does not necessarily differ in character and essence; it only contains specifics of these continent wide existential struggles. The Nigerian type of humanism has its own niche, and unique reference point. In many parts of the region, humanism contends with the dark influences of traditional superstitions and Christianity, or traditional beliefs and Islam or Islamic extremism and fundamentalist Christianity. Typical to the Nigerian situation is the combined negative influences of these superstitions and extremisms. Thus Nigerian humanism encapsulates strands of emancipatory narratives that speak to various traditions, and superstitions, to Christian and Muslim extremisms.

Jacobsen: What is the mutual interplay between African Humanism and Nigerian Humanism as emancipatory philosophies for African peoples who live in Africa now?

Igwe: In Nigeria and Africa, humanism can be resourceful in combating superstitious beliefs such as witchcraft and blood money that are too often used to exploit people. Persons living with albinism have become endangered species and are often denied their humanity; they are hunted down and butchered in the quest for their body parts in Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. Elderly persons, women and children are accused of witchcraft, beaten, banished or lynched by mobs in Nigeria, Ghana and in other parts of the region. Nigerian and African Humanisms can reinforce each other in the quest to realize social change and progress.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Igwe.

Igwe: You are welcome, Scott.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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