Witch Hunts and the New Dark Age in Africa

As Africa’s foremost scholar once noted, “From time to time, there are witch hunting rituals and cleansing to ensure that witches do not terrorize people and that their powers are kept under control.”

Witches and sorcerers are the most hated people in their community. Even to this day there are places and occasions when they are beaten to death by the rest of the people.

So the witch hunt is not a recent development in Africa. Belief in witchcraft constitutes part of the traditional religion and the witch hunt is a form of traditional religious expression. Witch hunting is as old as the belief in witchcraft in Africa. The persecution of alleged witches has been going on in Africa from before its contact with the ‘outside world’ – the West, the East, the advent of colonialism, modern education, Christianity or Islam. Early Christian missionaries regarded witchcraft accusations as a form of African ‘pagan fetish practice’ that would eventually be replaced by the ‘civilizing mission of christianity’. The colonial authorities also tried to eradicate witch hunts. They criminalized witchcraft accusation. They made it a crime for anybody to brand someone a witch or identify himself as a witch or a wizard. This legislation popularly known as the Witchcraft Act was adopted by many African countries after independence.

But the efforts by colonialists and western missionaries to tackle the problem only drove the practice of witchcraft accusation and witch hunting underground, because these measures did not really address the fears and misconceptions that informed the belief in the existence of witches, and the practice of witch hunting.

So, the end of colonialism and the realization of self-rule by African countries opened the political and religious space for people to express themselves. Hence the African region has witnessed an eruption of witchcraft accusation and witch hunting by state and non-state agents including churches. In fact the wave of witch hunting sweeping across many parts of Africa is driven by Christianity.

Witch hunting is a clear indication of political and judicial failure.

In Ivory Coast and Central African Republic, witchcraft was criminalized, and to this day accused persons are sent to jail by judges. In Nigeria, Congo DRC and Central Africa, many children accused of witchcraft are beaten, killed, abandoned or exiled from their homes. They are subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment by pastors, churches and spiritual homes in the name of exorcism. In Malawi, women accused of witchcraft are tortured and maltreated. Some of them are prosecuted, convicted based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence. They are sent to jail for committing ‘imaginary crimes’. At least 50 women are languishing in prisons across Malawi for witchcraft-related offences.

In some parts of Africa, women alleged to be witches who survive attacks by the mob take refuge in camps. Some witch camps currently exist in Northern Ghana and Burkina Faso. In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, women accused of witchcraft are attacked and lynched. In Gambia, at least one thousand alleged witches were arrested and tortured by state security agents following the death of a relation of President Yahya Jammeh who was allegedly killed through witchcraft. In Tanzania, Burundi and Nigeria albinos have been targeted and killed by those who believe their skin can be used to prepare potent magical concoctions. In Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique, those alleged to be witches are persecuted and murdered.

Witch hunting continues to ravage Africa due to lack of political and judicial will to address the problem. Many African governments are perpetrating, aiding or abetting the persecution and cleansing of alleged witches. Many states in Africa continue to turn a blind eye as such atrocities are being perpetrated by non-state agents like churches, witch doctors, mobs, thugs and religious fanatics and the like. Many states are denying that such horrific abuses take place. Actually the authorities do not see anything criminal in witchcraft related abuses because they believe that witchcraft is a potent way of harming somebody and do not want to engage in any form of ‘spiritual warfare’.

Until recently the government in my country has been in denial of the problem. Thanks to the efforts of Stepping Stones Nigeria and its local and international partners, the government of Akwa Ibom outlawed child witch stigmatization. Apart from this recent legislation, in Nigeria, witchcraft accusation is a crime punishable under the law. Still witchcraft accusations abound. Witchcraft accusers and witch hunters like Helen Ukpabio and other evangelical throwbacks get away with their crimes. Despite so many cases of child and adult victims of witch hunts, nobody has been convicted of this offence to date. But it is not all gloom and doom. Efforts are being made by skeptic activists, groups and their partners to address the problem. And those efforts are yielding results. In fact efforts are underway in countries like Nigeria, Benin, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Ghana etc to tackle the cultural scourge.

We are using a three prong strategy to address the problem. First we pressure the governments to stop persecuting alleged witches and wizards (in Gambia), enforce the witchcraft act (in Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi), decriminalize witchcraft (in Central African Republic and Ivory Coast). We also campaign against moves to criminalize witchcraft(Malawi) and lobby the government to protect the rights of victims (Nigeria, Ghana, Congo DRC, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic,Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania etc)

We liaise with local governmental and non-governmental agencies to provide safe spaces for victims. And this includes securing the release of those imprisoned and appealing the court ruling and getting the judgement quashed (Malawi). We also get child victims into shelters where they can receive proper care and support (Nigeria).

We are also embarking on public education programs to get people to realize that witchcraft is a myth or superstition, and that witchcraft lacks any basis in reason, science and common sense. We organise seminars in schools, colleges and universities and distribute awareness materials to people in the markets, parks, and public squares. We try to let people know the role of fiction, fantasy and imagination in human perception, explanation and interpretation of phenomena.

A very vital aspect of our enlightenment campaign is the skeptical challenge. Renowned skeptics like James Randi have used this facility to clip the wings of purveyors of paranormal and superstitious nonsense. We challenge believers or practitioners of witchcraft to provide evidence, proof or demonstration of the alleged powers and claims associated with witchcraft. In Malawi the skeptic activist Geogr Thindwa has challenged all the witch doctors in the country to bewitch him and collect some huge sum of money but nobody has come forward. To those who claim that people can be initiated into the witchcraft coven or guild, we challenge them to initiate us. To those who claim that people can contract witchcraft  through eating biscuits or peanuts, we buy biscuits and openly challenge them to infect us with witchcraft. To those who claim people do turn or can turn to animals and insects we challenge them to prove their magic. In Malawi we challenge those who believe witches fly magic planes at night to show and demonstrate that this so called magic plane can fly one meter above the ground. Unlike the recently invented flying cars which you can actually picture flying, Malawi’s magic planes are always on the ground. We encourage people to question received knowledge and tradition and test claims. We strive to get people to understand the importance of seeking evidence and basing our knowledge, accusations and positions on evidence, demonstrable evidence.

Leo Igwe sent this piece from Canberra in Australia.

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