Juju and Gambian Jurisprudence

Gambia Journal, 23 February, 2010

In the surreal and magical world of Gambia’s current national affairs it seemed to be in order that Justice Joseph Wowo of the High Court in Banjul on Wednesday 3rd February, convicted and sentenced  three Gambian men to six years imprisonment each for conspiracy to overthrow the legal government of The Gambia and acquisition of criminal charms.

Messrs Osseh Abdul Aziz Corr, Alasan Mbowe and Babucarr Njie were in 2008 arrested for allegedly hiring the services of a witch-doctor from Sierra Leone in order to help overthrow the Jammeh government through the use of supernatural means. The men had been lingering in the remand wing of the Mile Two Prisons since their arrest about fifteen months ago.

Their trial at the Banjul Magistrate’s court before Magistrate Edrissa Mbye attracted lot of public interest and the sittings were well attended largely because of the popularity of one of the accused, Osseh Abdul Aziz Corr, who is a famous cultural personality, known as being one of those behind the Banjul Gesseh masquerade revival.  Most people sympathized with the accused because most believed the accusations were false as none of the men had any record of political concern, interest or activity. These were among the things Magistrate Mbye considered when he dismissed the charges against them and set them free last October. He also considered the fact that the prosecution’s principal witness, himself accused to be an accomplice by police and NIA investigators, had not been corroborated by any other witness for the interest of justice. Magistrate Mbye set aside the evidence of the NIA agents who testified in court because they refused to swear before testifying on the case in court.

But even after Magistrate Mbye dismissed the case against the three, police and prison authorities refused to comply with his order to set the men free. The case was a sensitive one as the prosecution had presented it as a case in which the men, through occult conspiracy had posed danger to both the health of President Yahya Jammeh and the peace and stability of the republic. The courts could say what they want but anyone responsible for their release from detention would have scores to settle with the Gambian dictator. Everyone working with the police, courts and the prisons is well aware of this.

There are many past and current cases to remind them of this wisdom. Among them are the cases of former Inspector Bojang, former Officer in Charge of the Yundum police station who after seventy-two hours of detaining a man accused of rustling President Jammeh’s cattle, freed him when he came to be convinced of the detainee’s innocence. Both the policeman and the then Chief of Kombo East who corroborated the accused man’s plea of innocence, were summarily sacked from their respective positions and Bojang later spent months in detention for the action.  President Jammeh’s logic, as demonstrated in that particular case was logically straightforward enough: Inspector Bojang had let loose his cattle rustler so will have to serve the rest of the thief’s time in detention. There is also the more topical case of Momodou Manga, a former employee of President Jammeh’s privately owned Kanilai Group International, who has been in remand for almost two years for allegedly stealing a large amount of cash from the firm. Several magistrates in Kanifing have ordered for him be granted bail without this being done. The first magistrate to grant him bail, former magistrate Buba Jawo, was sacked with immediate effect. Last year Ex-Magistrate Sagarr Jaharteh resigned from her position when she discovered that Mr. Manga had not been accorded the bail she had long granted him. Just on Wednesday, February 4th, Lawyer Edward Gomez, Manga’s defense counsel, decried the delay in the case, because the case has become a no-touch hot potato for the courts as Manga lingers at the Remand Wing of the Mile Two prison where he has been for more than two years while on trial.

Meanwhile, several weeks after Magistrate Mbye’s judgment on the case of the three men, the state filed in an appeal against it at the High Court in Banjul, late last year. The task of overturning the judgment was naturally passed into the hands of one of the Nigerian High Court Judges, all of them on contract with the government of The Gambia and suspected by many Gambians to be corrupt and mercenary, always deciding in favour of the state for fear of losing the lucrative contracts.   Justice Joseph Wowo, of the Banjul High Court was assigned to preside over the matter.

The state used another contract-Nigerian legal professional, Deputy Public Prosecutor, Richard Chenge, to argue out its appeal case. He argued that Magistrate Mbye had erred in law when he refused to take in the submission of the principal prosecution witness and when   he discredited the un-sworn evidences given by two NIA operatives. Chenge called the Magistrate’s judgment “perverse.” He added that the “High Court can set aside the perverse findings of the magistrate and make findings where the magistrate perversely refused to make findings.”

When it was time for him to make judgment on the matter , after a brief and hurried appeal trial, Justice Joseph Wowo, quickly declared his agreement with the prosecution that “evidence of an accomplice if done with good intention  does not require corroboration in law.” He pointed out that the refusal of the three accused persons to reveal the names of ten other alleged participants in the conspiracy who are suspecting of financing the trip, sustenance and the bill of the Sierra Leonean witch-doctor, “shows that they were making the juju for an evil purpose. “ The High Court judge found the three men guilty of conspiracy to acquire criminal charms and actually making criminal charms for reward, convicted and sentenced them to two years on one count and four years for the other count with Babucarr Njie sentenced to suffer only three years penal servitude.

It was clear to many that Wowo’s judgment was a clear miscarriage of justice. How could it be said that the evidence of an accomplice, dictated and framed-up under torture and enticement in a plea bargain, was done with good intention? How could the accused persons be expected to furnish the NIA with the names of ten alleged financiers and co-conspirators if they do not really exist? If the ten were not fantasy figures of pre-trial investigators why didn’t the well-intentioned accomplice provide the names?
But what struck us more is the angle of argumentation that defence counsel, Lawyer Secka, took on the case. Perhaps cowed by the fact that he was defending a case of particular political interest, Secka took the whole matter very lightly, almost apologetically, in our opinion. All he did was to defend Magistrate Mbye’s original judgment without tackling the primary case of whether the practice of the occult, supernatural and fetish acts can be criminal in law. Whether the laws of the Gambia, mainly based on the English Common Law, even recognizes fetishism; that someone, instead of using the bullet, can throw invisible particles like ballistics, commonly called korrteh, to kill, maim, or send to the madhouse, a targeted enemy. Whether one mystic man from the Poro or Bondo devil societies of Sierra Leone can create charms that would annihilate all the State House guards, get at Yahya Jammeh, and get him killed. What would be the law of evidence in such a case? Would common sense, natural logic, cause and effect and empirical evidence matter at all in the judicial determination of such a case?

