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Ritual Killing and Human Sacrifice in Africa

The practice of ritual killing [1] and human sacrifice [2] continues to take place in several African countries in contravention of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and other human rights instruments. In this 21st century, human beings are still being hunted down, mutilated, murdered or sacrificed for ritual purposes across the region. Several cases of kidnapping and disappearance of persons [3] are traced to the vicious schemes and activities of ritualists. In most cases, those targeted for ritual sacrifice are vulnerable members of the population — the  poor, women, children[4], the aged and people with disabilities.[5]

Ritualists hunt for and harvest human body parts to prepare charms and magical concoctions. In some cases desperate ritualists invade cemeteries and exhume dead bodies[6] to extract body parts.

Ritual killing and related human rights abuses take place on the continent because many people still believe that the use of charms and the performance of ritual sacrifice can fortify them spiritually, enhance their fortunes in business and during elections, or protect them from harm, disease, poverty, accident, death or destruction.

Madam Chairperson, many cases of ritual sacrifice take place in secret locations. They are largely unreported, uninvestigated and unpunished. The perpetrators and their collaborators capitalize on the prevalent irrational fear of the supernatural among Africans, and the poor and corrupt policing and justice system, to get away with these egregious violations.

Victims of ritual sacrifice are mostly minors or vulnerable individuals who do not live to seek justice or redress or who lack the resources to seek redress if ever they survive the ordeal. The families of victims fear spiritual or supernatural backlash and therefore do not hold their states accountable. And local authorities lack the political will to uphold the rule of law and protect human rights.

There have been reports of ritual murder and human sacrifice in countries across the continent: in Nigeria[7], Uganda[8], Swaziland[9], Liberia[10], Tanzania[11], Namibia[12], Zimbabwa[13]

Madam Chairperson, 
The continued occurrence of ritual killing and related abuses in these countries are clear indications that these states are in breach of their human rights obligations under the African Charter. These atrocious acts are often defended and justified as part of African culture, religion or tradition and it is claimed that they should therefore be upheld without any objection despite their grave implications for human and people’s rights.

IHEU calls upon the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to pay critical attention to ritual killing, human sacrifice and other human rights violations that are committed in the name of religion, culture or tradition.

The African Commission should hold states where human sacrifice is still going on accountable and responsible.

IHEU calls upon the African Commission to raise issues concerning ritual killing and sacrifice during their official visits and when examining the periodic reports of states.

IHEU urges the governments of Nigeria, Uganda, Swaziland, Tanzania, Liberia to improve law enforcement, the quality of education, the mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights and to take other legislative and administrative measures to combat ritual murder and human sacrifice.


1. Williams Rotimi, “Human Sacrifice: Priest Kills Son to Appease Gods”, News Star, September 26, 2006 p.1,14

2.  Sseppuuya David, “Christians Unite against Human Sacrifice”, The New Vision (Uganda) Tuesday February 24, 2009 p.12

3. Omoarelojie Ernest, “Rage of Ritualists - Corpses without genitals, eyes and other organs litter the streets as ritualists run rampant. Observers blame the new 1000 naira note for the upsurge of kidnapping and ritual killing.” The News, October 2005 pp 23-25

4. David Molomo, “Ritualist hunt male children”, Saturday Sun July 3 2004 p.10


6. Lawal Iyabo, “Ritualists Exhume, Behead 49 Bodies”. The Guardian, Monday May 15 2006 p.3

7. Jacobson Austin, “Man Kills 3-yr-Old Cousin for Rituals.” News Star, Saturday November 21, 2009 pp1,14

8. Kasooha Ismael, “Girl Beheaded in Ritual Murder”. New Vision, February 24 2009


10. Addison Bobby, “Gbo-yo Business (Ritualistic Killings in Liberia)”, The New Dawn, Friday March 25 2010 pp.1,10



(There is additional information on this topic HERE)

Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.


I would like to make a provocative comment.

The author, if I understand him correctly, blames these horrible events on religion in general, and, more precisely, on religious superstitions. In a previous article, he was even suggesting how therapeutic would atheistic beliefs be. He seemed to imply that - without strange, irrational religious ideas, such archaic practices would cease to exist.
I would like to ask - why should we be so interested in the mechanical, physical, and chemical reactions connected with human mutilation and ritual killings? After all, from a purely materialistic perspective, chopping dry wood and chopping an arm from a screaming organism belong to the same category. In both cases we see a chain of physical and chemical reactions triggered by our action of chopping. If pain is the problem - but I don’t understand why it should be, in a nonreligious ethical environment - the author might simply ask for mandatory sedation of albinic victims before “treatment”.  From a merely utilitarian perspective, as long as these practices involve “marginal” individuals, like infants, albinos, handicapped, elderly - there is no danger of retaliation, so the perpetrators have really no reason to stop it. If a mutilator enjoys his job - it would be very irrational for him to retire.

My point is that not all religious rituals are the same. And our horror, our desire to put an end to such barbaric actions stems directly from OUR religious background - which is not something we should be ashamed of. We have a choice. We can embrace strict theoretical materialism and ethical relativism - and see every human action as an interesting, value-free anthropological phenomenon. Or we can admit there is something sacred about human life, even in its most vulnerable expressions - and denounce these atrocities, so that there will come a day when they won’t happen anymore.

