Children have been accused of witchcraft, both historically and in contemporary times, in societies that harbour beliefs about the existence of witches and black magic. In the Nigerian states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River about 15,000 children were branded as witches and most of them end up abandoned and abused on the streets.
For over the past two decades, thousands of African children have been accused of witchcraft, resulting in their extreme physical and psychological abuse and even death. In 2016, a total of 398 reports of abuse due to witchcraft accusation were documented from 49 countries, representing a 41% increase since 2013. While there has recently been increased recognition of witchcraft accusations as a growing human rights concern by NGOs and Intergovernmental Organizations, this phenomenon remains significantly under-researched and very few steps have been taken to address it. Beliefs in the existence and power of witches have a long and diverse history and are found across a vast range of cultures and traditions worldwide. Whereas the notion of “witchcraft” was first introduced in Africa by European settlers, today, it covers a variety of terms in local languages referring to various phenomena whose interpretation correspond to a representation of evil. ”As witchcraft involves a variety of practices and differs greatly from one country to the other, it is essential to comprehend its meaning in the Nigerian context. Thus, for the Akwa Ibomites in Nigeria, according to Offiong, witchcraft “is the psychic act through which socially disapproved supernatural techniques influence events” and it is understood as evil in the sense that it destroys life through supernatural activities “by eating the soul of their victim, thereby causing that person’s death”.
There are many reasons children are being accused of witchcraft in Nigeria. Often it’s because of a misfortune in the family, such as a break down of a marriage or a relative’s death or illness.
All problems in life are believed to have a spiritual origin. In the last ten years, these are generally seen as the fault of child ‘witches’. It’s thought that the child has been put under a spell and given the power to wreak havoc. This is a belief that cuts across all tiers of society.
Some churches and Nigerian movies are also play a major role in spreading this belief. And there are many so-called pastors who brand children as witches and then charge extortionate fees to ‘exorcise’ them.
The victims of witchcraft accusations in African societies have usually been the elderly, the disabled, albinos and anyone who was considered different.In recent years due to the impact of rapid urbanisation, economic decline, as well as the HIV/AIDS pandemic, children have become more and more the victims of witchcraft accusations, especially orphans. Other factors of the rise of accusations include the rise of charismatic preachers such as Helen Ukpabio, generational social conflicts and the deterioration of education systems. Religiously-inspired films also legitimize beliefs about children witches.[
Child victims of witchcraft accusations are more vulnerable than adult victims as they cannot defend themselves as they are confronted with physical and psychological abuse from their family and community.
Children accused of witchcraft may be subjected to violent exorcism rituals by African Pentecostal-Charismatic pastors who mix Christianity with African witchcraft beliefs. Such exorcism may include incarceration, starvation, being made to drink hazardous substances or even being set on fire with gasoline.In other cases accused children are expelled and end up living on the streets, are trafficked and in some instances they are killed.
With countless stories of children abandoned, beaten and tortured for the accusation of being a witches, there are unfortunate instances where children don’t survive the exorcism or the beating by either parents or religious leaders of churches and shrines that confirm a child as a witch.
One of such unlucky victim was 12-year-old Mercy Frank, whose mother bathed her with acid because a prophet claimed she was possessed by witchcraft.
Mercy, before the acid bath, attended Atabong Primary School in Oron. The acid bath affected her breasts, mouth and other parts of her body.
Narrating her sad story, she said: “I am from Atabong village in Oron Local Government Area. I am the second child in the family of four children. My mother poured acid solution on my body that is why my mouth and my body are like these. “One of our neighbours told my mother that I was a witch but I told her that I was not a witch. She took me to Apostolic Church in Atabong, Oron and the pastor told her that I was a witch. When the pastor asked me if I was a witch, I told him I was not a witch. “The pastor prayed and told my mother that I was a witch then we went back home after the prayer. When we got home that night, my mother canned me seriously. Other neighbours begged her to let me be but she refused. “Later at midnight, my mother took me to a deep forest and poured acid solution on me and dropped me by the roadside and left.” She said security agents brought her to the hospital after seeing her in pains and crying by the roadside. Mercy was lucky to survive the attack.
Effiong Lawson was not. He was recently beheaded, allegedly by his stepfather, Felix Lawson, 43, who accused him of being a wizard. Sources said Lawson accused the child of being responsible for the fate of his wretched and poverty-stricken family.
Eyewitness said the incident occurred while the suspect was enjoying his meal after returning from work on the fateful day. His hungry step-son reportedly sneaked into the backyard and whispered to his younger sister to bring him leftover food to stop his hunger.
But the enraged stepfather, who heard and recognised his voice, went for his machete and attacked the child. Two friends of the late Effiong’s who accompanied him to the house, sensing the danger from the stepfather, took to their heels but the late Effiong was not as lucky. He was overpowered and beheaded by the irate father. Investigations led by “The nation” revealed that these and other incidents occurred despite the Child Rights Law.
“Every Akwa Ibom child will be completely protected by this law we are signing today, and this is a commitment we would protect with all the might of the legal instruments at our disposal. We have come to make a law to protect everything we cherish and value….”
Those were the words from Akwa Ibom State Governor Godswill Akpabio shortly after signing the Child Rights Bill into Law on December 5, 2008.
The law became necessary after many parents and guardians in the state subjected their children/wards to inhuman treatments after branding them “witches” and “wizards”. The events leading to the passage of the law are still fresh in the memories of many as the state was subjected to global odium by a report on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on alleged child-witches and inhuman treatments meted to them by their parents and communities.
A self-styled cleric, Bishop Sunday William, declared in the report that 2.3 million witches and wizards existed in the state – most of them, according to him, are children. Williams also claimed that he helped parents kill about 110 “child-witches” for as much as N400,000 per ‘witch’.
