The report that a 65 year old muslim woman, Zainab Labbo was tried and penalized for witchcraft in Sokoto Northern Nigeria brings a very disturbing dimension to the problem of witchcraft related abuse in the region. This development is worrying because this is the first time a woman has reportedly been tried and punished in line with sharia law for witchcraft in Sokoto.
So far most reported cases of witchcraft accusation, witch persecution and killing are in the Christian dominated Southern Nigeria. Though many persons across Northern Nigeria believe in witchcraft like the Nupe, Tiv, Igala, Tarok and other ethnic communities, witch persecution has not been as visible. Trial of alleged witches in 'sharia court' is virtually unknown. Though witchcraft is a capital offence in Saudi Arabia which wields a lot of influence on the practice of Islam in the country, Nigeria has not witnessed the Saudi Wahhabi Islamic type of witch hunt. So is this the beginning of a sharia based witch persecution in Nigeria? I hope not.
However the fact remains that we have just witnessed one of such incident in Sokoto. And let's face it, Labbo's daughter in law accused her of using her diabolical powers to torment and maltreat her. So she reported the mother in law to the traditional ruler who subsequently summoned the woman, tried and found her guilty of witchcraft. The palace guards administered the punishment. They flogged her 12 times. The report does not contain details of how the trial was carried out and how this traditional ruler was able to certify that Labbo used witchcraft on her daughter in law. Does sharia law provide guidelines of how to identify witches or witchcraft?
Tension between mother in law and their daughter in law is not uncommon in families in Nigeria. Sometimes a daughter in law blames the mother in law virtually for whatever goes wrong in the family particularly if she gets to know that the mother in law did not like her or did not approve her marriage to the son. For instance if she has difficulty conceiving or giving birth she blames the mother in law. She may accuse her of using witchcraft to destroy or block her womb. If she is not living happily with the husband she may accuse the mother in law of using her diabolical powers to block the heart of the son and stop him from loving her. If she cannot get a job or her business fails, she may think that the mother in law has placed a curse on her particularly if they had at any point quarreled or had some disagreement.
Whatever was the issue in this case, the daughter in law succeeded in getting Labbo tried and flogged for engaging in witchcraft. The case has generated some controversy in the community but the village head has remained defiant. He has made it clear that they handled the matter in line with sharia law. Which means that nobody should query him; nobody should question the procedure; nobody should challenge his decision. "We are only dispensing justice in accordance with Shari'ah Law and we are not afraid of any probe in this direction" He stated. Well, that he dispensed justice in line with sharia law (whatever that means) and punished somebody for witchcraft in this time and age should not shield him from investigation. The authorities should probe the village head and all those who took part in the trial so that they can show the world how they were able, using sharia law, to confirm that Labbo really used witchcraft against the daughter in law.
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