By Leo Igwe
Although the coronavirus pandemic dealt a heavy blow to global public health and economy, this year has seen some positive developments, and some signs of hope for humanity and pointers to a better future. One of such developments is the launching of an advocacy campaign against witch persecution on the continent of Africa. Witchcraft allegations constitute a form of death sentence for the accused in the region. And this should not be the case because witchcraft is a form of superstition. Since January, the Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AFAW) has been working to fill in the gaps in activism against witchcraft allegations in the region. Witchcraft belief has been associated with the African continent for too long. Western anthropologists designate witchcraft as the gatekeeping concept for Africa, which is the frame to study and understand Africa including African thought and culture. This designation is no longer helpful if it ever was and it is time that the concept was discarded.
While there have been reports of egregious abuses linked to witch persecution in Africa, very little is being done to eradicate this social menace. Local and international programs to combat witch persecution leave much to be desired on all fronts. Western NGOs dominate and drive efforts to end witch persecution in the region. Unfortunately, many of these NGOs have some hidden agenda that is incompatible with dispelling witchcraft fears and anxieties in the region. In the name of what they call “respect for African religious and cultural beliefs”, these organizations have betrayed the cause of ending witch persecution in Africa because these organizations cannot call African witchcraft by its name: superstition. So these Western NGOs organize wishy-washy programs that paper over the problem of witchcraft allegations.
Look, to end witch persecution in Africa, the region needs robust and effective campaign programs with a clear and categorical position against witchcraft imputation and witch-hunting. Africa needs NGOs that operate without double standards, organizations that are genuinely committed to eradicating this dark and destructive phenomenon without reservations.
In its Decade of Activism 2020-2030, AFAW outlined a vision to end abuses linked to witchcraft allegations in 2030. It aims to realize a critical mass of advocates against witch persecution in all African countries. AFAW proposed an expiry date for witchcraft imputation in the region to ensure that witch persecution is approached with the urgency that it deserves. Expectedly, this Decade of Action has elicited mixed reactions. Some people think that the target is unrealistic and cannot be achieved given the enormity of the problem. These persons welcomed the vision to end witch persecution by 2030 but wondered where AFAW would get the resources to achieve this objective. Others were of the notion that the target of 2030 was realizable and that ending witch persecution in Africa was long overdue. British scientist and humanist, Richard Dawkins tweeted saying that we should not wait that long to end this violent and horrific abuse.
Since January, AFAW has hit the ground running. Despite the restrictions occasioned by the global pandemic, the campaign has made progress on various fronts. AFAW has been visible in local and international media. it has used reports and articles, press releases, and statements to challenge the narratives of witchcraft. Witchcraft belief persists in Africa because witchcraft narratives are seldom questioned or critically examined. AFAW exists to change this culture of dogma and blind faith. AFAW’s declaration that witchcraft was a myth and a form of superstition was widely reported in the media. Media outlets found the declaration newsworthy because the predominant notion was that witchcraft was real and witches existed. In churches and mosques, schools, colleges and universities, over the radio and television, on print and electronic media, Africans are taught that witches and other demonic and occult forces are facts, not fantasies. Many of those who promote these narratives are priests, pastors, and mallams, quasi clerics and spiritualists who claim to speak in the name of the traditional, Christian, or Islamic God. The largely unchallenged dubious views of these godmen and women are reported in the media. And they reinforce witchcraft beliefs and fears in the minds of the people. AFAW has been critical of the preaching and questionable claims of witch-hunting clerics. AFAW has challenged witch-hunting pastors who claimed that they healed or could heal Covid-19 patients. The skeptical challenge generated debates and discussions on social media for weeks. AFAW will continue to use its media statements to educate and enlighten, and to persuade Africans to question and critically examine witchcraft ideas.
In the past one year, AFAW has intervened in several cases of witch persecution. It has rescued and helped relocate accused persons. AFAW continues to support child victims while urging the police and other state authorities to arrest and prosecute suspected witch hunters. Beyond Nigeria, AFAW has petitioned the police and other state authorities in Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, Malawi, and Liberia urging them to take action against witch killers and witch-finders. Unfortunately, 2020 has been marked by tragic incidents linked to witchcraft beliefs. Alleged witches have lynched and stoned to death in various African countries. In Ghana, a local mob set an alleged Akua Denteh ablaze. In Nigeria, some witch hunters including a local politician lynched 15 persons suspected of witchcraft in Boki, Cross River state. Mobs burnt alleged witches in the Kisii region in Kenya and stoned them to death in Dedza, Malawi. In fact the list of victims goes on. That these horrific incidents continue to happen in this 21st century is a cause for concern and more cogent actions. Proactive measures are urgently needed locally and globally to address this problem.
Looking ahead to 2021, AFAW will continue the public education and enlightenment of the African public. It will continue to pressure state authorities to take necessary measures to dispel witchcraft fears and anxieties. AFAW will work to end impunity for crimes linked to witchcraft beliefs and ensure that witch-killers and witch hunters are brought to justice. The internet has helped in getting advocates to alert AFAW of cases of witch persecution in the region. AFAW will liaise with its partners, families of victims, community leaders across the region to ensure a rapid response to any instance of witch persecution. It will strive to extend support to the victims, educate and enlighten witchcraft accusers and believers. Witch persecution happens more often in rural communities where there is a limited presence of state institutions and services.
AFAW will work with all affected communities to specifically address the root causes and drivers of witchcraft allegations. AFAW is aware of some complex underlying drivers of witch-hunting in the region. In A Short Textbook of Preventive Medicine for the Tropics, Lucas and Gilles(1982) noted some development features in African countries: “Limited central organization of services, scattered populations living in small self-contained units, low level of economic development, limited educational facilities, and inadequate control of common agents of diseases”. They noted that “Some of these communities are still held tightly in the vicious circle of ignorance, poverty, and disease”.
Unfortunately these observed features of the African society of the 70s and 80s apply to Africa today. One must add superstition to that circle because ignorance, poverty, and disease provide a subsoil for the proliferation of irrational fears and anxieties. As AFAW’s Decade of Activism enters its second year, the movement will press ahead with its vision and mission. It will draw attention of global, regional, and local institutions to this vicious circle and other dire socio-economic situations and stressful conditions that breed witch persecution and killing.