Leadership Weekend, Ozioma Ubabukoh and Bernard Tolani Dada, 31 January 2009
Abuja — The terrible practice of brutalising children to death, or abandoning them to roam the streets like lost souls, begging bowls in hand, soliciting for alms in order to survive is probably about to end, thanks to the misfortune a self-styled bishop, Sunday Okon Williams has encountered.
Okon sometime in November last year (2008) attracted international attention to his sleepy village of Orukum in Mbo local government area in Akwa Ibom State via Britain is Channel 4 International Television crew. In a documentary they shot, the diminutive bishop was seen shaking the Holy Bible vigorously, as though he could order the ten commandments to jump out of it. He had assembled some undernourished and hopelessly sick children, whom he claimed were child witches and that he had exorcised from them the spirit of witchcraft.
A Nigerian-based television station, Independent Television (ITV), aired the documentary on January 19 and 20, 2009, depicting gory scenes of these helpless children being brutalised and sometimes killed.
To give credence to the images of these children, Bishop Williams, with no apparent signs of remorse, stated that he had killed no fewer than 110 children in the process exorcising evil spirits from them.
His words: “I have killed up to 110 people who were identified to be children witches. Recently, I delivered seven children from witchcraft. These children eat human flesh. I get these little children free from this power for a token of N400,000. I also advise their people that the cleansing should be done every night for two weeks.”
He also alleged that Akwa Ibom with a population of about 3.9 million as at the last head count, has 2.3 million witches and wizards.
Apparently disturbed by the unsubstantiated claims of the spiritual herbalist, the Akwa Ibom State government moved swiftly to counter the allegation.
On government’s directives, the state commissioner for Information and Social Re-orientation, Mr. Aniekan Umana, led the State Anti-robbery Squad (SARS) to his hideout in Orukum Village in Mbo LGA, where he was promptly arrested with his accomplices and some of the badly tortured children, whom he said were brought to him for spiritual cleansing. They were all taken to Ikot Akpanbia in Uyo, the state capital, where they were detained and subsequently interrogated.
His spiritual healing home at Ibaka was also raided and several items, including his white robes, human hair tied around red and black candles, charms, herbs and many other items were recovered.
Later paraded before newsmen at the police headquarters, the bishop, who has made a fortune conducting deliverance exercises on children, denied all the allegations. He stated that his statement made to the foreign journalists that he had killed 110 child witches was misconstrued.
Said he: “I did not say I killed the children, but I told the white journalists that I exorcised witchcraft spirits from the bodies of 110 children. Okay, if they say I killed the children, where are their graves?” he queried.
Reacting to the story, Governor Godswill Akpabio expressed regret and shock over the report, noting the international outrage greeting the report, as it continues to find its way onto other news networks like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Cable News Network (CNN), Channels Television, and is being posted on global websites.
According to Governor Akpabio, “The first day the information appeared on the World Wide Web (WWW), it had over five million visitors. It was terrible!”
Akpabio, who is being accused in several quarters of spending state funds recklessly on image making and laundering projects on the pages of national newspapers, was indeed outraged and worried. He opined: “How could a man who claims to be a bishop in the Lord’s vineyard tell such a lie to the world? His claim that more than 2.3 million people in Akwa Ibom State are witches and wizards is just a figment of his imagination. How can half of the state’s population be witches or wizards?”
But Gary Foxcroft, the Briton who for almost a year now has been catering for the ostracised children branded as witches, was, however, quick to dispute the governor’s claims.
Speaking with LEADERSHIP WEEKEND from Akwa Ibom State yesterday, Foxcroft questioned the governor’s authority in the state, stating that “The end-of-year crusade put together by the Akpabio-led government in 2008 was one charade too.”
Foxcroft said: “Everyday 5 to 6 children are branded witches; once they take leave of this community, they are not accepted back. When I came, I requested for a home where these children could be treated, looked after and groomed to be responsible people in the future, but the government told me that all they could offer was a refuge home. Come. Look at these children. Do you think a refuge home will solve their problems?”
He continued: “About five years ago, state governors in Nigeria were advised to pass into law the Child Rights Act. Why didn’t the Akwa Ibom State government proceed to do that? Akpabio is only ranting, because he is now in a tight corner and maybe none of his children or relatives has been maimed for being a child witch?”
Probably pained by the series of revelations and lapses on the part of the government, the state attorney-general and commissioner for Justice, Chief Victor Iyanan, has since denied the gory scene pictured in the documentary. According to Iyanam, such scene could have been documentary captured in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where war is still raging and children there are forced to do anything, including joining the army.
As though to hold firm to the little good reputation it still has, the state government has moved in to stop spiritualists and fake pastors in the state who are in the habit of deceiving unsuspecting parents into believing that their children are witches and wizards, and has even threatened them with heavy sanctions and prosecution.
The State House of Assembly is not left out in the war to redeem the image of the state from this negative and embarrassing portrayal of being populated by witches and wizards. LEADERSHIP WEEKEND checks gathered it quickly commenced debate on the pending Child Rights bill. Speaker Ignatius Edet, during one of their sittings, urged his colleagues in the hallowed chambers of the state Assembly to look at the bill critically with a view to passing it into law to save the state. The legislature hurriedly went through the bill and passed it into law.
With statistics recorded of 15,000 children in Akwa Ibom sent out of their homes on the basis of the terrible misconception that they were witches, LEADERSHIP WEEKEND gathered that Bishop Williams is not new to being the centre of attraction and running foul of the Law. In fact, according to a source who spoke to LEADERSHIP WEEKEND on the condition of anonymity, “This incident was the second time he will come under public glare within four years.”
LEADERSHIP WEEKEND checks have it that, before his arrest by security agents last December, the bishop operated in Mbo and the surrounding villages as a soothsayer and diviner. His clientele increased in number and he was accepted by the communities.
But in May 2004, the bishop, who was popularly called Ulup Aya in the local dialect, surprised the people of Eyefa Ewang, a peaceful community in Mbo, when he was said to have killed four people with his exorcising sword for possessing the spirit of witchcraft. The remains of the victims were immediately dumped in a shallow grave by the ‘venerable’ bishop.
A few days later, security operatives came to the village and arrested him, while the decomposing bodies of the four victims were exhumed and handed over to their relatives for proper burial. Bishop Williams was taken away by the security agents and nothing was heard of him afterwards.
But in 2005 he reappeared in the community. This time, he assumed the title of an ordained Bishop in order to continue his business of soothsaying and exorcism, till the present saga which brought him and the state into international focus.