Nigeria: Akwa Ibom Witchcraft Riddle

Daily Independent (Lagos), 1 Nov. 2008, Isioma Madike

She lies curled up by the wayside. She looks wretched in rags. Scattered pieces of rocks nearby indicate that she has been there for days. Her crime: She was alleged to have confessed to being a witch. She is said to have killed family members, drank human blood and brought ruin and ill health to her friends. This especially makes her highly hated by her neighbourhood.

Udeme, a native of Itu village, like many of her kinfolk, squats in the fringes of her neighbourhood, dejected and neglected. Looking haggard, Udeme cuts the picture of a child from the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan, malnourished with rashes all over her tiny body.

Itu is not the only one in the villages that habour these unfortunate little souls. Tens of them are found in most known quarters of Akwa Ibom State including Eket, the oil-rich community as well as the municipal environs of Uyo, the state capital. They are occasionally found in groups as they scrape life from the unfriendly populace. They are starved, tortured, abandoned and even killed because their parents are afraid and they have become the targets of communities’ witch-hunt. Nonetheless, the streets, the highways and the markets welcome the entire guests with open hands.

Their age, ranges from two to 18. Gradually, they have become destitute, hanging their fate on God for survival, or so it seems; a paradox of sort in a state of stupendous wealth.

Witches in contrast to normal human beings are imagined to be the source for most horrible misfortune on their families and communities. They were viewed as the embodiment of everything evil. It is believed that witches could only practice their wicked art only in the dead of night.

In most Nigerian villages, even towns, and recently cities, deaths, natural disasters, and epidemics are blamed on witches. In most beliefs, a witch is said to confess her “crimes” before she dies or goes mad. Homeless, possibly childless old women driven from their matrimonial homes are especially the victims of these alleged “confessions”. Old women driven into the streets and losing their mind, in their madness utter nonsense to the effect of being witches, killing their husbands and children, causing accidents, and bringing ruin on their families are immediately set upon and stoned to death by passers-by. Even the educated and the rich believe in the existence of people who “fly-by-night.”

The belief in witchcraft; treatment of those accused of being witches and the maltreatment of their families have been part of the African cosmogony for ages. But the brewing calamity occasioned by the recent labeling of children as witches has, indeed, become an easy pastime of exorcists in Akwa Ibom State.

In this neighbourhood, children alleged to be witches and wizards are usually abandoned and thrown into the streets by their parents or guardians. Child-witchcraft, according to natives, appears to be very rampant now than ever before. A day hardly passes without children being allegedly identified as or confessing to having witchcraft. Though witchcraft is not new in Nigeria, child-witchcraft, it appears, is fast becoming the fad. The trend has hit Akwa Ibom State like a plague, and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), are springing up to reap from the huge budgets of some sponsored interest, sometimes condemning the acts of branding children as witches and wizards.

Akwa Ibom State has the child-witchcraft saga as a peculiar problem, and it has assumed international dimension. The peculiarity of this problem has made the state the highest contributor to the issue of child trafficking, child labour, and child abuse generally.

Labelling children witches has become a fashion for some churches and other spiritual homes, and they are on the increase. There is a litany of gory tales about abused children; tales of children who have been made enemies of society by the unsubstantiated pronouncements of these spiritual homes.

Children, as small as two-year-old are pronounced as witches and the saintly homes are really having a field day labelling them, while he psyche of so many of these kids has been destroyed beyond repairs.

Saturday Enquirer gathered that the commercialisation of prayers, payment for “spiritual counselling and deliverances,” poverty, ignorance and fear, are among the factors responsible for the surging number of abused children on the streets.

An NGO, Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN), based in Akwa Ibom and the United Kingdom (UK), says it is tackling the twin problem of child abandonment and child witches in both Akwa Ibom and Cross River states. The organisation’s director, Gary Foxcroft was quoted as saying, “states such as Akwa Ibom and Cross River are well-known for the high number of abandoned children on their streets. Estimates place the numbers of children that have been stigmatised as ‘witches’ in these states alone at 150.”

