- Nduka Orjinmo
- BBC News, Ibadan
Armed with a sharp knife, a megaphone and dressed all in black, Gbenga Adewyn could have passed for a medieval witch hunter, herbalist or urban preacher as he strolled through the city market from Ibadan in southwest Nigeria.
Warning: This article contains details that some readers may find offensive.
Those who were curious enough to approach Gbagi’s market quickly dispersed after hearing his message. “Anyone who can provide proof of the existence of the supernatural, whether it be juju or voodoo magic, will be offered 2.5 million naira (3,563,305 CFA francs),” he announced to several, repeating it in Yoruba and English.
The 24-year-old atheist recently became a rebel who publicly challenged supernatural powers in this deeply religious country.
According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, belief in traditional African religions and their Juju components is widespread in Nigeria, and many combine them with Christianity or Islam.
Many Nigerians believe that magical talismans allow people 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 uneducated people, they exist even at the highest levels of the Nigerian scientific community.
Dr Olaleiye Kayode, a professor of African religions at the University of Ibadan, told the BBC that money-making ju-ju rituals, in which human body parts mixed with talismans make people spit herbal money, really work.
The naira notes that are due to appear “are sourced in alcohol from existing banks,” he told the BBC.
Jude Akanby, senior lecturer at Crowther Graduate Theological Seminary in Abtokut, is also unambiguous about juju.
“This ability to turn into a cat, to disappear and reappear, is all possible within the dynamics of traditional African religion.
“Though [cela] seems illogical, like grandmother’s tales, but judging by what we have seen and heard, such things are possible, ”he said.
Such beliefs, especially that human body parts and amulets can extract money from a clay pot, have led to a recent spate of horrific murders across the country, often targeting single women.
“I am horrified to see how young people participate in these ritual killings.
“If the money ritual had worked, we would have seen massive inflation in the economy for the decades we believed in it,” Mr Adevoin told the BBC.
He was in Ibadan, Oyo State, for the second of three planned tours of the country, offering the 2.5 million naira raised via Twitter to anyone who can publicly display those juju powers.
“A knife for those who claim their amulet makes them invulnerable to blades,” he said.
The question of the existence of supernatural powers is considered taboo in much of Nigerian society.
To express such thoughts openly, as Mr. Adevojin did in the marketplace, was risky. He might as well have been arrested for blasphemy or lynched by an angry mob.
“Of course zhuzhu works, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said one merchant, who lingered with a frown.
In his pocket was a black amulet, a small leather pouch containing supposedly magical talismans that he said were meant for protection. However, he was not interested in publicly demonstrating his abilities, even for 3,563,305 F CFA.
Belief in magic often coexists with Christianity and Islam. Priests of both monotheistic religions often refer to certain aspects of traditional African religions as evil—something real, but which can be overcome with the help of prayer and one’s own higher powers.
Many pastors have become rich and famous by claiming to have supernatural powers that can overcome the gossip and curses that many imams also practice.
However, no one took up Mr. Adewijn’s challenge at two sites in Ogun and Ibadan, and he did not hold his breath before his next stop in the southeastern state of Anambra.
Though dismissed by some as an attention seeker, no one can escape the gruesome images of newly found bodies with missing limbs and empty eye sockets in a revival of sinister lucrative juju rituals.
This killing of people for the purpose of using their body parts for magical purposes swept Nigeria in the mid-1990s and led to riots in the eastern city of Owerri after the kidnapping and murder of an 11-year-old boy in 1996.
Today, not a day goes by on social media without a report of a missing person and photographs of mutilated corpses linked to the Juju.
Last month, there was widespread outrage after three men allegedly killed a 17-year-old girl in Ogun state to use parts of her body in a ritual they say will make them rich. They confessed to the murder after they were arrested by the police and charged in court.
The clay pot and red cloth they were caught with might have passed for a scene from a movie from Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry known for depicting displays of juju, but it was real.
And they were young people — the oldest was 21, prompting the Twitter hashtag #At21, where users described what they were doing at that stage in life and lamented what they saw as social pressure on young people to get rich quick.
Outrage over the girl’s death prompted federal lawmakers to debate the zhuzhu issue in Parliament and consider “declaring a state of emergency over ritual killings in the country”, with its portrayal in Nollywood films cited as a factor.
Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed also contributed by blaming Nigerian films and social media for the killing spree.
He wants the Film Censorship Board to draw the attention of filmmakers “to the need to avoid profit-making ritualistic content in their films.”
But the filmmakers disagree. They believe that he is unreasonably attacking Nollywood in the context of a national crisis.
“The minister made a mistake, he can’t violate our basic creative rights,” actor and producer Canayo Oh Canayo told the BBC.
He added that the minister is overlooking what has become a social problem and the inability of families, traditional and religious leaders and politicians to provide moral education to youth.
As the debate rages over who is to blame for the killings, there needs to be a much broader conversation about Nigeria’s education system, which fails to convince people that the buzz and the supernatural are not real, Mr Adevoyin says.
He hopes his rebellious tour will expose what he calls “deceivers” who claim Juju supernatural powers and help end the wave of ritualistic killings.
“For a reasonable person to believe that a person with all his biological components can turn into a sweet potato or a banana is illogical and disturbing,” he said.