Nigerian Village Square, Dr Olusegun Fakoya, 23 Sept. 2010
I am immensely disturbed by reports emanating from Akwa Ibom state on the vitriolic action of the state government against the activists of the child witchcraft problem in the state. In particular, the state government was reported to have directed the immediate arrest of both Gary Foxcroft and Sam Itauma, leaders of Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) and Stepping Stone Nigeria (SSN), the two NGOs actively involved in focussing world attention on the plight of innocent children in that state.
Mr Godswill Akpabio’s action was a follow-up to the interview he recently granted the CNN wherein he surmised thus:
1. Reports of child abuse associated with witchcraft in his state are grossly exaggerated. It is a minimal problem which has been instantly corrected by signing the Child Rights bill to law in 2008.
2. The problem in Akwa Ibom state is not witchcraft but poverty.
3. His government has established centres for orphaned children, cast out either because they are accused of practicing magic or because their families are too poor to care for them (emphasis mine)
4. Governor Akpabio was particular irked by the report sent by SSN to the United Nations on this child witchcraft issue.
The issues raised by Governor Akpabio appear self-defeating on face value and even after deep-seated analysis. Here is a governor who once actively supported the cause of stigmatised children in his state and even voluntary donated to improve their plight suddenly becoming a formidable antagonist. This sudden transmutation of the governor raises concerns especially as active politics is currently thriving in Nigeria and the governor has been reported to have picked up a form for a second term bid. Again, coming on the heels of a recent warning of perdition by a noted chid witchcraft practitioner in the person of that ignoble apostle of hate, Helen Ukpabio, this sudden volte-face on the part of Governor Akpabio raises many questions than answers.
However, the most pertinent issue that begs for an answer is if truly the problem of child witchcraft indeed exists in Akwa Ibom state. The world has watched series of documentaries and eye witnesses’ accounts highlighting the existence of this problem. Governor Akpabio admitted this much by the support he rendered in 2008 to the NGOs involved in tackling this problem. Also by passing the Child Rights bill into law with alacrity, the governor tacitly admitted that indeed a problem exists. However, what Governor Akpabio wanted us to believe now is that the alacrity with which he passed this bill into law translated into the total eradication of same problem with immediate effect. It is as if this governor does not live or has never lived in Nigeria. The days when mere passages of laws translate into immediate solution are yet to arrive in our dear country.
Lack of communication and effective contacts remains the obvious cause of the present tense situation in that Akwa Ibom. Deliberate distortion of facts, organised mischief and high-powered intrigue are also contributory. Someone somewhere is not telling the exact truth or playing with facts. When there are two stories to the same problem, it is obvious that a party is either deliberately or otherwise being economical with the truth. It is either Gary Foxcroft and Sam Itauma concocted this problem and massively deceived the world or that the government failed to get its facts right or is frantically trying to suppress the problem for reasons best known to it. The fact that Governor Akpabio seems to be a highly educated person makes his current stance all the more perplexing.
The issue at stake now is if Akpabio’s current posture is a reflection of a government in touch with grassroots problems and dilemma. The impression that has been created so far is that this may be far from the truth. We are all living witnesses to the fact that it took the efforts of a foreign-based NGO (the Stepping Stone Nigeria) to highlight the existence of the child witchcraft problem in Akwa Ibom state. The state was not bereft of a government with all constitutional apparatus of gathering information and making effective situational analysis at that time. Despite his much propagated popularity, Governor Akpabio may actually belong to the cadre of hearsay governors who depend on the motley crowd of bootlickers to grease their egos. He has so far not succeeded in generating a lasting impression of a government really in touch with his people’s problems and one willing and having the capacity to proffer panacea to them.
In any case, so far, Governor Akpabio is still not denying the fact that the problem of child witchcraft exists in his state. His only concern is that it is very marginal and not as exaggerated as being portrayed by the duo of Sam Itauma of CRARN and Gary Foxcroft of SSN. Governor Akpabio has actually taken the proactive step of setting up an orphanage to cater for children accused of practicing magic or those forced out of homes by their parents because of poverty. This governor readily admits that poverty is the bane of the issue in his state but missed the point in not connecting poverty with the exaggerated Pentecostal revivalism in his state and the geometric rise in the incidents of so-called orphans, some of whom were accused of practicing magic. In the governor’s attempt at disparaging the noble efforts of those who have committed time and resources to ensuring the quality of life to stigmatised children in his state, he deliberately avoided using the term witchcraft and rather sought solace in the words practicing magic.
