By Leo Igwe
These NGOs have refrained from openly and publicly criticizing the narratives that underlie witchcraft accusations and witch persecutions. And look, make no mistake about it; if witchcraft ideas are not openly questioned, challenged, and criticized, their grip on the minds of witch believers and hunters would not loosen.
The Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AFAW) was launched in January 2020 to eradicate witch persecution and make witch-hunting history in Africa by 2030. To realize this objective, a critical mass of advocates against abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs is needed in all African countries. In this 21st century, Africa is the global hotspot for witchcraft allegation and accounts for most cases witch persecution and killing in the world. Abuses that are related to witchcraft beliefs persist in Africa partly due to lackluster initiatives that African NGOs have put in place in collaboration with their international partners. To end the persecution of alleged witches in Africa, NGOs need to review their strategies and approaches.
AFAW exists to fill the gaps in the advocacy campaign against witch persecution in the region. Unfortunately, the campaign has been dominated and driven by western NGOs who use a patronizing and exoticizing approach in addressing the issue. Like western anthropologists, many western NGOs have refused to call out African witchcraft as superstition or irrational belief. They regard such designations as condescending attributions and disrespectful of African cultural and religious sensibilities. With these positions, these organizations condone what they claim to be combating.
These NGOs have refrained from openly and publicly criticizing the narratives that underlie witchcraft accusations and witch persecutions. And look, make no mistake about it; if witchcraft ideas are not openly questioned, challenged, and criticized, their grip on the minds of witch believers and hunters would not loosen. Abuses that are linked to witchcraft beliefs will not end. So these organizations stage wishy-washy programs and make interventions that paper over the sore of witchcraft imputations and protract the issue of witch persecution. Some of the NGOs are faith organizations, and witch persecution has provided them a facility to further their re-evangelization and re-missionization agenda. So the main goal is no longer eradicating this superstitious phenomenon but replacing this traditional African witch hunting belief with a foreign demon-hunting religion. At the end of the day, these foreign missions are complicating the efforts to eradicate witch persecution in the region.
Given the economic realities in Africa, African NGOs and activists are vulnerable. They depend on these western NGOs and faith groups for financial support. In the quest to secure funding, many African NGOs and activists are compelled to align their programs to the patronizing and sometimes ineffective propositions of western NGOs and other funding agencies on how to ‘eradicate’ witch persecution in Africa. Fortunately, it is not all western NGOs and activists that subscribe to this sterile organizational approach that has yielded no significant change and has left NGOs and activists in the region chasing their tails in the name of ending witch persecution.
AFAW draws attention to these shortcomings in existing approaches and urges more effective measures and interventions based on the ideals of the Enlightenment in tackling abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs in the region.
While the outbreak of COVID19 has rattled the African health care system, creating enormous fears, panic, and anxieties, it has emphasized the importance of science-based and fact-based approaches to tackling public health issues. Witch persecution is a public health issue because witchcraft narratives are used to make sense of diseases and illnesses. In line with the UN agencies, AFAW has worked to dispel the scourge of misinformation about COVID19 in the region. As often the case when there are epidemics and pandemics, some people make sense of ailments by attributing them to the occult and magical forces. More so, quacks capitalize on popular ignorance; panic, and anxieties to spread disinformation. Many self-acclaimed healers emerge and try to mislead the public and take advantage of people. They propose questionable healing propositions and peddle bogus therapies and concoctions. Some of these quacks include clerics-pastors and prophets who claim that they could heal COVID19 patients through faith and prayers. They propose to heal in the name of God/Allah or they declare that God or the ancestors could heal through them. Either way, they use the deities and other supernatural entities to legitimize their dubious therapies.These faith healers usually go unchallenged; they get away with their questionable cure and miracle-claims. But the task of combating misinformation about this pandemic is urgent because COVID19 poses a local public health challenge. In the past months, AFAW has risen to the occasion. AFAW has challenged faith healers who said they could heal or have healed persons with COVID19. By the way these faith healers double as witch hunting pastors and prophets.In fact, in the early stages of the pandemic, faith healers were quiet and went underground due to restrictions on movement and a ban on social/religious gatherings. However, after a while, these pastors started rearing their faith healing heads again. One of them, pastor Suleman asked the government to allow him into the COVID19 isolation centers so that he and other pastors with healing powers could pray for the patients. He claimed to have healed some people who had the infection. Another pastor, Goodheart Val Aloysius, also known as My Father, My Father, made a similar request. Besides, he was selling a product, some COVID19 Prevention Oil that provides “spiritual immunity to the deadly pandemic” for a hundred dollars.
Whilst Rev Oyedepo of the Living Faith Church declared that 114 church members had received their healing.
Articles and blogs that challenged these healing claims trended on social media for days and weeks. The publications provided opportunities for Nigerians and other persons across the region to discuss and comment on the topic of faith healing. Some followers of these faith healers called, and sent messages raining insults and abuses, cursing and threatening AFAW and the author of the articles.
Destiny Theft and COVID19 pandemicThe notion that people’s destinies could be stolen or tied up through occult means is pervasive in various communities. Local pastors, mallams, diviners, and spiritualists valorize these narratives. In rural and urban areas, people use these narratives to make sense of their difficult and challenging living conditions such as the situations occasioned by COVID19. In early May, the photo of an elderly man mobbed in a community in southern Nigeria circulated on social media. People in the community accused him of stealing or withholding the destinies of young persons in the area. He was brought to the village square, beaten and disgraced. All his belongings were looted and the suspected occult accessories burnt and destroyed. Fortunately, the man survived. The community banished him. Through it network, AFAW was able to locate the man. AFAW supported the relocation of the victim to a safe community and is contributing to the man’s medical care and rehabilitation. At the time of filing this report, AFAW received reports that some members of the community asked the victim to pay a fine of 250, 000 naira (550 dollars) or forfeit his land in the community as a penalty for what he did. AFAW is working with family members to ensure that the man does not suffer further victimization. AFAW is in touch with the traditional ruler of the affected community and plans to initiate a dialogue with youths and community leaders on the issue of stealing destinies, the banishment of suspects, and other superstition related abuses.
As AFAW was trying to contain the case of the man accused of stealing the destinies of people in his community, it received reports of a horrifying witch-hunting incident in Cross River state. At least 15 suspected witches were set ablaze in the community. A local politician, Thomas Obi Tawo (also known as General Iron) masterminded the lynching of the alleged witches. The victims included his mother. Tawo claimed that the mother and other relatives were appearing in his dream and threatening to kill him. Family sources said that he had made similar complaints in the past. This time, after consulting a ‘man of God’, he could not take it any longer. On May 19, he brought some witch-finders to the Oku community in Boki local government area. They went from house to house pointing out suspected witches. They threw them into the fire.
Leo Igwe is a Public Policy Analyst.