Africa 

Approbation and Reprobation Hamper Advocacy Against Witch Persecution in Africa

Witchcraft Persecution and Land Disputes in Amuda Isuochi, Abia State

By Leo Igwe

Members of the elite in Nigeria must stop approbating and reprobating the reality of witchcraft. Educated Nigerians continue to blow hot and cold on the existence of witches and wizards. This conflicting and contradictory stance is hurting efforts to stamp out the menace of witch-hunting. This double standard by the elite is undermining and frustrating initiatives to eradicate this dark and dangerous phenomenon. Rather than being an asset, educated people have largely become a liability. Members of the elite are reluctant to take a definite stand against witchcraft accusations and witch persecution. And this is sad, frustrating, and disappointing. This acute unwillingness, rooted in a lack of conviction that witchcraft is an irrational baseless imaginary, is hampering attempts to carry out a robust and effective public enlightenment campaign. Like most Nigerians, I was born into a witch-believing community. And while growing up, I saw firsthand the vicious and ravaging influence of this misguided belief. I witnessed how imputations of witchcraft and harmful magic poison family relationships, turn relatives and neighbors into enemies. I saw how witchcraft suspicions were employed and deployed to persecute innocent persons and justify horrific abuses, including trial by ordeal, attacks, banishment, abandonment and murder.

I have yet to see any shred of evidence for witchcraft or any justification for the egregious harm that is meted out against alleged witches. Still the abuses have persisted, despite the growth in literacy and education. The abuses have continued, even though laws and mechanisms that could be used to combat the pernicious influence of irrational beliefs and practices exist. The witchcraft mentality is entrenched among the elite. Education has failed to dispel occult fears and anxieties that breed these allegations. Literacy has been unable to liberate Nigerians from the grip of this ancient superstition.

Educated Nigerians are the most difficult to deal with because they claim to know and to be enlightened. They try to impress on anyone how widely read, educated and traveled they are. The elite try not to miss out on any witchcraft debate. Many try to be relevant; they try to contribute to any conversation on the occult. In fact witchcraft is a topic that every Nigerian, nay African person readily claims expertise even without undergoing any training. Apparently, the elite takes both sides, and no side on the issue. In all, they refuse to adopt a firm stance against this social disease. On one hand, educated Nigerians dismiss witchcraft beliefs as superstitions but on the other hand, they accept it as a reality. In one breath, they claim that witchcraft is mere fantasy or fiction, and in another breath, they state that it is a fact.

On a closer look, this approbating and reprobating on the issue of witchcraft is opportunistic. It is a demonstration of deep and unyielding belief in this occult phenomenon. Let me illustrate the point with a few examples.

Some years ago, a catholic priest testified before a commission of inquiry that Akwa Ibom state convened to investigate claims of child witchcraft-related abuses. During his testimony, the commissioners asked the priest if he believed in witches. He replied: “As an individual, no; as a church, yes”. The commissioners were confused, and could not question him further. It is not only priests and pastors that entertain this ambiguous position. Non clerics do. Some time ago I attended a workshop in Akwa Ibom on the same topic: child witchcraft. The UNICEF office in Nigeria organized the program. A high court judge moderated one of the sessions. In the course of summarizing the discussions, he said: “I do not believe that children could be witches, but I know there are witches and wizards”. I quickly raised my hand and shouted from the audience: “Objection my Lord”. He quickly responded: “You are free to object”. He did not notice the contradiction in his position. Even if he did, the conflicting positions did not matter to him. But they should!

Members of the judiciary have been notorious for equivocating on the issue of witchcraft; they simultaneously reject and accept the reality of witchcraft. Recently we have witnessed instances where some Nigerian magistrates presided over trial by ordeal, convicted or remanded alleged witches in prison. In related development, during my testimony before the said commission of inquiry in Akwa Ibom, two lawyers, Ukut and Ukam, sent by a witch-hunting pastor in Calabar, cross-examined me. I was shocked at their inability to make a distinction between the Bible and the constitution. They were alluding to verses in the Christian scripture as if they were provisions under the Nigerian law or sections of the criminal code. They mistook being learned in matters of law to being learned in witchcraft issues.