@Andre It is not necessary to “admit that there is something sacred about human life” in order to denounce atrocities, nor do I agree that our horror stems primarily from our religious background. Human beings are naturally empathetic, to some degree (and to varying extents), so you don’t need to be religious, or even to have been influenced by religion, to find such acts appalling.

It is true that the author has previously published an article here entitled, “In Praise of Atheism”, which led to a long and vigourous discussion about the pros and cons of religion. However I don’t see “blaming religion” as the main focus of the article, despite the fact that the role os religion is clearly (and, I suppose accurately) highlighted. We indeed shouldn’t blame religion for everything, but neither should we blind ourselves to the role that “bad religion” can play in encouraging atrocities.

@Peter Wicks

I concede that compassion is a very natural emotional response in our species. After all we are social animals. Nevertheless, how do you explain our capacity to bypass compassion in such a great number of situations? Are those who lack compassion somehow subhuman, or mentally ill? Consider the famous Milgram experiments. Most people appear to be ready to quickly obliterate their compassion under certain conditions, especially when an authoritative figure steps in. In other words, our natual empathy seems to be a rather fragile mechanism.

I suspect that we ALL tend to be empathic only towards those individuals that we consider similar to ourselves, those whose shoes we think we might be wearing someday. If you do not “see” yourself in your victim - you have no reason to care particularly for his or her feelings. I could make a number of examples. The most innocent one that comes to my mind is about taxes. While most people would be surely ready to support insane tax rates for the extremely wealthy, even the smallest tax hike on bread (or tea) would be perceived as horribly unjust.

Universal empathy is not rational - that’s why it cannot be really a natural pheonmenon. Local, limited compassion is an evolutionary stable strategy, sure - and that is how far nature is going to take us. In the end, only two main religions have been able to channel and dramatically expand our natural empathy. Buddism and Christianity. Don’t ask me why. Maybe they are just historical accidents, maybe something more. Anyway, they clearly represent two exeptional historical phenomena - and their moral presciptions cannot but sound rather unnatural for most men who walked the earth. Without their influence I really do not think we would even bother to consider those who do not belong to “our group”, those who are too weak or too exotic. Our desire to stop ritual killings and human sacrifices in Africa - because, I would definetely like to know they have been stopped - it just is an act of colonialism, with very strong religious implications. It is not a matter of rationality. At least, this is how I perceive it.

I agree that the axial religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, have played a crucial role in, if not expanding empathy as such (I’m not really sure they’ve had that effect), at least modifying our behaviour to become more compassionate in practice. So maybe you’re right, maybe our horror has more to do with our religious past (as a civilisation, not necessarily as individuals) than I was giving it credit for.

Nevertheless I don’t think you need to be “religious”, as such, to find such acts horrifying, nor do I find it helpful to refer to our desire to stop them as “an act of colonialism”, given that that has such negative connotations. I think there are two possible motivations for wanting to do so: natural empathy (which I certainly believe can, given the right circumstances, transcend race and tribal identity), and values. The values can be religious or secular, even if I agree that our secular values ultimately derive, at least from a historical perspective, from our religious past.

@Peter Wicks

That was my point, basically. Obviously, I agree with you. Religious beliefs do not represent a necessary condition for compassion and empathy. And we can naturally feel empathic towards the most “different” subjects. Plutarch comes to my mind as a good, concrete example of someone encompassing both elements - he was definitely not a “man of faith”, had no Christian/Buddhist subconscious cultural influences, and yet he wrote passionately about compassion towards animals.

I simply wanted to point out, after reading the controversial piece that the author wrote on atheism, that the removal of a religious perspective does not represent a cultural advancement, contrarily from what I suppose Igwe belives. I bet those horrible rituals would rather be eradicated by a “christianization” of the zone (which is an act of colonialism, a “beneficial” form of cultural colonialism, without the exploitative connotation), rather then by an enlightened secular legislator (which is another kind of colonialism). See what Christianity did in Europe, how many institutions were created over the centuries to provide food, shelter and caring to the most “dysfunctional” individuals of society. Those African atavistic rituals somehow remind more of eugenics and social Darwinism, which were indeed cultural products of different atheistic moral codes. In the end, I still tend to believe that “social advancements” cannot be made without a certain kind of religious attitude in the background - and one cannot consistently defend both UNIVERSAL compassion and strict atheism.

Thanks Andre, that’s an interesting perspective. Nevertheless I think I still disagree on two points: firstly that Christianity is likely to do a better job at eradicating horrible rituals than secular “legislation”, and secondly that one cannot consistently defend both universal compassion and strict atheism.

On the first point, I don’t think it’s really a choice between religion and legislation. There are other ways of pursuing a secular agenda than legislating. Furthermore, while Christianity indeed had the beneficial effects in Europe you describe, it also had much more nefarious effects, including the burning of alleged witches, a practice that Leo has argued is occurring in Africa precisely under the auspices of Christianity.

On the second point, let me first point out that I am not a strict atheist, but still I don’t see any genuine incompatibility between the two. I’ve discussed elsewhere my position on meta-ethics, which is a subjectivist one, meaning that I regard ethics as a matter of choice rather than a matter of truth. Certainly I see nothing inconsistent about defending universal compassion _as an ethical choice_, and not adhering to a concept of God. Now if you instead want to defend universal compassion as a matter of truth then you’ve lost me in any case (as I’ve argued elsewhere I regard this as about as productive as searching for the holy grail), but still I don’t see why this is any less feasible without a concept of
God than with one. I suppose it depends, to some extent, on what one means by the term “God” in the first place.

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