Emmanuel Una, 12 Jan. 2009
In 1998, Mrs Helen Ukpabio, a Calabar-based evangelist, in her desire to promote her unique brand of Christianity, which focuses on the fight against witchcraft, demonology and the occult, delved into home video making which was gaining popularity then.
With the assistance of Nollywood stars like Keppy Ekpenyong, Zack Orji, Justus Esiri and Teco Benson–she later fell out with most of them–she came up with a film she titled The End of the Wicked. In the movie, she depicted children as being capable of possessing spiritual powers which enabled them to transform into animals like cats, dogs, snakes, cattle and insects like cockroaches, to wreak havoc on their parents, guardians, family members and neighbours.
As fate would have it, many parents, guardians, relatives and neighbours in Akwa Ibom and Cross River states believed the movie and adopted it as the standard measure in their relationship with their children or those in their care. Soon, those who were visited by misfortune readily pointed accusing fingers at their children or juvenile househelps. These children were taken to spiritual homes, prayer houses, white garment or even Pentecostal churches for “screening” by the prophets or evangelists to certify whether they were witches, wizards or safe–that is, free of occult powers. Suffice to say that most of them got the guilty verdict.
Fearful of living with such children declared as witches or wizards, parents or guardians sought the assistance of prophetesses and evangelists to “deliver” them of such powers, for a fee. The practice soon became a booming trade, with the religious practitioners becoming very powerful and rich. Those at the receiving end were children, who were often forced to “confess” the havoc they had wreaked on the family or their benefactors. Consequently, they became stigmatised, traumatised and brutalised.
Often, after “confessing” children were tied in the family house and left without food for days. Those who were lucky to be declared “delivered and safe” by the prophets and evangelists were constantly under suspicion and were regularly taken to the churches for “check-up” to ascertain their spiritual status. In many cases, children ended up killed and dumped in the bush or sent away to live on the streets.
The practice was rife especially among the poor, who attributed their suffering to the wiles of children tagged witches or wizards. Such children were deemed not worthy of living by the community and as such, no one would come to their aid, and anybody who did risked being dealt with as an accomplice.
Narrating an experience he had which amply illustrates how dire the situation is, Mr Sam Ikpe-Ituma of Child’s Right and Rehabilitation Network, a non-governmental organisation which is assisting in the rescue and rehabilitation of stigmatised children alongside the enlightenment of parents against such acts, told this magazine: “One day in June 2003 … I was so touched when I got to Ikot Odiong, a popular market in Eket, the Oil City of Akwa Ibom State, when I saw three children being chased and beaten with machetes and clubs. When I asked what was amiss, I was told that they were witches and wizards.
“I intercepted and rescued the kids amidst rains of curses and abuses that I was their leader in the witchcraft world. Today, with my persistent campaign, one of those kids, Margaret is being reconciled with her mother in spite of [the mother’s] initial protest that she was now married to another man and would not be able to convince him that [Margaret] had been delivered of her witchcraft.”
Not all cases, however, have a happy ending. In fact, the stigmatisation and abandonment of children has led to a sharp increase in the rate of child trafficking in Akwa Ibom and Cross River states. The United Nations Children Fund, UNICEF, in its 2007 and 2008 second quarter reports identified the two states as being the highest suppliers of child labour in Africa. Cities like Lagos, Abuja, Aba, Onitsha, Kaduna and African countries like Togo , Cameroon as well as European nations like France, United Kingdom, Spain and Italy are usually flooded with children from these two states. They are mostly used for menial jobs or as prostitutes.
The most bizarre of the acts against suspected child witches is their murder by their parents or relations. Sometime in November last year, two kids, Idorenyin and Anna, who were living with their aunt in Aba, Abia State as househelp, were found roaming the streets by a woman from their village in Akwa Ibom, after they were sent away by their aunt, who accused them of practising witchcraft. When she took them back to the village, however, their parents had the kids locked up in their house without food or water for three weeks. They suffered a horrifying death and their parents thereafter dumped their bodies in the bush.
In Oron, Cross River State, ten kids suspected of being witches were seared with hot iron in their anuses and allowed to bleed to death. Their bodies were subsequently dumped inside the nearby sea to feed the fish, an action the locals believe would not give them the opportunity of returning to haunt their killers.
In the first week of February 2008, in the village of Akpabuyo, a suburb of Calabar, one Bassey Edet, frustrated that he could not make a headway in his various endeavours, attributed his troubles to a niece, Rose Musa, who was staying with him. Early one morning, he took her out and gave her a severe flogging, after which he finished her off with a machete cut to the back of her head.