Foxcroft said the superstitious belief, which “is also known to be prevalent in many other regions of Nigeria is leading to thousands of children being imprisoned in prayer houses, starved, beaten and even killed. Akwa Ibom State has a particular high number due to this belief.

“Such children then become easy prey for the numerous traffickers that operate in the region. Not only is this issue causing irreparable damage to the lives of these innocent children, it also paints a very negative image of Akwa Ibom State and Nigeria to the international community,” Foxcroft said.

Lucky Inyang who is the Nigerian director of SSN also said, “these states have a moral obligation to do everything in their power to enact the Child Rights Acts (CRA) as quickly as possible. “Stepping Stones Nigeria is calling on all stakeholders to unite behind its Prevent Abandonment of Children Today (PACT) campaign and save the lives of these innocent children.”

Inyang also called on Akwa Ibom State government to enact the Child Rights Acts and regulate the churches known to carry out violations of child rights. He urged the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) to take steps to ban all films that promote superstitious beliefs and lead to abuse of children’s rights.

But, Helen Ukpabio, founder and senior pastor of Liberty Gospel Church in Calabar, the Cross River State capital says it is all a fraudulent attempt to rip off the region.

The minister of God accused Sam Ikpe-Itauma, who claims to run the NGO at Eket that houses the alleged 150 children, to have started the problem.

“There is a man in Eket who is creating this problem. He is Sam Ikpe-Itauma.”

Ukpabio equally accused Europeans of insincerity and pumping money to the wrong hands in the name of NGO.

Ikpe-Itauma is said to have opened his house to a few homeless waifs he came across, and tries his best to look after them.

“The neighbours were not happy with me and tell me ‘you are supporting witches.’ This project was an accident. I saw children being abandoned and it was very worrying. I started with three children, then every day it increased, so we had to open this new place. For every five children we see on the streets, we believe one has been killed, although it could be more as neighbours turn a blind eye when a witch child disappears. It is good we have this shelter, but it is under constant attack,” Ikpe-Itauma said.

Ikpe-Itauma’s wife, Elizabeth is said to act as nurse to the injured children, and has named their refuge home Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRRN). The home, according to reports, has found support from a charity running a school in the area, SSN, which is reported to be interested in assisting to feed the children.

“But the numbers turning up here are a huge challenge,” Ikpe-Itauma quipped.

Akwa Ibom State Governor, Godswill Akpabio has expressed anger over the activities of some white garment churches he said threw over 150 children into the streets for “possessing witchcraft.”

Akpabio said, “All these white garment churches deceiving and destroying families should stop what they are doing. I intend to address the entire church congregation in the state. I’ve arranged with the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) to talk to the churches because they’re destroying many families.

“In Akwa Ibom State, we have over 150 children who have been thrown into the streets by pastors who claim the children are into witchcraft. They even attempted to burn some children alive in the state. We’ve rescued children who have been almost burnt to death on the basis that they are into witchcraft,” the Governor explained.

There has been an international outrage against the Liberty Gospel Church for its belief and strategies. The “Stop Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries of Nigeria from labelling children as witches” has been on for about two years now. Kelly Stowe, the sponsor explained: “We the undersigned are outraged to hear about your churches labelling children as witches. Unfortunately, many of the children are starved, tortured, abandoned and even killed because their parents and the communities are afraid. The rest of humanity finds that this is evil and totally shameful. Please stop these shameful activities. l do plead with you and your churches to stop the endangering of these innocent children, they are not evil, they are normal children and they have rights.”

The PACT was launched by Stepping Stones Nigeria and the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) in November 2006, in response to the widespread abuses of children’s rights taking place in Akwa Ibom State due to the deeply held local belief in child “witches.”

Though there have been reactions from all parts of the globe, which come from people of different backgrounds, dispositions are not unanimous. Nevertheless, there are reactions condemning the continuous labelling of children as witches, and killing them in the process.

