The Sun, JOE EFFIONG, Uyo, June 01, 2011
The year 2008 will remain evergreen in the minds of religious and political leaders of Akwa Ibom State. It was the year one self-styled pastor, Bishop Sunday William, declared the entire state a coven of witches, saying there were roughly 2.3 million witches and wizards in the state, most of them children.
William, in fact, added a serious dimension to the allegation: he told the international media that he had killed 110 of such child witches. He even claimed he charged some fee, sometime as much as N400, 000, to help willing parents kill their child witches.
Over two million witches in a state of less than four million people? Everyone started looking at one another. Nobody trusted anybody again.
Soon after, Evangelist Helen Ukpabio declared that over 900 witches had come out to confess in her Liberty Gospel Church in Uyo, the state capital.
Some clergymen, including Apostle John Okoriko of the Solid Rock Kingdom Church, Uyo, and others countered the propaganda. They noted that if there were witches in the state, it would be one per town as it was in the Biblical era.
The suspicion, it seemed, even crept into government circles. The executive and legislative arms were finally jolted to dust the virtually forgotten Child Rights Act, and hurriedly passed it into law on December 5, 2008.
But before the bill was passed into law, the state governor, Godswill Akpabio had vehemently refuted Bishop William’s 2.3 million witches claim for the state. He said some of the children had confessed to being witches and wizards after they had been tortured by their parents and church leaders.
Said the governor: “If you put a nail on my head and ask me to agree that I am a wizard, I would do that to save myself from torture. That is how these children are tortured to accept that they are witches and their parents would gladly throw them out of the house.
“We will not only destroy such churches, we will also get their pastors prosecuted and jailed to set example for others because some churches are deceiving people.”
The governor said he had instructed the state’s attorney general to legally deal with such false prophets and their churches.
One of such means was the Child Rights Act, which was supposed to bury the stigmatization of children as witches forever in the state. It was even made retroactive to snare people like Bishop William who had committed the alleged offence before the bill was passed into law. That is why he is still standing trial till date “for killing 110 witches.” Though he later altered his claims, saying he only killed the spirit of witchcraft in the kids in order to free the victims, the state was no longer interested in the modified version.
At the presentation of the new law to the public, the governor had noted that every person under the age of 16 years is classified as a child and shall be entitled to inalienable rights, including their parents’ responsibility to ensure that they benefit from free education up to secondary school level. Otherwise, such parents shall on conviction be liable to N5000 fine or a two-month imprisonment or both.
The law prohibits child labour which includes buying, selling, hiring, begging for alms, prostitution, domestic or sexual labour, slavery or practices similar to slavery such as trafficking and compulsory labour, et cetera.
“The law prohibits sexual intercourse with children and classifies same as rape and also prohibits harmful publication of materials like books, magazines, film, pictures, video and audio tape which contains harmful information and to which children could have access.
“The law makes it punishable with an imprisonment of 10 years to 15 years without any option of fine for a child to be accused of witchcraft.
“For the purpose of speedy trial, the bill establishes a family court for the purpose of hearing and determining matters relating to children,” Akpabio explained. He appealed for the cooperation of all to make the law an effective protection for children “and a shelter for our posterity.”
All this happened in 2008. But checks by Daily Sun reveal that no one has so far been convicted by the law. On the contrary, it seems the number of children stigmatized and sent out of their homes by parents in collaboration with religious leaders are on the increase.
The situation is so bad that the state government recently set up a Witchcraft Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Joseph Abraham to advise it on the child witch syndrome and other incidents of child abuse.
More than 60 people, including Christian clerics, have appeared before the panel. One of those summoned was Rev. Moses Ekereobong, a Presbyter of the Methodist Church, who appeared on the allegation of his involvement in the stigmatization of a child.
But in his defence, Ekereobong said he was innocent. “I was invited by the police but I knew nothing about the said stigmatisation or about the brutalisation of a child by one of my members. When I got to the station, I saw the child and observed that the wounds inflicted on her were still fresh. I asked the father to tell me the person that inflicted the wounds as well as the person that called her a witch because, in the Methodist Church of Nigeria, such is not our practice. But the man has not given me a reasonable answer up till now. We all frowned at the matter because it’s against our policy,” the pastor said.
But the stigmatization continues even with the law in place and the commission of inquiry in session. Early last month, 21 children of between seven and 20 were found taking refuge in the moribund Qua River Hotel, Eket and in an abandoned truck by Eket Sports Stadium.
A statement issued through the office of the commissioner for information, Mr. Aniekan Umanah said government would take adequate care of the children. The statement warned those who delighted in abusing children to desist from such acts.
The statement partly reads: “An inventory of all the children has been taken by the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Welfare. A temporary facility has been put in place by the government for the accommodation of the children while a permanent facility is underway. Only one of the children, aged 17, was discovered to be an expectant mother and was immediately taken away by the government for prompt medical care.
“Government wishes to reiterate that the safety and well-being of all Akwa Ibom children is sacrosanct. We again strongly warn parents, guardians and whoever engages in the habit of sharp practices against children, especially labelling the children as witches, to desist forthwith or risk incurring the full wrath of the law.
“Government is not leaving any stone unturned in ensuring that all those culpable in the neglect and abuse of the children are brought to book in line with the provision of the Child Rights and Protection Law. The Akwa Ibom State government hereby reiterates its determination to do everything in its power to ensure the protection of children, and indeed the safety and wellbeing of all residents in the state.”
The commissioner for women affairs and social welfare, Mrs. Eunice Thomas, who personally supervised the evacuation of the children, said the state government had concluded plans to rehabilitate them. She said information about the condition of the children did not get to the government early. She promised to work expediently to integrate them into the society. The children are currently camped at the Women Development Centre pending when government will make a permanent provision for them.
As part of the rehabilitation, Thomas said the children would be given immediate medical attention even as plans to enrol them in schools were being made.
17-year-old Jane Bassey, who confessed that she was four-month pregnant, said she was ostracized because of the pregnancy.
Some of the children said they were chased out by their parents and relatives who alleged that they were witches, while some of them said they were forced out on allegations of pilfering and truancy.
Stepmothers were fingered as the masterminds of most of the ugly situations. Godswill Felix Okon said he was about taking his Common Entrance Examination when her aunt took her to a church where the pastor alleged that he was a witch, culminating in his being sent out of the house by his aunt.
Another girl, Blessing Effiong, also said she recently gave birth to a baby that was immediately taken from her by some members of the public.
For now, the stigmatization appears to be concentrating more in Eket, Oron and other riverine areas of the state, though not limited to those areas. Thomas once said her ministry spent over two million naira feeding abandoned children housed in different locations in the state. With the addition of 21 more kids, she would need more. And there is no guarantee that another set would not be discovered tomorrow.