27 December 2008

Nigeria: Tackling the Witchcraft Question in Akwa Ibom

Akwa Ibom State has been in the news recently over child-witchcraft. The phenomenon, usually discussed in hushed tunes, found its way into the public arena when a British Television Channel, 'Channel 4', featured one Sunday Williams, a "Bishop," who claimed he had killed 110 children who were said to have witchcraft. Williams claimed that the state, with 3.9 million people, had 2.3 million witches and wizards.

Expectedly, the issue has remained a major concern to Akwa Ibom State Government, who have flatly denied the Bishop's claims. But, while the debate rages as to whether or not there is any iota of truth in the Bishop's claims. Many analysts have said that it would be wrong to simply dismiss them. While disagreeing with the Bishop's figures, they say that there are indeed pointers to the existence of witchcraft. "It is a bit difficult to deny the existence of witchcraft, when an under-aged can predict something sinister and it will to come to pass," says Mrs Mary Duke, a housewife.

But many other analysts trace the phenomenon to poverty which drags parents to Churches and other spiritual centres to seek prosperity. Some other analysts, among them Mrs Ekemini Yemi-Ladejobi, an Abuja-based journalist, blame the phenomenon on envy, and explained that indigent families would usually blame their fate on some "spiritual arrangement" by their more prosperous neighbours.

Sources indicated that at the spiritual centres, the parents are told of the existence of a witch or wizard, which is standing on the way of their prosperity and progress in life. The centres will thereafter "identify" such witches and wizard, and claim to have the powers to cast out the demons that had possessed the said wizard and witch.

Further investigations show that such parents are usually ready to pay anything to the spiritualists to "deliver" their children from the "grip of the devil". Among areas said to have more children involved in witchcraft are the riverine areas like Eket, Mbo, Onna and Okobo. There, Stories of the phenomenon is a commonplace. But for a visitor to those areas, the most disturbing aspect, perhaps, is the army of many children, some looking hapless, driven away by their parents in the belief that they are witches and wizards.

Such children are usually on the streets in their local towns, while some have found their ways to the streets in Uyo, the state capital. In some cases, all that is needed for parents to begin to suspect their children of witchcraft, is a manifestation of certain "strange" behaviour.

Others are "identified" any the presence of an "inexplicable" illness afflicting them. "Immediately that suspicion starts, the parent or guardian runs to one of the Churches found all over the place, where the pastor, or prophet or prophetess or preacher, as the case may be, is readily available to "administer" to the "evil child", says Joe Annang, a welder.

A 10-year-old girl, Mary Sunday, who said she "confessed" to being a witch to save her life, is one of such unfortunate children. Mary, who is one of the inmates of Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), Ikot Afagha-Idung Ukpa, near Eket, says that she was abandoned in a bush after being tortured by the pastor of a Church where her mother took her to, after she was declared a witch.

Narrating her ordeal, she said that her younger brother had died and the pastor told the mother that she (Mary) was a witch and responsible for the death. "My mother poured hot water on me and left me in a field," she said.

The more than 150 inmates at CRARN, a home run by an NGO established in 2003, have similar sordid tales, Established by volunteers led by one Sam Ikpe-Itauma, CRARN has continued to receive more inmates, as more children are thrown off their homes for alleged witchcraft. Ikpe-Itauma, while speaking on the project, laments that people now deride him as a "supporter" of witchcraft.

He said he started with three children, but that the number had continued to grow. But Mr Kola Otoki, a lawyer, says he is sad that the state's legal system had not been strengthened to protect the rights of such children. As part of steps to minimise the trend, Governor Godswill Akpabio has introduced free and compulsory primary and secondary education.

Reports say that Akapbio is very uncomfortable that he is presiding over a state where 60 per cent of the population are said to be witches. To ensure a permanent solution to the problem, the Governor has ordered a full investigation into the activities of "Bishop" Williams and other such men of God that operate in the state.

Last week, he endorsed the State's Child Rights Bill, earlier passed by the state legislature. Already, Williams, of the Spiritual Healing Church, Ibaka, who is in police net, has denied ever killing 110 children.

He told journalists recently that what he earlier told the British television was that he "killed the witchcraft in the children, and not the children". He, however reaffirmed his claims that he uses

herbs to cast evil spirits out of children. In what was seen as a crackdown on the pastors, the police have also arrested three of them - Akpe Alfred, Ezekiel Udok and Samuel Onuorah, all based in Eket, while two other persons, David Chukwu and Vincent Enye, were also arrested for being possession of five children they said they were taking to one Pastor Obue Enye in Aba, Abia, for "deliverance".

But Elizabeth Ekaette, Leader of NAPTIP in Akwa Ibom, while decrying the high rate of trafficking in children in the state, blamed it on child abandonenment, resulting from accusation of indulgence in witchcraft.

But the Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Information, Mr Aniekan Umanah, has accused some organisations and Churches of masterminding the witchcraft controversy for selfish reasons. "Some people are trying to make economic gains of a subject they call witchcraft; such people will always

manipulate the thinking of others towards their benefits," he said recently. But for such children, hope appears in the air as the state government has established some welfare centres, among them the Hajiya Turai Yar'Adua Reformation Centre, Uyo, inaugurated two weeks ago.

The centre is expected to take care of abandoned children. Also, the Child Rights' Law has stipulated 10-15 years imprisonment for any body or group that tortures any child accused of witchcraft. Details of the new law show that a family court would be established to speedily determine matters related to children.

"The commitment of this administration to the protection of our children is total and will not brook any violation," the Governor said, while courting the cooperation of all. But while government is doing its best, Yemi-ladejobi says that the only way to curtail the phenomenon is create jobs form the people.

According to her, such jobs will minimise poverty and check the need to always seek spiritual assistance on individuals' poverty-stricken status. Specifically, the journalist called for the revival of the Alluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria (ALSCON), Ikot Abasi, and the Oku Ibokun Paper Print Mill to create more jobs. She lauded efforts made by the Akpabio administration toward poverty alleviation, especially the purchase of 1,000 taxis to be distributed to some youth, and called for more of such efforts. (NAN Features)

Obeta is of News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).

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