Tackling Witch Persecution Amid COVID19 Pandemic in Africa

 

By Leo Igwe

 

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.

 

Misinformation About COVID19

 

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 pandemic

 

The 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.

 

Witch burning in Cross River

 

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. Three of the victims have died while others are receiving treatment at local hospitals. A police station exists in Boki but the police did not intervene. The matter has been reported to the police at the state headquarters in Calabar but no arrest has been made. The government has yet to extend any support to the victims. Instead, the chief press secretary to the governor issued a statement denying the involvement of any official in the incident. Some have said that the reason why there has been no action on the part of the government or the police is that General Iron is an aide to the governor of Cross River, Ben Ayade.

 

So pressure must be brought to bear on the police and the state government in Cross River to apprehend Tawo and other suspected perpetrators of this savage act. Nigerian authorities should take urgent steps and bring an end to impunity and witch persecution in the region. AFAW is in touch with some of the victims and their families and has supported the payment of their medical bills. Police authorities in the state have been urged to investigate the incident and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

 

Faith Clinics in Zambia

 

The vision of AFAW is to end witch persecution in Africa. Although limited funding and ban on international travels have impacted programs and activities outside Nigeria, AFAW has been actively campaigning in other African countries. In May, AFAW wrote a letter commending the police and the mayor of Ndola for arresting a local pastor, James Nwale, also known as Yakobo Yakobo. AFAW called the police in Lusaka and in Ndola urging them to take measures against other faith clinics in the country. James was using his church, Restoration Apostolic Pentecostal Church International, as a faith clinic. The police raided the church and found sick members living side by side with domestic animals. Witch persecution happens due to a lack of regulation of health and worship centers. Pastors claim to be faith doctors and use their church premises as clinics. Regulatory bodies in various countries have largely turned a blind eye on the illegal activities of these faith doctors such as T B Joshua of Nigeria. This situation must change. Other African countries should borrow a leaf from the police in Zambia and tackle pastors who use their premises as faith hospitals.

 

Holding Alleged Witches Hostage in Malawi

 

AFAW has also urged police authorities in Malawi to arrest and prosecute a local witch hunter, Berna, who is reportedly holding 30 alleged witches hostage in her compound in northern Malawi. One of Malawi’s newspapers, The Nation covered this story in May. The police promised to investigate the incident. According to local sources, people who suspect witchcraft or those who claim to be bewitched invite Berna to identify, exorcize, and cleanse their communities of occult forces. Berna’s witch cleansing exercise involves beating, abduction, and fining of suspected witches. Alleged witches who are unable to pay the fines are taken away and detained at the compound of Berna until they can pay up. This practice has been going on for some years, and has led to the detention of 30 alleged witches.

 

As in the case of Nigeria, local police posts exist in the communities in northern Malawi. But the police have not intervened to stop Berna’s witch-hunting activities. Police officers in the area claimed that they feared a backlash; that the people in the community could overpower and burnt down their posts if they tried to stop witch-finding operations. Community leaders have advanced the same reason to explain why they condone witch persecution. Persons who suspect witchcraft pressure the leaders to allow witch identifiers into the communities. Thus they get local leaders to allow these occult experts to come and resolve the problem. Police and community leaders need to liaise and find solutions to this pervasive problem. It is the responsibility of the police and other state authorities to protect lives and property. There is a need to put in place mechanisms that provide evidence-based explanations for witchcraft fears and anxieties and help bring an end to these criminal activities and abuses.

 

Conclusions

 

While the outbreak of COVID19 has led to increased fear, tension, stress, uncertainty, and other conditions that trigger witchcraft accusations and witch persecution, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of science and facts in providing answers and solutions to human problems. People impute witchcraft due to superstitions, ignorance and misconceptions about the causes of misfortune such as sickness, accidents, and death. They use witchcraft notions and belief in demon possession to make sense of misfortunes.This practice is reinforced by the reluctance and unwillingness of a critical mass of Africans to question and challenge faith healing claims of godmen and women.

 

As the management of the coronavirus pandemic has illustrated, religious propositions are largely unhelpful in providing answers to human problems. Revealed positions and doctrines complicate efforts to combat abuses that are linked to beliefs in witchcraft and occult harm. But this does not mean that faith-based agencies cannot participate in this critical campaign against witch persecution in Africa. Witch persecution is a faith-driven phenomenon. Faith-based institutions must come on board or be brought on board the campaign to dispel this dark and destructive phenomenon. While religious and faith-based communities could partner in supporting and rehabilitating victims of witch persecution, efforts must be made to ensure that their programs and interventions are guided by science, not superstitions, reason not revealed texts, and based on facts, not fiction, critical thinking not dogma. In situations where these assurances are made and confirmed, partnerships should be forged but in cases where these operational principles cannot be guaranteed, or where there is no clear commitment to using science and evidence-based knowledge to address the problem, ties should be severed or not forged. It is only a robust campaign against witchcraft allegations and witch persecution that is guided by science, reason, critical thinking, and facts that will help in the realization of a witch-hunting free Africa by 2030.