Witchcraft Accusations and Politics in Akwa Ibom State

On Monday April 16, 2011, the government of Akwa Ibom state, through its Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Welfare, started taking away children from a local shelter managed by a non governmental organisation, the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) and its partners, to a supposed state-owned shelter.That brings to a head the long running tension between the state government, this local NGO, and other child rights activists in the state. The Akwa Ibom state government had accused CRARN and its local partners of exaggerating the problem of child witch hunting and using it to make money.

The campaign against witchcraft accusations and child rights abuses in Akwa Ibom has been mired in intricate politics. This article takes a critical look at how this disingenous power play by Akwa Ibom state government has undermined the efforts of governmental and non-governmental agencies to eradicate these horrific abuses.

For over a decade I have followed with keen interest the tragic wave of witch hunting in Akwa Ibom state. Until 2008, the government of Akwa Ibom did little or nothing to address this scourge. The former governor, Victor Attah, dismissed witchcraft as a form of superstition and did not take any effective measures to address witchcraft-related abuses. CRARN and its partners did the little they could to tackle the problem.

But the broadcast in 2008 of the documentary Saving Africa’s Witch Children on the UK’s Channel 4 shook the government of Godswill Akpabio out of its complacency. It shocked the state of Akwa Ibom into taking action against child witch hunting and related abuses .

The broadcast raised the political stakes on tackling child witch stigmatization in the state.

In its reaction to the broadcast, the government of Akwa Ibom hastily enacted the child rights law with sections that criminalized child witch hunting. The government arrested and started prosecuting all those shown in the documentary to be involved in child witch hunting in the state including a local bishop. Unfortunately up to that time, nobody had been convicted under the child rights law. Many children accused of witchcraft and then abandoned by families are still roaming the streets, sleeping in markets, churches and other public buildings across the state.

In fact many of thosed arrested and being investigated by the police in connection with witchcraft accusations and child rights abuses had been released. The government’s lacklustre approach to the problem was the focus of a CNN report in August 2010. The report deeply angered the government of Akwa Ibom. And in his reaction, the governor, Chief Godswill Akpabio, threatened to arrest and prosecute all child rights activists in the state who – he was told – were behind the CNN report.

Later, the governor inaugurated a commission to verify claims of witchcaft accusations and child rights abuses in the state and to make recommendations. The Commission of Inquiry, which had concluded its sitting, was widely percieved to be a tool by the government to discredit the work of NGOs and nail local activists. I testified before the commission and many people from Akwa Ibom appeared before the commission and presented shocking and incontrovertible evidence of witchcraft related abuses in the state. I was present when some state officials, particularly the Commissioners of Information and Women Affairs, appeared before the Commission. I was shocked by the spirited attempts by the state officials to play down the tragic situation, to cover the open sore of witchcraft accusation, misrepresent an obvious cultural scourge, and divert attention from the horrific abuses.

They refused to acknowledge the gaps and inadequacies in the way the state of Akwa Ibom had handled the matter. The state officials devoted their submissions to attacking and discrediting local NGOs and activists particularly CRARN, Stepping Stones Nigeria, Sam Ituama, Gary Foxcroft and of course my humble self. They never acknowledged the important contributions of these organisations and activists to the campaign against witch hunting in the state.

The Commissioner for Infomation denied the occurence of witchcraft accusations and child rights abuses in the state and attributed all reported cases to fabrications by local NGOs and activists who, he said, used them for fund raising purposes.

The state image-maker told the Commission that he was not aware of any instance of witchcraft accusation and abuse of the rights of a child in Akwa Ibom state.

In her statement before the Commission, the Commissioner for Women Affairs made it clear that her ministry was bent on taking over the children at the shelter managed by CRARN. She boasted that her ministry was in a better position to cater for the children than CRARN and its local partners.

Sadly this is not the case. And a visit to the Ministry of Women Affairs and the state run shelters in Uyo would convince anyone of the disingenous politics that informed her testimony before the Commission. A visit to the communities in Akwa Ibom will reveal the gaps and inadequacies in the government’s reponse to and handling of the problem. And instead of focusing on filling these gaps, the government of Akwa Ibom is busy ‘witch hunting’ NGOs and other child rights acitivists.

I have been to over 20 local governments in Akwa Ibom state. I have visited the Ministry of Woman Affairs and the state-owned shelters several times. In fact, some the the children I rescued are kept at the children’s homes located at IBB avenue and at Shelter Afrique in Uyo.

While Akwa Ibom, as the richest state in Nigeria, has the resources to cater for all the abused and abandoned children in the state, this does not reflect the situation at the Ministries and state-run shelters in the state. On several occasions, I went to hand over abandoned children to the Ministry of Women Affairs and the officials complained that they lacked facilities to accommodate them and that the ministry hadn’t enough trained personnel to cater for the children. Many officials at the Ministry are not trained social workers and care givers.

At the state owned children’s homes, many of the kids looked sick, unkempt, malnourished and emaciated. Some months ago I visited the children’s home at Shelter Afrique and was told that the management was on strike. Some of the children were sick and there was no medical officer to take care of them. Due to lack of proper care and management, some of the children I rescued and who were kept at these state-owned shelters had escaped without any trace of their whereabouts. The last time I visited the kids, they were crying. They said they would like to continue their education, and that they were locked up in the apartment from morning till night.

The children’s home at Shelter Afrique looked like a ‘detention center,’ not a care-giving home. Taking children away from the shelter managed by CRARN and its partners to state run orphanages like the one at Shelter Afrique is like taking these children from grace to grass. It is not in their best interest. The government of Akwa Ibom through the Ministry of Women Affairs is making it difficult for NGOs to provide care and shelter to abused and abandoned children in Akwa Ibom.

The government of Akwa Ibom state must admit that it cannot do it alone, and reach out to NGOs in the spirit of cooperation and partnership. The government must stop this politics that is undermining its efforts and making a mockery of its stated commitment to tackling the problem of witchcraft accusations and child rights abuses in the state. The governor should sack all the officials, advisers and political jobbers who have been misinforming and misleading him. He should appoint competent hands and minds who can help him to adequately address the menance.

The government of Akwa Ibom should begin to see NGOs and local activists as partners in progress, not antagonists, blackmailers, or rivals in the campaign against witchcraft-related abuses, in the provision and management of shelters for child victims and in the public education and enlightenment of the people. Instead of clamping down on the programs of NGOs and activists, the government should deploy its resources in rescuing and rehabilitating many abandoned children who are still roaming the streets in Akwa Ibom. The goverment should upgrade the facilities at the children’s homes, employ competent personnel, and provide an enabling environment for all NGOs and activists to operate.

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