Towards a new enlightenment

Leo Igwe

THE Enlightenment stands for the intellectual trends in 18th Century Europe that espoused the use of reason and science as a universal method for obtaining knowledge and solving human problems. The Enlightenment writers argued that the light of reason and science could free humanity from the darkness of ignorance, the burden of false beliefs, and the destructive influence of prejudices and superstition. They believed in liberty, equality, secular society, democracy and in the potential of education, science and technology transforming the human condition - reducing poverty, misery and diseases.

The Enlightenment intellectuals emphasised universal ethical norms that transcend the narrow confines of race, colour, sex, religion, ethnicity, nationality and birth status. The values of the Enlightenment illumined Europe and brought the Western World tremendous progress and advancement. The Enlightenment inspired the democratic, scientific and technological revolutions at the root of contemporary western civilisation and development.

So, for Europe, the 18th Century "Age of Light" was a true Enlightenment. But for Africa, it was not. Because, while Europe was glowing with the light of reason and science, Africa was groaning under the burden of European slavery, tyranny and imperialism. It could be rightly said that the European Enlightenment caused darkness in Africa. It dislodged Christian theocracy and expelled to the black continent the forces of unreason and superstition.

European Christian Missionaries invaded Africa in search of "believers" in what they self-styled a civilising mission "La mission civilatrice". And European merchants thronged the continent in search of raw material to feed the industrial revolution. In actual fact, what Europe rejected and abandoned to get 'enlightened' was forced and foisted on Africans as a civilising or enlightening matrix.

As if that was not enough, as Christian crusaders were ravaging the continent, Arab jihadists were fighting, raiding, enslaving and killing their way to enlighten Africans on the basis of Islam and the Arab culture.

So, in the past Centuries, the black continent has been plagued by the false "alien" Enlightening Missions of Christianity and Islam. Africa has been the clash point and the flash point of these Dark Age forces and mentalities. These militant, racist and fanatical creeds exploit women, sanctify ignorance and sacrifice human welfare and happiness in pursuance of the will of mythical gods and their earthly instruments.

The real tragedy is not that Europeans and Arabs infiltrated and darkened the continent with their cultural myths and superstitions. After all, Africa has its own traditional myths and taboos, which have also undermined the process of African enlightenment and emancipation. But that Africans have at the end of the day - blindly embraced these alien dogmas and misconceptions at the expense of social peace, intellectual growth, moral progress, truth and originality.

Today, most Africans want to order their lives and organise their societies based on Christian and Islamic norms, not on the basis of human rights, human values, rational thoughts and common senical knowledge. And this had led to a lot of confusion, stagnation, division and conflict. For two decades, the Islamic government in Khartoum waged a vicious war on the Christians and animists in the South who rejected Sharia law. And the crisis in Darfur has lingered partly because the Sudanese government, which claims to have divine mandate from Allah, has refused to make necessary concessions. In Algeria, Islamic Militants massacred over a hundred thousand people in protest over the cancellation of an election, which an Islamic party was set to win. As to what would have been the fate of Algeria if that electoral victory was upheld, your guess is as good as mine.

In Egypt, Islamic armies have been terrorising the country in their quest to impose an Islamic social order. And Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, has been without a central government for fifteen years due to clan and sectarian fighting for the control of the state by Islamic militants and warlords. In Uganda, Joseph Kono, and his Lord's Resistance Army have been fighting to remove the government of Yoweri Museveni and enthrone a government based on the Ten Commandments.

In Nigeria, thousands of people have lost their lives to religious riots, and clashes since independence. Muslim fundamentalists have foisted Sharia law on the Islamic majority states in the North. Throughout the continent, religious fanatics are prosecuting an inquisition. They oppose the legalisaion of abortion and gay marriage, the abolition of the death penalty, female genital mutilation, child marriage and homophobia.

All these are clear pointers to the fact that the African continent is in a Dark Age. So, early in this 21st Century, Africa is in dire need of a New Enlightenment - which is a rediscovery of the ideals of the old Enlightenment but this time with a global emphasis and application. The New Enlightenment entails the promotion of universal ethical norms, universal education, universal human right and the secularisation and humanisation of all societies.

We need to critically examine religious creeds and dogmas and challenge their totalitarian and intolerant tendencies. We need to promote free thought, freedom of expression, search for truth and educational reform. We need to combat superstition and irrationalism.

The New Enlightenment project requires that no race or region be left out. That no place or people the left in the dark. And that the entire human race glow and be aglow with the illuminating matrices of reason, science, critical thinking and free inquiry. I am deeply persuaded that it is only on the basis of the New Enlightenment that Africa can experience a genuine renaissance and realise a civilisation with a global dimension.


About the author: Leo Igwe is director of the Centre for Inquiry in Nigeria. He can be reached at [email protected]