Relief came the way of children in Akwa Ibom State who have been abused by adults and those with the prospect of gross abuse when the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly passed the Child Rights Law, which makes it an offence to abuse children in any form. Reactions have since trailed the action.
Speaking with Daily Independent in Uyo, Ekere Afia, who represents Uyo State Constituency, explained that it was a very bold step by the state assembly, given established evidence that very appalling things have been happening to Akwa Ibom children, and that the House of Assembly felt that there was a compelling need for it to legislate in that direction.
According to him, the law intends to serve as a deterrent to child abusers and others who form the habit of exploiting found wanting in the treatment of children. "The law has made provisions for the sanctioning of those involved in dehumanising our children. The provisions are extant and very clear," he explained.
A press release from the Press Secretary to the Speaker stated that the revised law could impose "10 years imprisonment without an option of fine for any person, group of persons, corporate body or organisation of whatever description, who subjects a child to any form of torture, trial by ordeal or inhuman treatment in the process of purporting to cure, purge or exorcise a child of witchcraft".
Commenting further on the law, the statement added: "If the offender is a corporate body or an organisation of whatever description, its directors or promoters or trustees or persons in apparent authority will on conviction be jointly and severally be liable to the same punishment. A similar punishment awaits any parent or guardian, who accuses, alleges or threatens to accuse a child of being a witch or wizard.
"For a corporate or unincorporated body or an organisation of whatever description guilty of that offence, the directors, promoters or anybody apparently promoting its ideals are jointly and severally liable to the same punishment on conviction. In addition to that punishment, the government is now empowered to seal off premises reasonably suspected to be used for nefarious activities against children for a period of six months.
"The government is further empowered to apply to the Magistrate Court for an order of forfeiture of premises used for kidnapping, torture or molestation of children or other offences under the law. The age of a child under the law has been reduced from 18 to 16 years to tally with international standard."
There was dissatisfaction with the House of Assembly for delaying the passage of the law despite overwhelming evidence of gross abuse of children's rights in the state, especially the well celebrated cases of child trafficking, child exploitation and the internationally condemned cases of witchcraft that has allegedly led to the killings of hundreds of children in the state.
Iboro Udom is the Assembly member representing Oruk Anam State Constituency. He told Daily Independent that the delay in passing the bill was not intentional, as the Assembly had to adopt a rational strategy in devising a law comprehensive enough to tackle the problem satisfactorily.
Another member representing Abak State Constituency expressed joy that finally the law has seen the light of day and prayed that since Akwa Ibom children are in grave danger, those implementing the law must do so without fear or favour "and must ensure that all those involved in this dastardly act of dehumanising Akwa Ibom children must be decisively dealt with in accordance with the law".
Members of the society have expressed happiness that the law has been finally passed, but wondered if the implementers will be conscientious enough to spread the dragnet to catch all the culprits of child abuse in the state.
The new law incorporates recommendations by Governor Godswill Akpabio that "owing to marked increase in the maltreatment and torture of children on grounds of witchcraft", the revised law must include built-in parameters that make stigmatisation of children in the state on grounds of witchcraft an offence punishable by the law.
Another indigene of the state living in Portland, Oregon, in the United States of America, Mr. Thompson Essien, said: "The law sounds good, though many of us have not seen its details. The sad part of the whole incident is that members of Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, the Executive branch, and the entire Akwa Ibom people, had to wait till a white man travelled all the way from Europe to make this happen; shame on all of us.
"Passing the law seems to be the easiest part and it seems the law itself had been enacted in a hurry. But then, the matter needed to be addressed urgently before more children die. The big questions now are: how is the law going to be enforced? How much money has been allocated by Akpabio's administration towards the enforcement of the law? Or is it going to be another slam-dung-and- let's-forget- about-it kind of deal?"
Meanwhile, Governor Akpabio on Friday assented to the law, thus making it part of the laws of Akwa Ibom State.
According to the Act, which includes kidnapping of children in the state, child labour, begging, domestic or sexual labour and child prostitution, amongst others, it is mandatory for parents and guardians to ensure that their wards take advantage of the government's free and compulsory education scheme.
A special Family Court is to be established by the state government to handle matters arising from fallouts of the law. The purpose is to expedite action on the cases in the court and to protect the personality of under-aged children.
While signing the law, the governor said: "The law makes it punishable with an imprisonment of 10 years to 15 years without any option of fine for a child to be accused of witchcraft. A parent who runs foul of this law shall on first conviction be liable to a fine of not less than N5, 000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two months or both."
Meanwhile, the self-styled Bishop Ulup-Ayah, who claimed to have killed 110 child-witches, will be arraigned in court for offences, which include murder, amongst others very soon.