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Witches of Africa

Map by Wikimedia Commons.

Ten-year-old Jane Essien, twelve-year-old Abigail Monday, and eleven-year-old Godswill Okon are currently living in a makeshift camp in Akwa Ibom, Southern Nigeria. They can not return to their parents or live normal lives like other children because they were abandoned by their families, condemned as witches. Their stories are among those of the other victims of witch-hunting in the black continent. Among the untold stories of the world — pathetic and traumatising.

I met them at an event organised by Unicef Nigeria. Jane told me how, some years back, her mother accused her of witchcraft and attacked her with a saw before driving her out of the house. Jane went to live with a mad woman who lived in a nearby market. The women fed her till someone came and brought her to the camp.

Abigail was taken to a church by her father, for prayers. There, the prophet of God identified her as a witch. As her father drove her out of the house, Abigail lived on the streets for a while before someone brought her to the camp.

Godswill was taken to a church where a pastor said he was a wizard. After he was driven out his home, a police officer saw him and took him in for a few days before bringing him to the camp.

These three children were lucky. Many children in the society who were accused of witchcraft never lived to tell their stories. They were tortured to death, bathed with acid, abandoned to die by the roadside or in the bush. Jane, Abigail, Godswill and hundreds of children in the Akwa Ibom camp carry the scars of the witch-hunting campaigns that have been going on across Nigeria and many other parts of Africa.

For those in the Western world, witch-hunting is a thing of the past. Sorcerers — alleged or self-proclaimed witches and wizards — are no longer burnt at stake. The last witch-trial in Europe took place centuries ago. But, in Africa, this is not the case — witch-trials are still going on. Frenzy and hysteria about witches still grip the African mind — witchcraft evokes fear, hatred and suspicion among Africans.

Witch-hunters continue to terrorise the continent. Witchcraft related abuses are common and widespread. In the twenty-first century, those who are condemned as witches are persecuted and executed in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, the Congo, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Gambia.

Witch-hunting rages on in Africa because the belief in witchcraft is still very strong. The imagined influence of witchcraft in people’s lives is overwhelming. Africans attribute any form of misfortune — accidents, deaths, diseases, infertility or child-birth difficulties, business failures — to the machinations of witches and wizards. Witches are believed to possess magical, spiritual and supernatural powers that cause harm and destruction. Anyone who is alleged of being a witch is perceived as evil, harmful, and socially undesirable. Those suspected as witches are generally hated and held responsible for whatever goes wrong in their communities.

This is why to accuse somebody of witchcraft is to pass a death sentence on the person. To label someone as a witch makes the person unqualified for any kind of protection or dignity or rights. This climate of abuse and terror prevails in Africa despite the fact that African states have signed or ratified a number of international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, that guarantee equal rights and dignity for everyone.

African governments have committed themselves to defending, promoting, and protecting the fundamental rights of their citizens. These include the rights to life, liberty and security of persons; freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; and right to a fair trial and public hearing by an independent, and impartial tribunal.

African states have signed, ratified or domesticated international conventions on the rights of the child, of women and of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, when it comes to witchcraft related abuses, these states have terribly failed to honour their human rights commitments. They are nakedly in breach of their human rights obligations, as they fail to realise or recognise the rights of alleged witches and wizards as human rights. Witchcraft related human rights abuses remain rampant. Witch-hunters in Africa prowl with impunity.

In general, those accused of witchcraft are banished from their homes. They are forced to survive on the streets, in the bush, or in makeshift camps, as is the case in Nigeria, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In many places, suspected witches and wizards are summarily executed by mobs, gangs, family members or the community, or witch-doctors.

Very often, in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and South Africa, those accused of witchcraft are clubbed to death or lynched. In many cases, alleged witches are tortured and made to die slowly by Christian pastors or prophets, in the name of deliverance. Individuals accused of witchcraft are tortured and forced to confess that they are indeed witches engaged in witchcraft, before they are executed.

In some other cases, alleged witches and wizards are forced by witch-doctors to drink poisonous magic potions that may lead to their death or cause serious damage to their health. In 2004, at least twenty men and women suspected of witchcraft died after being forced to drink magical concoctions in Edo, Southern Nigeria. To date, nothing has been done to bring the murderers to justice.

In some African countries, witch-hunting is sponsored or carried out by the state.

In Gambia, state agents kidnapped more than a thousand individuals alleged to be witches, took them to secret locations where they were tortured and forced to drink poisonous potions.

In Malawi, at least three people have been jailed on witchcraft charges. In October 2009, a magistrate convicted two people for practising witchcraft — Emily and James Kunjes were sentenced to five years of imprisonment with hard labour for killing two members of their community through black magic. In November 2009, another court sent Yohane to prison for teaching witchcraft to children. Yohane was alleged to have transformed the children into pigs, chicken and ducks before taking them to a graveyard where nocturnal lessons in witchcraft were taught. These prosecutions were based on confessions coerced from the victims through torture.

Though these witch-trials were not in accordance with international human rights law, Malawi is planning to revise its witchcraft law to make it easier to convict anyone accused of witchcraft. If the revision goes through, the country will be setting a dangerous precedent in terms of state sponsored witch-hunting in Africa.

Witch-hunting is evidence of worsening social tension, division, oppression, and exploitation in Africa — manifestation of social backwardness, inequality, and injustice in the continent. In most cases, witch-hunters target the weak and vulnerable members of the society — women, children, the aged, and people with disabilities. Those who are executed as witches are the poor or the uneducated from the villages or shanty areas of the cities. Victims of witch-hunting are the voiceless, defenceless, helpless and hapless members of the population.

Witch-hunting is another face of the gender war in Africa where societies are deeply patriarchal. Women — with a significant percentage of girl children — are the targets of the witch-hunt. In 2008, most of the victims attacked and killed in the course of the deadly witch-hunts in the Kisii region of Kenya were women. In Angola and Tanzania, old women with red eyes and wrinkled faces are regarded as witches.

In Africa, the human rights defence of the victims of witch-hunts is a dangerous undertaking. Human rights advocates defending the rights of alleged witches and wizards run great risks. They are perceived as evil or as supporters of evil. Human rights defenders can be attacked, tortured and killed. As a result, not many human rights defenders want to venture into this area. In July 2009, muscle-men from a witch-hunting church — the Liberty Gospel Church — attacked organisers of a conference on child rights and witchcraft in Calabar, Nigeria alleging that the conference was promoting child witchcraft.

The prevalence of witch-hunts in Africa is indication of the region’s poor human rights standard. African states pay lip service to human rights including their commitments and obligations under the international human rights law. Human rights mechanisms in most countries exist on paper or in principle, not in practice or in fact. Human rights structures and institutions are too weak and ineffective, they can not effectively address egregious human rights violations in the continent.

It is high time, the international community — the United Nations and its agencies, the European Union, the Commonwealth and other international agencies — takes human rights seriously and breaks this silence over witch-hunts in Africa. Every civilised nation should raise the issue of witchcraft related abuses in Africa at the highest level. The region’s human rights body should rise up to this important challenge and get African states to adopt concrete measures to address and stamp out witch-hunting and related human rights violations.


Leo Igwe is Executive Secretary, Nigerian Humanist Movement.

In print: Independent World Report — Issue 4/April 2010.

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