Africa: A Bewitching Economy - Witchcraft and Human Trafficking

Photo: RNW
The International Labour Organisation has almost doubled its 2005 estimate, and revealed that there are 20.9 million victims of trafficking in the world with 3.7 million being in Africa.
17 September 2012

In parts of Africa, witchcraft is becoming increasingly linked to a modern form of slavery: human trafficking.

Through ritual "oaths of protection", witchcraft provides a convenient way to traffic and mentally dominate victims, who are easily silenced with the threat that any disobedience will be punished by the spiritual world. This has left the phenomenon hard to detect. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has recently almost doubled its 2005 estimate, and revealed that there are currently 20.9 million victims of trafficking in the world. 3.7 million of these victims reside in Africa. Yet in 2011, there were only 257 prosecutions, 218 convictions and 10,094 victims identified on the continent.

Control through fear

A detective from London's Metropolitan Police Human Trafficking Team at New Scotland Yard, Andrew Desmond was responsible for the first successful prosecution of a Nigerian organised crime network.

Speaking to Think Africa Press, Desmond comments: "When I first explained the difficulties of getting victims to give evidence against their traffickers, because of their fears of being cursed and punished by the spirit world, my colleagues at Scotland Yard were pretty bemused. But we have to fully understand the issues and what we have in common in order to work with victims - is the concept really so far removed from asking those appearing in a UK court to swear an oath on the bible before giving testimony? After all, they are both about regulating what is said through fear of a powerful spirit."

A September 2012 report by ActionAid comments that "it is no coincidence that the witch camps are found only in northern Ghana, which is one of the poorest regions of the country and suffers from low education and literacy standards". However, Gary Foxcroft, co-founder of Stepping Stones Nigeria stresses that the belief in child witches in Nigeria cuts across all facets of society:

"The literate and illiterate, the wealthy and poor, law enforcement agents, social welfare workers, law makers and most specifically the leaders of revivalist Pentecostal churches believe in child witches ... All accidents, drunkenness, madness, smoking of marijuana, divorce, infertility, and misfortunes are perceived to be their handiwork."

Empty promises, full wallets

For those who live in abject poverty, something that promises to explain their predicament can be very alluring. Oaths that purportedly ensure prosperity, health and happiness are also on offer.

But the financial gain is usually one-way: pastors who promote the belief in child witches are accused of doing so to extract fees for "delivering" the children.

UNICEF comments that "the earnings ... are not insignificant. Consequently, a number of pastorâ-prophets, including women, have found their calling in the anti-witch hunt, as is the case with Prophet Helen Ukpabio in Nigeria ... whose primary goal has become the detection and deliverance of child witches".

In the European witch hunts of 400 years ago, victims tended to be of lower social status and elderly women. The demographic profile of the contemporary witch-accused are also mainly older women, but include successful younger women and increasingly children. Over 95% of the children on the streets of Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria have been stigmatised as "witches" by pastors, according to Stepping Stones Nigeria.

According to UNICEF, "Living in the street is one of the common consequences of witchcraft accusations and is also an indicator of the scale of the phenomenon". One Nigerian study revealed that 19% of school children and 40% of street children surveyed had been trafficked.

Super eagles?

Africa's regional trafficking hub is Nigeria. Its police force has not been very eagled-eyed in its crackdown on trafficking. A 2011 report by Europol, the European Law Enforcement Agency, identified Nigeria as one of the top four "most threatening" countries in the world in terms of trafficking groups. It is also the top sending country for those trafficked into the UK for purposes of sexual exploitation.

UNESCO notes that "poverty is the most visible cause of the vulnerability of women and children to trafficking in Nigeria". An ILO report revealed that of the children who were released to traffickers by their parents in Nigeria, over 72% did so because they could not afford school fees. Half of those children never returned home.

According to Debbie Ariyo of child advocacy organisation Afruca, Nigerian traffickers "use the ritual of oath swearing as their most powerful weapon of coercion". In 2008, the Nigerian National Agency for Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIP) advised that 90% of girls that had been trafficked to Europe were taken to shrines to take "oaths of secrecy".

Desmond explains: "The human traffickers of Edo and Delta States of Nigeria have hijacked the cultural beliefs in Juju to blackmail their victims to satisfy the greed for money for those involved, including traditional priests paid to carry out the ceremonies. The strong belief in the spirits makes this a powerful weapon for modern day slave traders."

Desmond explains the significance of the Juju ritual: "One 14-year old Nigerian victim I interviewed had taken up the offer of a family friend to become a house maid in the UK. Before leaving she was taken to a Juju priest to undergo a ritual. She was told by the priest that if she disobeyed her trafficker, she would incur the wrath of the spirit world through nightmares, madness and death. Once in the UK, it became clear she was to be a sex slave or her trafficker would use Juju to kill her."

These deeply-held spiritual beliefs, which facilitate the Juju oath, cause huge problems for law enforcement officials who want victims to testify against their traffickers.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) incurred by a trafficking victim will often seem to them to confirm that the spirit world is inflicting retribution upon them. A 2011 report by the National Board of Social Services in Denmark says that Nigerian trafficking victims "often have a very high frequency of PTSD symptoms ... the related mental and psychosomatic symptoms [are] interpreted as a result of Juju."

Structural adjustment

The bond between witchcraft and human trafficking is not spiritual but economic. Structural factors have created a system of inequality, in which the vulnerable have to fight against multiple risk factors in order to maintain the most basic level of human dignity. Many reports cite the lack of social protection to help families in poverty, a lack of access to education for vulnerable children, corruption, the influence of senior religious and political figures, and culturally entrenched gender norms are all at play. It is important to recognise that witchcraft should not become the sole focus in the fight against human trafficking. It remains a fundamental problem with the distribution of wealth and needs to be challenged as such.

Elizabeth Willmott Harrop is a freelance communications professional, project manager, writer, researcher and trainer specialising in international human rights, especially the rights of women and children. See more of her work on her website or follow her on twitter @libertyhumanity

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