By Leo Igwe
There is an intersection between freedom of religion or belief (FORB) and witch persecution or ritual attacks. This link needs to be explored and properly situated to address faith or belief-based abuses because confusion and misconception abound. Egregious violations take place in the name of religion or belief. They include extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment. These violations are not justified. As contained in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every human being has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Everyone has the right to change his or her religion or belief and the freedom to express, manifest, or practice one’s religion or belief in public or private. Incidentally, this human rights provision has grossly been misunderstood and misrepresented. Many people think that FORB provides them a license to do whatever they like in the name of their religion or belief. Many are of the notion that FORB protects their religious beliefs from being scrutinized or criticized and caricatured. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
As rightly noted, everyone has the right to hold any religion or belief, but manifestations and practices of a religion or belief are subject to laws and regulations. That one professes a religion or belief does not entitle the person to act with impunity in the name of the belief or religion. For instance, many Africans believe that witches exist and fly out at night to cause injuries using occult means. People suspect their relatives and neighbours of bewitching them. Look one does not have the right to attack, harm, or kill anyone assumed to be a witch, no matter how convinced and persuaded one is. Again, that one has the right to believe in witches does not make what is believed in this case, witchcraft, a reality; it does not make witchcraft claims factual. Like witchcraft believers, non-witch-believing humans have the right not to believe or to hold critical views and opposing notions and conceptions. People have the right to question, challenge, and critically examine beliefs that are publicly expressed. People have the right to highlight absurdities and incongruities in reasonings, thoughts, and ideas.
The Advocacy for Alleged Witches works and campaigns to address abuses and violations linked to witchcraft and ritual beliefs in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. These abuses have largely been ignored. AfAW’s vision is to end witch-hunting and ritual attacks on the continent by 2030. Witchcraft fears and anxieties are pervasive in the region. The continent of Africa needs to join the civilized world in consigning witch-hunting to the dustbin of history. But this can only happen when a critical mass of Africans realize that a belief does not translate into a fact; that beliefs are often mistaken, incorrect, fictitious, and superstitious. Many Africans need to realize that entertaining a religion or belief does not entitle one to take laws into one’s hands as currently the case in many parts of the region.
Witchcraft beliefs are widespread because many people attribute their problems to supernatural causal agents in human forms. People of all ages are suspected or believed to be able and capable of harming others through spiritual means. The evidence is at best flimsy that any human being has such powers or indulge in such imaginary crimes. But the weakest in society, widows, disabled people, and children find themselves at extreme ends of punishments and violations. Christian, Muslim, and traditional faith experts organize prayers against witches and wizards, staging witch-hunting programs, violent purges, and exorcisms of witchcraft and other humanly possessing and possessable spirits.
At the Advocacy for Alleged Witches, we do not believe that witches exist and inflict injuries as popularly assumed in Africa. We think witches are fantasies, imaginaries, and mythical beings. We do not believe that human beings can turn into birds or cats; or that humans can harm, kill, or cause deaths, accidents, or illness through occult or supernatural means. We do not subscribe to the notion that human or ritual sacrifice of body parts can yield money or make someone wealthy as often portrayed in African movies. So we deploy a sense of rational compassion, fellowship, and solidarity that non-religious people and non-believers in witchcraft or ritual wealth can muster and expend to assist, support, and empower victims of witch persecution and ritual attacks.
AFAW works to protect people of all faiths and none when they are accused of witchcraft including survivors of ritual attacks. We call out their attackers, accusers, persecutors, and bloodletters. We report cases as fast as possible to the police or the National Human Rights Commission offices in various states. We draw the attention of other state actors, governors, and parliamentarians to the issue. We move victims of allegations to safe locations and provide them some stipends for their upkeep. We publicize their cases in the media and on social media.
Time is always of the essence in our interventions. In cases where the information reached us early enough and we intervened fast enough, the accusers/accusations melted away, and that was when the accusers and attackers realized that there could be legal consequences for their actions. In a few cases, we have gotten the police to intervene, arrest and prosecute witch hunters and perpetrators of ritual attacks. We have provided legal support to victims, and have facilitated their access to justice. But a lot of work still needs to be done. The police are usually slow in responding. In many cases they ask to be paid and provided vehicle and petrol before they start to investigate cases or make arrests. The police arrests suspects and collect bride and subsequently release them. The court processes suffer delay and are adjourned several times. The accused and families are forced to abandon the cases.
The work of AfAW has faced opposition from witch-hunting indigenous priests and Christian pastors like Evangelist Helen Ukpabio and her Liberty Gospel Church members. They claim that AfAW interventions deny them their right to believe in witches. In the quest to end witch persecution and ritual attacks in Africa AfAW will continue to highlight misconceptions and misinterpretations of FORB by perpetrators of religion, belief and superstition-based abuses.
Leo Igwe directs Advocacy for Alleged Witches