Do not be surprised if Magistrate Mbye, Richard Chenge, Justice Wowo and Lawyer Secka, all themselves, believe that juju works and can be used to overthrow the democratically elected government of The Gambia, Nigeria , or any African country. For according to this   occult philosophy  there are parallel existences with different laws of nature, one,  where the laws of Newton, Einstein and Intel applies and the other where everything can happen. Nocturnal congregations of flying witches who can feed on human bodies without having to touch them. Verses that, when properly chanted, can tear through walls, steel gates and doors, distances near and far, to knock out targets, leaving them sick and helpless. Packets of charms and amulets that protect one against bullets, the cuts of knives and other sharp objects.  In this world what can happen is only limited by the scope of one’s imagination.

Though he claims he wants to transform The Gambia into Africa’s Silicon Valley, with his Putampaff magical thinking, of fetish herbs that treat all diseases and witches on a conspiracy to take over the world, the Gambian dictator appears to be taking us all, with judicial sector and all, into his fantasy world. Shortly after taking power, President Jammeh’s agents once arrested a cross section of the notables in the Western region town of Brufut , including the late and  former Alkalo, Khalifa Sanno, on the grounds that they had conducted a “Black Fatihaa” prayer in conspiracy against his regime. They were all arraigned before the Brikama Magistrate’s court and slapped with charges. But then there were still some of the remnants of the sanity and rule of law that prevailed during the First Republic lingering around and the courts still enjoyed some independence and integrity. The court naturally threw out the case for its absurdity. It was with the same grounds that Magistrate Edrissa Mbye set the three accused persons faced with no less absurd charges. But now times have changed and things are different. Instead of a move towards the twenty-first century, things appear to be retarding backwards towards the 19th century.

Though there are no clearly articulated stands on witchcraft in Gambian law, it can be said that under the country’s laws it is illegal for anyone to call oneself or anyone else a witch or fetishist. The belief in sorcery, fetishism, and juju, is based on presumptions that are too irrational, obscurantist and superstitious to allow accommodation into modern jurisprudence but they often lead to consequences that have to do with the maintenance of law and order of societies, most especially African societies. This is true most especially so when it has to do with this belief system’s witchcraft application. The belief system could have been ignored if it had remained an essentially philosophical or ontological worldview, but it is when it is put into practise that it becomes a craft that has direct implications for people, society and the law. And even in this 21stcentury of enlightenment, the triumph of Western civilization, scientific and technological advancement, the Information society and global Village there has been little retreat from this primitive belief system anywhere in Africa. In fact it looks like there are now more frequent cases of the confrontation between the law and juju all over Africa.

Never a month goes by without news witchdoctors accused of using human body parts in their spells. Some witchdoctors employ gangs of young men to attack and kill victims, often young children, for their body parts, which are frequently removed while the victim is still alive.  An estimated 300 people are killed each year in South Africa alone as a result of this practice. In Nigeria, in both the Muslim North and the Christian South, witch hunts are not uncommon and this has led to a second form of abuse. Some unscrupulous pastors, many linked to Pentecostal churches, have a lucrative trade in making unfounded accusations of witchcraft against young children. The pastors then agree to “cure” the witches for a substantial fee. Many children are being ostracized and abandoned by their parents as a result of these accusations.

Victims accused of witchcraft often suffer appalling abuse, reminiscent of the European witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many being burned alive. Last year’s state-sponsored and President –Jammeh initiated witch hunting and kidnappings by armed militias in the Gambia are still fresh in the minds of most Gambians. In Tanzania, Albinos are targeted for their body parts which are believed to bring good luck. Similar situations exist in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It has been a tradition in Ghana, Zambia and Kenya to accuse childless old women of witchcraft. In Nigeria one unscrupulous pastor who has made a fortune from unfounded accusations of witchcraft, wrote in her book ‘Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft’ she states that a child under the age of two that cries at night and has poor health is ‘an agent of Satan’. This ridiculous claim has ensured Ms Ukpabio a steady stream of parents paying to have their children ‘cured’. Almost every hour in the Gambia one can hear FM radio announcement of so called marabouts advertising their services, referred to as African traditional medicine, which can cure all the ailments the human body and mind can be affected with.

Because of this widespread nature of its practise, African, but especially Gambian, jurisprudence must develop laws to tackle the problem, recognize its social and legal impact without surrendering common sense and the dictates of scientific enquiry. One plus one is two, neither more nor less no matter what magic one uses. Osseh Abdul Aziz Corr, Alasan Mbowe and Baboucarr Njie should not be charged and convicted for conjuring up, creating or peddling criminal charms, simply because no such charms exist in law.  The mercurial Gambian President is busy trying to accommodate magical worldview into Gambian officialdom and state affairs , but he must made to realize that such belief and practise should be quarantined in his native village of Kanilai. The other arms of government in the legislature and the judiciary must do more through improved education and better policing – to eliminate the twin scourges of those practicing witchcraft and those claiming to find and “cure” witches.

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