In several streets in Calabar, hordes of boys and girls can be seen on the streets scavenging for food. They normally hang out where parties and events are taking place to feed on leftover food. As would be expected, most of them have imbibed criminal tendencies.
A haggard-looking lad who stank of marijuana and gave his name as Bassey Thomson, told this magazine that he was sent out of the house by his mother Alice at the age of three on the advice of the pastor of their church, Mount Zion, because he was said to be possessed. He has since been sleeping rough and is now engaged by a mallam to collect scrap iron which he later sells at the Calabar Free Trade Zone. “I dey collect scrap and sell to Mallam Nura. He dey pay N7 for one kilo and sometime, I dey collect like ten kilo. Na dat money I dey take chop. Many days I no dey baf. If rain fall I fit wash for rainwater but I no get money to buy water to baff,” Bassey told TheNEWS.
However, in Calabar, Christ Embassy is taking the responsibility of caring for some of the kids accused of witchcraft. About 15 of them who were taken from the streets are now being fed and educated by the church. Pastor Marcel Obode, the branch pastor of the church, said that being on the street, the kids were a risk to the larger society because they would eventually become rogue elements. “Every kid taken off the street is one less criminal that would one day attack you. We are giving their lives a meaning and I tell you, these are potential pastors, lawyers and doctors,” he said
The outcry by non-governmental organisations and good-spirited members of the society seems to have roused the government from its nonchalance to this obnoxious practice. On 2 December, Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom threatened that the state government would close down churches and prosecute fake pastors who are in the habit of stigmatising children with the witches and wizards tag.
Speaking at the maiden Annual Teachers Award for Excellence in Akwa Ibom State public schools held at the Le Meridien Hotel and Golf Resort, Uyo, the Governor expressed shock and dismay at the reckless abandonment of children labeled witches and wizards by their parents and guardians, warning that the practice portends a dangerous signal to the society and therefore would not be allowed to continue.
Few days after the threat, one William Aya, a self-acclaimed bishop who operates a spiritual healing home at Ibaka, Mbo Local Government Area of the state, in a television documentary on Britain’s Channel Four, announced that he had killed 110 children he claimed to be witches by administering on them a “poisonous destroyer”. He claimed that over 2.3 million witches and wizards exist in the state. This pronouncement seemed to have jolted the government into action. It promptly ordered the arrest of all charlatans who operate fake churches in the state. William Aya, along with his assiatant, Udeme Okon William, was arrested in Ibaka while Akpe Alferd Akpe of Christ Apostolic Church, Ikpa Esit, Pastor Ezekiel Bassey of Ufok Udok, Pastor Samuel Excellence Omorah of Christ Evangelical Ministries, Oron were arrested and detained at the state Police Command, Uyo.
The Deputy Commissioner of Police in the state, Nasiru Oki said the arrest of the pastors was aimed at paving the way for a thorough investigation of the men of God, promising that those found culpable would be charged to court. Aniekan Umanah, the Commisioner for Information, in a press statement said the government was putting in place full legislative machinery to ensure that the evil practice is put paid to. And in a swift move the state House of Assembly, in late December, amended the Child Rights Act, with stiffer penalty for violators.
Apprehensive that the action being carried out against pastors in Akwa Ibom would be extended to her, Mrs Helen Ukpabio called a press conference in Calabar, denying that she precipitated the whole saga. She said the accusation was an attempt to blackmail her by her enemies. In an interview published by the Daily Independent on 6 January, however, she was emphatic that her fight against those she called witches would not stop.
Sam Ikpe-Ituama’s Child’s Right and Rehabilitation Network has remained in the vanguard of rescuing, rehabilitating and educating rescued children in his Eket base. There are about 170 children in his care. He also reconciles the children with their families after the witchcraft mentality has been erased from the minds of the kids. ‘‘We make them to believe that they are not witches or wizards but actually human beings like any other person. In turn we tell their parents that these children have been delivered. This method has saved a lot of children,’’ he told TheNEWS.
Ikpe-Ituama lamented that the children get stoned to death and that since the parents do not want them they are regularly carted away to some African countries where they are used as slaves or househelps.Children who are not as lucky are regularly stoned to death or tied in their rooms and allowed to die in instalments without food or water, he disclosed.
But Ikpe-Ituama can not do it alone. For the school that he runs, he asked for hostel, playground, vehicles for rescue, bicycles for the boys who are in school and funds for the staff. ‘‘We also need the cooperation of members of the public who should assist in the rescue of children when they see them come under attack from their parents or relatives,’’ he concluded.