Opinions Tue, 6 Oct 2020

Hunting and being hunted: Witchcraft belief and African enlightenment

Nine years ago I visited Australia for my first speaking tour. I came to Australia excited but very nervous because I constantly wondered what I could tell people in Australia whom I considered more knowledgeable, and more exposed.

I wondered what I could communicate in my Nigerian English to persons who spoke English as the first language. But thanks to your warmth and friendship I overcame my nervousness and had a memorable stay.

Shortly after I returned to Nigeria, I left to do a 6-year doctoral research on witchcraft accusation at the University of Bayreuth in Southern Germany.

Before embarking on the study I worked with some NGOs tackling abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs and at one of the seminars, a local pastor, a self declared ex witch and witchcraft exorcist,Helen Ukpabio sent her church members to disrupt the event. They beat me up and stole my personal belongings.

She later sued me to court for denying her the right to belief in witchcraft but she lost. Within the same period, police arrested and detained me for days in the course of rescuing children who were branded witches.

The doctoral program came as a relief, and an opportunity to step back and reflect on my activism how I was hunting and being hunted in the quest to combat the dark and destructive influence of witchcraft belief and further the cause of African enlightenment.

The academic program came with its own challenges. Apart from contending with the rigors of the degree, I had to wrestle with western anthropological representations of Africa and African witchcraft. I noticed this conceptual dichotomy between western and African witchcraft that informed the existing literature and studies.

For instance at one of the seminar, one European student said, “For Europeans, witchcraft is a form of superstition but for Africans it is not". I wondered: if witchcraft is not superstition for Africans, what is it? Science? I noticed that many western anthropologists, in an attempt to explain the manifestation of witchcraft beliefs in Africa argued along this line.

Dirk Kohnert has this to say regarding witchcraft beliefs among the Nupe in Nigeria: "Although it is undisputed that in most individual cases witchcraft accusations were directed against innocent people, there is a growing awareness among social scientists that occult belief systems may have a social justification, and that they are not necessarily a sign of backwardness, but quite to the contrary, symptoms of modern development". Nhhh symptoms of modernity?

Propositions and perspectives such as this agitated my mind and sometimes made me restless. I constantly wondered if the research on witchcraft that brought me to Bayreuth was of any value and worth.

As a person who looked to this doctoral research as a program that could be an invaluable resource in the efforts to combat witch persecution, I found these propositions problematic and troubling because at face value, these perspectives had legitimizing undertones.

The explanations resonated in ways that I considered exoticizing and enabling of witchcraft imputations. Again I had a problem of positioning myself because I could not like the mainly western anthropologists that dominate the studies claim to be distant from the phenomenon or imply that ‘I had not seen anything like this before’.

I concluded the program in 2017 and submitted a thesis that contributed to the debate on the modernity of witchcraft in Africa.

Back home in Nigeria I wrestled with the challenge of what to do with the Ph.D,- to lecture in a university or work with NGOs. Western anthropologists who travel down to Africa to research and return to share their findings and lecture at universities, with students that are unfamiliar with the phenomenon. But I am not a western anthropologist. I am an African, researched in Ghana and now back in NIgeria.

While I appreciated lecturing, researching and writing academic papers, I wanted to be more involved changing the situation and fixing the problem of witchcraft accusation.

Just as I had issues with how the phenomenon had been explained; I was unsatisfied with how the issue had been address by NGOs. So while trying to secure a post doctoral position or a lecturing job, I tried working with some NGOs and some UN agencies.

Still I faced additional challenges because those in charge of these agencies were more interested in keeping their jobs and ensuring the flow of funds than in taking drastic measures to tackle witch persecution and killing.

Like western anthropologists, these NGOs and agencies based in the West were distant from the issue that they were trying to address. Whilst the scholars were explaining the phenomenon of witchcraft accusation in ways that seemed to legitimize it, their NGOs counterparts were campaigning against witch persecution in ways that seemed to paper over and perpetuate it.

These NGOs or agencies fund projects in one village or province in an African country for a couple years and after that they pack up or discontinue the program.

The NGOs were very reluctant to designate witchcraft as a form of superstition in deference to African culture and tradition. They tried not to criticize the church or call out religious enablers of witch persecution and killing in the region.

Meanwhile these NGOs and agencies dictated and directed the campaign agenda for the eradication of witch persecution in the region. Still they were unable to give an expiring date for witch persecution in Africa. Simply put, they did not approach witch persecution in the region with the sense of urgency that this issue deserves.

I had no plan of starting another project or organization. I was already involved in too many. My plan was to lecture and conduct research on part time basis, while facilitating campaign initiatives from behind. However at the end of 2019, I was left with no better choice than to launch a new initiative, the Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AFAW).

The last straw that broke the camel’s back in this case was an incident in November 2019 where some Christian university students protested the organization of an academic conference on witchcraft.

They called it a meeting of witches and wizards. I outlined a decade of activism with the goal of building a critical mass of advocates in all African countries and ending with persecution in the region by 2030.

The launch of AFAW was greeted with support as well as skepticism more especially the target of ending witch persecution in Africa by the year 2030. Richard Dawkins tweeted that we should wait until 2030 to realize this vision. A BBC journalist contacted and asked me: Where would you get the funds? This was an important question.

Given the economic realities in the region, funding would be a challenge. But I thought there was more than enough funding out there to wage such an important campaign and make this decade of activism happen.

So obviously many were of the view that the goal of AFAW was mission impossible and that the advocacy campaign would soon fizzle out. But the advocacy campaign has not ended as envisaged.

In fact the campaign is very much alive and active and continues to grow in strength, reach and momentum. We are making interventions in many cases in Nigeria, Malawi, Ghana, Liberia, Zambia including instances where alleged witches have been lynched, beaten or stoned to death, abducted and held hostage, forced to take poisonous concoctions etc

We intervene by drawing the attention of the government and other relevant agencies to the cases of witch persecution. For instance, AFAW has been urging the Nigerian authorities to arrest and prosecute those who set ablaze 15 alleged witches in Cross River state in Southern Nigeria.

AFAW has also called on the police to arrest and prosecute a local priestess and witchcraft exorcist, Bernadette Tembo, who abducted and held hostage about 30 alleged witches in Malawi.

AFAW is also working with the Humanists International to raise these issues before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the United Nations.

As part of the advocacy campaign, AFAW supports and rehabilitates adult and child victims-paying their medical bills and defraying the cost of education for child victims, and being there for them and ensuring that they do not suffer any more harm.

AFAW has supported some victims of witch burning in Nigeria, including children who were tortured by their parents for witchcraft. AFAW also carries out public education and enlightenment, challenging witchcraft beliefs and narratives.

To this end AFAW has challenged witch hunting and faith healing pastors and clerics. Witch hunting is a form of faith healing and many clerics engaging in this exercise as part of their faith healing exercise. As part of its campaign, AFAW has challenged and criticized foremost Nigerian pastors, Apostle Suleman and Bishop Oyedepo.

Both claimed to have healed persons with COVID-19. Another Pentecostal pastor and witch hunter was selling COVID-19 prevention oil at 100 dollars. The challenge went viral on social media and generated discussions and debates on the efficacy of miracles and faith healing claims.

It is amidst these activities that I received a distracting letter from the lawyers of Helen Ukpabio threatening to sue me for libel. She stated through her lawyer that I defamed her in some of my articles and asked for an apology.

She said that I should pay her an equivalent of 57.2 million US Dollars. I am still waiting for the court process to begin.

Tackling witch persecution poses a tough and difficult challenge. It is a risky undertaking that entails hunting, trying to bring witch hunters to justice, and being hunted.
Columnist: Leo Igwe