An academic conference on witchcraft that has been scheduled to hold at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, UNN, at the end of November may not take place. This is because some Christian students and other members of the university council have misconstrued the event. Unable to make a distinction between an academic exploration of witchcraft and its actual practice, Christian students have conflated attendees with witches and wizards. The organizers of the event and university authorities have come under immense pressure to change the topic of the conference or cancel the program. As a background to the event, some months ago, the BIC Ijomah Centre for Policy and Research at the University of Nigeria Nsukka announced a conference on witchcraft.
According to a local source, what informed the choice of topic was the decision by the Centre to focus on a theme that was not abstract, a topic that touched the lives of the people, or better something that people could easily relate to. The Centre published a call for abstracts. The call provided an insight into this important debate. It states: “Metaphorically, “witchcraft” (“amusu” or “igbansi”, in Igbo Language, “Aje” in Yoruba. Ohe in Idoma, “Ifot” in Ibibio, “Pou”, in Ijaw and “Opochi” or “enebe” in Igbira) has come to be associated with strange activities bearing on the supernatural, which affects the human world. Definitions of witchcraft differ from country to country and from community to community. Likewise, all cultures do not share a consistent pattern of witchcraft practice and beliefs…”.
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The call further outlined some of the sub-themes such as conceptual issues on witchcraft, sacred texts, and witchcraft, security and witchcraft, social work and witchcraft practice, etc According to a local source, troubles started after the publication of the conference poster with the theme: Witchcraft, Meaning, Factors and Practices. Members of the various churches started complaining about the conference on various university forums. They sent complaints to Servicom expressing concerns over the topic of witchcraft. Church people asked the university authorities and the local organizing committee (LOC) to clarify the objective of the event. In fact members of the LOC went to the campus radio station, the Lion FM and stressed that the conference was an academic exercise.
But all the clarifications fell on deaf ears. Apparently, the explanation did not satisfy those who had resolved to stop the conference holding at the university. Some persons sent petitions to the Vice-Chancellor of the university who, according to a local source, asked the organizers to change the topic of the conference or cancel it.
Meanwhile, the organizers are now trying to secure a new venue for the event because the Energy Centre, which had earlier been approved for the conference has been canceled. The director wrote the organizers withdrawing the approval. He asked them to look for another venue for the event.
In addition, Christian students have pasted posters within the university with inscriptions condemning the convention of A “meeting of witches and wizards” at the university. Some of the posters have inscriptions such as: “Say No to the meeting of witches and wizards!!! We are (a) Christian community. Don’t pollute our environment please!” “University of Nigeria belongs to Jesus. So witches and wizards, No way!! No Vacancy!!!” “We plead the blood of Jesus over the University of Nigeria. Hence we reject all forms of witchcraft overtly or covertly in Jesus’ Name, Amen”.
It is shocking that such an academic event is embroiled in a controversy due to ignorance and misrepresentation by Christian students and faculty members. It is difficult to believe that university students and staff cannot make a distinction between an academic conference on witchcraft and the meeting of witches and wizards! Unfortunately, the authorities at the UNN are yielding to pressures from religious fanatics, witchcraft believers and fearers.
Look, if the topic of witchcraft cannot be freely explored in a university, where else can such a topic be freely discussed and debated? In the churches?
The Vice-chancellor of UNN should rise to the challenge of upholding the culture of debate and free exchange of ideas on campuses. He should not yield to pressures from those who are against the convention of the witchcraft conference. The VC should not downgrade or try to cancel this historic academic meeting. Instead, he should ensure that the conference goes ahead; that the topic does not change. Faculty members should ensure that this ‘witchcraft’ conference is used to educate the campus/student community at UNN. Changing the topic will send wrong signals regarding the state of academic research and inquiry at the UNN. Canceling the event will not reflect positively on the university administration because such a move constitutes a violation of academic freedom and a betrayal of academic trust.
Look UNN, the academic world is watching!
Leo Igwe is a human rights activist and the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement. He was the Western and Southern African representative to IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.