- By Nduka Orjinmo
- BBC News, Ibadan
Armed with a sharp knife, a megaphone and dressed in all black, Gbenga Adewoyin could have passed as a medieval witch hunter, herb seller or urban preacher as he strolled through a city market from Ibadan, in southwestern Nigeria.
Warning: This article contains details that may be offensive to some readers.
Those curious enough to approach the Gbagi market quickly dispersed when they heard his message. “Anyone who can provide evidence of the existence of the supernatural, whether it be juju or voodoo magic, will be offered 2.5 million naira (3,563,305 F CFA)”, he announced to several repeated in Yoruba and English.
The 24-year-old atheist has recently become a rebel publicly challenging the powers of the supernatural in this deeply religious country.
According to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center, belief in traditional African religions and its juju components is widespread in Nigeria, and many combine them with Christianity or Islam.
Many Nigerians believe that magical talismans can enable humans to transform into cats, protect bare skin from sharp blades, and make money appear in a clay pot.
These beliefs are not only held by the uneducated, they exist even at the highest levels of Nigerian academia.
Dr Olaleye Kayode, a lecturer in African indigenous religions at the University of Ibadan, told the BBC that money-making juju rituals – where human body parts mixed with talismans cause people to spit pot money – really work.
The naira notes that are supposed to appear “are obtained by spirits from existing banks”, he told the BBC.
Jude Akanbi, senior lecturer at Crowther Graduate Theological Seminary in Abẹ́òkúta, is also unequivocal about juju.
“This ability to be able to transform into a cat, to disappear and to reappear, these things are possible in the dynamics of traditional African religion.
“Although [cela] seems illogical, like old wives’ tales, but from what we’ve seen and heard, these things are possible,” he said.
Such beliefs, particularly that human body parts and amulets can produce money from a clay pot, have led to a recent spate of gruesome murders in the country, the victims of which are often single women.
“I feel horrific to see young people engaging in these ritual murders.
“If the money ritual worked, we would have seen massive inflation in the economy for the decades we believed in it,” Mr Adewoyin told the BBC.
He was in Ibadan, Oyo State, on the second of three planned tours of the country offering 2.5 million naira, crowd-funded via Twitter, to anyone who can publicly demonstrate these powers of juju.
“The knife is for anyone who claims their juju makes them invulnerable to the proof of the blades,” he said.
Questioning the existence of supernatural powers is considered taboo in much of Nigerian society.
Expressing such thoughts openly, as Mr. Adewoyin did in a market, was risky. He might as well be arrested for blasphemy or lynched by an angry mob.
“Of course the juju works, it doesn’t know what it’s saying,” said one trader who lingered with a scowl.
In his pocket was a black amulet, a small leather pouch containing supposedly magical talismans, which he said were for protection. However, he was not interested in publicly demonstrating his powers, not even for 3,563,305 F CFA.
Belief in magic often coexists with Christianity and Islam. Dignitaries of both monotheistic religions often refer to certain aspects of traditional African religions as evil – something real, but which can be overcome through prayer and their own higher powers.
Many pastors have become rich and famous by claiming to have supernatural powers capable of overcoming juju and curses, which many imams also practice.
However, no one has taken up Mr Adewoyin’s challenge at two of the sites in Ogun and Ibadan and he is not holding his breath for his next stop in southeastern Anambra State.
Though he’s been dismissed by some as someone seeking attention, no one can hide from the grisly images of bodies recently found with missing limbs and empty eye sockets in a resurgence of sinister lucrative juju rituals. .
This killing of humans to use their body parts for magical purposes gripped Nigeria in the mid-1990s and led to riots in the eastern town of Owerri after an 11-year-old boy was kidnapped and murdered. years in 1996.
Today, with social media, hardly a day goes by without a missing person and photos of mutilated corpses linked to juju being reported.
There was widespread outrage last month after three men allegedly killed a 17-year-old girl in Ogun state to use parts of her body in a ritual they said would make them rich. They confessed to the murder after being arrested by the police and were charged in court.
The clay pot and red cloths they were caught with could have passed for a scene in a film from Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry famous for depicting juju manifestations, but it was real.
And they were young men – the oldest was 21, sparking the #At21 Twitter hashtag, where users described what they were doing at this stage of life and lamented what they saw as societal pressures on young people to get rich quick.
Outrage over the girl’s death has prompted federal lawmakers to debate juju in parliament and consider ‘declaring a state of emergency over ritual killings in the country’, with its portrayal in movies of Nollywood mentioned as a factor.
Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed also contributed, blaming Nigerian films and social media for the spate of killings.
He wants the Film Censorship Board to engage filmmakers “on the need to avoid ritual-for-money content in their films”.
But the filmmakers disagree. They believe he is unduly attacking Nollywood in the context of a national crisis.
“The minister has made a mistake, he cannot violate our basic creative rights,” actor and producer Kanayo O Kanayo told the BBC.
He added that the minister was overlooking what has become a societal problem and the inability of families, traditional and religious leaders and politicians to provide moral education to young people.
As debate rages over who is to blame for the killings, a much wider conversation needs to take place about Nigeria’s education system failing to persuade people that juju and the supernatural aren’t real, says Mr. Adewoyin.
He hopes his rebel tour will unmask those he calls “tricksters”, who claim the supernatural powers of juju, and help end the wave of ritual killings.
“For a sentient being to believe that a human with all of his biological components can turn into a yam or a banana is illogical, and worrying,” he said.