Witchcraft is rooted in primitive societies. Fear and ignorance plays powerful roles in its growth and development. It often used to explain away bad harvests, illnesses, deaths and deterioration of farmlands; it acts as a socio-psychological and moral restraint. There is the belief that human soul could exist independent of the body and at night quits the body to assume the form of a creature to carry out evil acts against others. Although an imaginary world, when used to explain away poverty, illnesses, accidents and natural disasters, becomes a horrifying “reality.” Its victims are usually the weakest segments of society-women and children.

Socio-economic problems and tensions reflect in the collective perception as acts of witchcraft. Everyday problems arising from the dislocation and worsening of society were blamed on witches, and protection sought from a “witch doctor.” The fear of witchcraft is not peripheral; it touches virtually all fragment of society and is deeply rooted in the communal consciousness.

Some churches are, indeed, said to be helping to create a terrible new campaign of violence against young Nigerians, branding children and babies as evil.

In 1995, the nation woke to the macabre story of two children whose fingers were burnt by a church prophetess in alliance with their father to get them to confess to an alleged “witchcraft powers” which, according to the prophetess, have been using to ‘bewitch’ their father and causing him misfortune. Shocking as it was, many believed the charge of witchcraft against the children.

The father of the children at the time was a poor factory worker who earned N1, 200 monthly. He was expected to feed and cloth himself and his family, pay his children’s school fees and transport himself to and from work.

Experiences like this abound in many parts of the country.

The youth in Isu, headquarters of Onicha Local Government Area of Ebonyi State who were incensed by lack of development once conducted a wide-raging bloody operation leading to the killing of alleged witches and wizards in an attempt to rid the community of “enemies of progress.”

Onicha-Ugbo, a rustic town, and Idumu-Ogo, a small agrarian village, all in Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State, experienced their dose of anti-witchcraft campaign, the former in 2005 and the latter in 1998. In these two communities, families were torn to shreds, that cohesiveness, which they so cherished before the witchcraft episodes, gradually slipped off their hands.

The story was not different at Ozalla, a community in Edo State, where 27 men and women were reportedly sent to the great beyond without formal consent in one day over allegation of witchcraft on November 4, 2004. The Ozalla massacre, as it came to be known, was said to have been supervised by Amen Oyakhire, a retired Assistant Inspector General (AIG) of Police and former military administrator of Taraba and Oyo states.

Oyakhire, who was said to be desperate in finding a solution to his numerous travails and vicissitudes, especially since his retirement from the Nigerian Police had alleged that some persons in his community were responsible for his woes.

Such anti-witchcraft crusade has also taken place in Uruan, in present day Akaw Ibom State. It started in November 1978, and the then Nigerian Chronicle reported that the crusade was led by a one-eyed young man, Edem Edet Akpan (alias Akpan Ekwong), who was later arrested, tried and hung for the murder of his driver.

References to witchcraft go back to ancient times and anti-witchcraft crusades are not strange to Africa. However, most of the modern world has forgotten about the fear of witches and can now think of them as harmless creatures, capable at best, of frightening the faint-hearted and children.

In Europe and America, for instance, witchcraft is now an elapsed historical reality that can best be recaptured by a new effort of the imagination. This contrasts Nigeria and Africa generally, where, like the Akwa Ibom saga has shown, the reality of witchcraft is still a big issue.

Witches are reputed to be in league with powers of darkness and are capable of conjuring forces from demonic realms. They have always been considered a most baneful variant of the human specie. They are capable of flight, usually, according to experts, on broomsticks. They peer into the human soul and do all manner of subterfuge. They are believed to have a strange faculty of foresight, the capacity to peer into the future.

Interestingly, these creatures believed to be above ordinary humanity because of their alleged powers, occupy the bottom rungs in ethnic and societal valuation. They are like outcasts who live often times on the fringes of society.

Many believe witches and wizards as being irrationally vindictive and, thus, quickly attribute overwhelming misfortunes to them. They are said to fly through the air at night, consort in gruesome covens, and participate in unpleasant habits. They are feared not only by those who fail but, perhaps, even more by the successful.

Most people blame their wretchedness on witches and complain about wasted efforts in such things as farming, trading, and other economic endeavours. In fact, native doctors are believed to be either black or white witches, and most confess belonging to the white grade during witch purge exercises.

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