At this juncture, we need to ask Governor Akpabio for his definition of magic. What does it entail for a child to practice magic? Frankly, what is the connection between children and magic from the Akwa Ibom state perspective? Employing tautology in evading a vexing problem serves little to endear a governor. It is lame duck and an affront to common sense and intelligence. If a governor thinks that an age long superstition actively fuelled by mischievous Christian charlatans (traders in superstition according Okey Ndibe) of the likes of Helen Ukpabio and Sunday Ulup-Aya, can be simply nipped in the bud by the passing of a law and creation of an orphanage, such a governor perhaps does not belong to this age and time. It smirks of sheer irresponsibility and criminal neglect to dismiss a pervading problem so callously.
Governor Akpabio’s recent pronouncements, behaviour and actions raise some concerns. One keeps on wondering what could have elicited such a brash and irresponsible behaviour from the generally amiable governor. It would be disappointing if it has anything, in the least, to do with his impending second term bid. If the dictates of politics and the need to seek rapprochement, especially considering the massive influence of Pentecostal pastors in the largely illiterate state, is contributory to this about turn, then I have nothing but disgust for Godswill Akpabio.
It behoves on Godswill Akpbaio to furnish the public with details of the state findings on the “scam” being perpetrated by the duo of Gary Foxcroft and Sam Itauma before he proceeds any further with his orchestrated campaign of calumny, harassment and intimidation against them. In addition, the governor needs to provide detailed information on the number of “orphaned children” that his centre has catered for since inception. We are particularly interested in the percentages of children found to have been practicing magic and those “orphaned” by poverty. These figures are crucial and important for the public to adequately assess the situation in Akwa Ibom and to properly place the various participants in the saga, Gary, Sam and Akpabio inclusive.
The exponential increase in Pentecostal militancy in the state is obviously a consequence of high rate of poverty and ignorance. Contemporary history has also indicated that religion, especially Nigerian Pentecostalism, has been nothing but exploitative, deceitful and retrogressive. This is a scenario which has been demonstrated nationally and apt to be even worse in a backward state like Akwa Ibom. The militancy that characterises the phenomenon of child witchcraft in that state, actively championed by that Apostle of Doom, Helen Ukpabio, raises question about the wickedness of man to man. A problem categorically exists in Akwa Ibom state and Governor Akpabio is probably the only person not aware of the magnitude of such a problem. A perhaps more rational approach on the part of the governor would have been a roundtable engagement with the NGOs and other stake holders, especially if any of their activities is truly affecting the image of the state. This problem cannot just be merely swept under the carpet..
The whole world is actively watching the drama unfolding in Akwa Ibom state, especially the misuse of the state’s machinery of coercion in haunting activists and well wishers of the state. This international embarrassment to Nigeria should not be allowed to continue unchecked. Akwa Ibom state is in a state of denial, denial of an existing problem that has apparently defied the state government’s kid-glove solution. Employing aggression in arm-twisting activists only serves to further short-change the innocent children who took shelter with CRARN and look up to Sam Itauma for their daily survival. Again, it is another way of playing the entire state apparatus of governance into Helen Ukpabio’s hands. The mad prophetess must be laughing real mad at the stupidity of those in government while her bank accounts continue to swell. Or could be that Godswill Akpabio is really afraid of the tragic consequence that befell Saddam Hussein as warned by Helen Ukpabio?
It is not too late in the day for Governor Akpabio to minimize the damage caused by his sudden volte-face and unsurpassed recklessness. That he is a state governor does not make him the greatest repository of knowledge or ideas. This does not also immune him from errors such as he is presently committing. His lack of touch with stark reality in his state has been highlighted by this child witchcraft imbroglio. Dearth of resourceful and wise counselling in government has also been actively demonstrated. The pity is that an impression of a government composed of clowns is being permanently etched on the world’s consciousness. A very tactful and more reasonable approach to matters is urgently called for. Governor Akpabio need not be afraid of the Saddam Hussein consequence but rather seek to immortalise his name as a governor who was genuinely responsive to the needs of his people especially innocent children. This is the only lasting legacy worth applauding.