The BBC documentary on the activities of his church went viral on the internet. It angered Akpabio that a ‘Bishop’ would declare that 2.3 million witches existed in a state of less than 4 million people; leaving just 1.7 million of the population witch-free. The governor immediately ordered the Bishop’s arrest. The Bishop was later paraded at the State Police Headquarters, where he told reporters he did not kill the children as alleged, but merely destroyed spirits of witchcraft in them.
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There are two factors that play a role in child witchcraft being perpetuated in Nigeria: religion and poverty.
One researcher has argued that the religious discourse of the new Christian Pentecostal movement has heightened the belief that child witches exist. The movement generally attributes failure and misfortune to the devil.
For some religious leaders there is the lure of economic gain attached to child witchcraft accusations. The purported capacity to deliver people from the power of witches can generate huge earnings for pastor-prophets who engage in deliverance sessions. Research shows that those religious leaders encourage congregants to repeatedly attend church programmes, pay tithes regularly and give offerings and vows, all with the aim of generating more and more income from their followers.
Widespread poverty is another explanatory factor. In 2006 the United Nations Development Programme reported that within the Niger Delta region high rates of poverty and environmental degradation are especially prevalent.
Researchers argue that poverty and other misfortunes are in many parts of Nigeria attributed to metaphysical causes. As a result, child witches are simply an easy target to blame for the economic misfortunes that befall families and communities in this region.
Interestingly, research notes that the belief in child witchcraft is also considered to be reflected in and perpetuated by Nigerian popular media. Nollywood, the Nigerian movie industry, has been blamed for making films that have played a role in popularising and disseminating the belief in child witches. Many of the older movies were produced by Pentecostal churches.
Some of the churches involved are renegade local branches of international franchises. Their parishioners take literally the Biblical exhortation, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
“It is an outrage what they are allowing to take place in the name of Christianity,” said Gary Foxcroft, head of nonprofit Stepping Stones Nigeria.
For their part, the families are often extremely poor, and sometimes even relieved to have one less mouth to feed. Poverty, conflict and poor education lay the foundation for accusations, which are then triggered by the death of a relative, the loss of a job or the denunciation of a pastor on the make, said Martin Dawes, a spokesman for the United Nations Children’s Fund.
“When communities come under pressure, they look for scapegoats,” he said. “It plays into traditional beliefs that someone is responsible for a negative change … and children are defenseless.”
Witchcraft accusations against children in the rest of Africa
In Angola, many orphaned children are accused of witchcraft and demonic possession by relatives in order to justify not providing for them. Various methods are employed: starvation, beating, unknown substances rubbed into their eyes or being chained or tied up.[
In Congo, it is estimated that there are 25,000 homeless children living on the streets of the capital city. Of these, 60% were expelled from their homes because of allegations of witchcraft. Accusations of witchcraft is the only justifiable reason for the refusal to house a family member, no matter how distant the relation.
In Gambia, about 1,000 people accused of being witches were locked in detention centers in March 2009. They were forced to drink a dangerous hallucinogenic potion, according to Amnesty International.
According to a disputable empiric construction, in Sierra Leone sick infants tend to have better survival-rates due to witchhunts: “the effect of the witch cleansing probably lasts for years in the sense that mothers are predisposed to tend their babies with more hopefulness and real concern. Therefore many babies who, before the arrival of the witchfinder, might have been saved if the mothers had had the heart and will to stop at nothing to tend their babies, will now survive precisely because they will receive the best attention, as the mothers now believe that the remaining children are free of witchcraft. So there is a reduction in the infant mortality rate in the years immediately following the witchcleansing movement”.
While crisis is generally accepted as a factor in the DRC and Nigeria, its impact and ramifications are in discussion by African and European scholars. According to Riedel, two major Nollywood films depicting children as witches don’t show any economic stress and play in a middle-class environment
The past few years have seen an important increase in reports of children being accused of witchcraft, especially in Nigeria. Once accused of sorcery, children are forced to admit to being witches and, in the ensuing process of ‘healing’, they are beaten, cut, burned, and sometimes killed. Many are chased from their communities, stigmatized, and end up being abandoned on the streets of big cities. Such accusations must, therefore, be considered as a substantial impediment to the effective implementation of child rights in Nigeria.
While the traditional focus of witchcraft accusations has, in many cultures, been the elderly and particularly elderly women, as was the case in Medieval Europe, The stigmatisation of children as witches is relatively new phenomenon dating back to the mid 1990s in Africa. It is accordingly, important to understand what brought about the stigmatisation and abuse of children in Nigeria. The widespread accusations and stigmitizations of “witch children’ result in violent forms of abuse and neglect. Nigerian’s endemic corruption within the police, the government and the judiciary, combined with society unwillingness to bring private matters into the public sphere, has established a culture of impunity for children rights violations.
A glimmer of hope
Fortunately there has been a turnaround in the past few years. Nigerian Pentecostal churches have started to join the fight against child witchcraft stigmatisation. After a series of meetings promoted by concerned government agencies, several religious and civil liberty organisations are working together to end the trend.
Some are actively helping to create awareness of the issue and mobilise people through sermons, in print media and even through Nollywood. Churches have started to produce movies that highlight the ills of witchcraft accusations, offering hope to victims and their families.
But the case of Hope indicates that there is more to be done.
There is an urgent need for legislative reform to deter future incidents of abuse due to child witchcraft stigmatisation. Nigeria needs laws that prohibit discrimination based on witchcraft beliefs. Even more importantly, the laws need to be effectively enforced so that religious leaders and community members who choose to continue down this treacherous path are brought to book.
Ultimately, it comes down to revitalising the Nigerian economy and bringing people out of poverty. As long as people find it impossible to make ends meet they will continue to look for solutions in the supernatural.