Witch Burnings in Nigeria Show Dangers of Superstition, Say Secular Advocates

For Immediate Release: July 13, 2020
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director
press@centerforinquiry.org - (207) 358-9785

The burning of accused witches is often seen as a relic of the distant past, but this horrific violence still occurs today in modern Africa. On May 19, 2020, at least fifteen people, most of them women, were set ablaze after being accused of witchcraft in Cross River State in southern Nigeria in an attack masterminded by local politician Thomas Obi Tawo. Tawo, who goes by the name “General Iron,” is feared throughout the area and leads a local gang that terrorizes the Oku community in the Boki local government area.

General Iron arrived in Boki with thugs wielding machetes, clubs, and other weapons—as well as mirrors and other “magical” objects believed to identify witches. They moved from house to house, pointing out alleged witches. They began with Tawo’s own mother; they beat her, dragged her from her home, and threw her into a fire. Then they went to the homes of other residents whom they accused of being witches and did the same. No police intervened, and within hours over a dozen people accused of witchcraft were assaulted and burned alive. 

Three of the victims have died, and others are still in hospitals fighting for their lives. All sustained serious injuries and severe burns. To date none of those responsible have been arrested or even questioned—including General Iron. The Cross River state government has been indifferent and extended no support for the victims. 

This horrific violence has received little international attention, though a handful of news outlets have reported on this travesty.

“Burning of suspected witches in the 21st century is a medieval throwback and an indictment on the conscience of the world,” said Dr. Leo Igwe of Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AFAW), an organization that campaigns against witch persecution in Africa. “Efforts must be made to hold perpetrators accountable.” 

The Center for Inquiry, an international organization that advances reason, science, and humanist values, joins AFAW in condemning these human rights violations. Both organizations are requesting that authorities in Cross River State and in Abuja immediately affirm their commitment to protecting Nigerian citizens from such persecution and killing. 

“The world must not turn a blind eye to the incalculable harm—both personal and social—that superstition has wrought upon innocent people,” said Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “Nigerian state and local governments have an obligation to protect their citizens from this kind of violence. In addition, Nigerian authorities should be promoting critical thinking and the understanding of science; the only real cures for belief in dark-age superstition.”

“The burning of alleged witches happens in various parts of Africa due to the failure of state institutions and the inability of the international community to hold African governments to account,” said Igwe. “The lynching of suspected witches in Cross River should be used to as a test case in compelling African governments to take urgent measures to end this dark and destructive phenomenon.”

The Center for Inquiry has special consultative status at the United Nations and regularly addresses the UN Human Rights Council on issues such as freedom of religion, belief, and expression; women’s rights; and LGBTQ equality. CFI also operates Secular Rescue, a program designed to provide emergency assistance to writers, bloggers, publishers, and activists who face threats due to their beliefs or expressions regarding religion.

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at centerforinquiry.org.