Ambiguous positions on witchcraft matters have persisted among lawyers and other members of the Nigerian elite. Recently the Advocacy for Alleged Witches issued a press statement asking that disciplinary measures be taken against witch-hunting judges and magistrates in Adamawa state. The statement urged that Nigerians to abandon witchcraft accusations because witch-hunting ended in Europe centuries ago. Look I issued that statement. And I knew that Nigeria was not Europe. But look at the comment that a lawyer and human rights officer in one of the states sent me: “Let me first congratulate your people for calling the Magistrate and Judges out. But, it clearly shows the lacuna between our laws and our beliefs. Nigerians believe in witches and the harm that they do. Unfortunately, no laws are protecting the people against such harms or controlling the practice of witchcraft. The fact remains that Nigeria is not Europe”. She attached a link to a report on a young lady who died after her graduation from the university. According to the report she died as a result of some undisclosed skin ailment. This lawyer then wrote: “They said it is witchcraft. How do you protect your people from such beliefs and practices”.

Meanwhile, there was no mention of witchcraft in the report. In reply, I said: “Who are these ‘they’ that said it was witchcraft? What competence do they have? Now, the report says that she died as a result of undisclosed skin disease, right? Look, this is evident from that picture. The skin problem could also be a sign of an underlying ailment. So is skin disease now a form of witchcraft? That is the issue. There is a need to educate our people and ‘protect’ them from the ravaging influence of ignorance and misconceptions about the causes of diseases, not witchcraft beliefs and practices. With sound education based on critical thinking, what you are calling witchcraft beliefs and practices would weaken and disappear; they will loosen their fierce grip on the minds of Nigerians”. She never responded to this. I am afraid that on this issue many lawyers including our magistrates do not understand their job. They need to make a distinction between real and imaginary offence. Witchcraft is an imaginary offence. Lawyers need to provide a categorical answer to this question: Is the duty of a lawyer to handle cases in line with the constitution or in accordance with his or her religious faith?

Meanwhile, there were reactions to the press statement on other platforms that I belong. These platforms have many educated Nigerians who are living at home and abroad. One of them left this comment:

“I have worked in the rural areas as a priest. No matter what you think you know, the people have their explanations of the reality of their lives. Sometimes it coincides with the findings of science, other times, it doesn’t. It doesn’t have to, because science is only one mode of knowing. To tell you, till today, some sicknesses don’t manifest their causes via labs or science-based investigations, yet through rural investigations, the answer and sometimes the healing is achieved.
The they that say things represent the anonymous majority that transmit information and culture and socialization from one generation to the next”. Look one cannot uphold a belief because it has been handed down from the past. Far from it. There are many mistaken and erroneous beliefs that were handed down from the past. The person who commented was a priest. And Priests and pastors have a vested interest in the so-called reality of witchcraft. If there were no witches, priests would invent one. So I was not surprised by his comment.
But other commentators were not priests but still ‘reasoned’ along the same convoluted lines. One of them said:

“Are there witches? Are there people with special powers? That needs to be addressed. The philosophy department of Unilag will tell you that there are people with powers and that it is proven. They will tell you that there is a spiritual phenomenon that has been studied. Should the so-called witches be harmed without any proof? The answer is No. That is where we need to educate everyone. Even if there are proofs concerning what they have done, there should be no extra-judicial acts perpetrated”.

Someone said in another post: “Are there extraordinary abilities or powers? The answer is yes. I have a friend that within his aura, clairvoyant sees him walking with an invisible lion. He is said to possess extraordinary powers. I do not see these things but l have no reason to doubt them. The point is that there are many things we don’t know. What people call witches may exist but not exactly as people understand them”.

Another commentator later stated: “I will also add that being a witch does not translate to a death warrant or jungle justice. You have to be able to prove the alleged witch has broken the law. Even though in reality earthly laws are inadequate in the realm of the supernatural”.

As these posts have amply illustrated, members of the Nigerian elite – expected to lead the campaign against witch persecution and related abuses- are undecided whether witchcraft is a fact or fiction, science or superstition, real or imaginary crime. And their indecision is hurting the advocacy initiatives. Educated Nigerians continue to equivocate, and ambiguate on witchcraft matters. They should bear in mind that a latin adage that says: quod approbo non reprobo, which means “That which I approve, I cannot disapprove”. Until the Nigerian elite stops approbating and reprobating the reality of witchcraft and the existence of witches, the goal of ending witch persecution and related abuses in the country, and by extension, the continent will not be realized.

Leo Igwe directs Advocacy for Alleged Witches

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