GROWING up is never an easy task for the Nigerian child as his road is strewn with thorns and briers. This savage reality is stamped in the mind of Usen Okon, 10, after he was accused of witchcraft by his paternal aunt in his native Esit Eket Local Government Area, Akwa Ibom State, last month. According to a report in this newspaper, the aunt, in whose care he had been entrusted, eventually threw him into the Imo River, hoping that he would drown. Although he was rescued, Okon is now a candidate for nightmares for the rest of his life.
But Okon is not the only victim of this criminal practice of sorcery-related attacks and killings. He is just one of an increasing number of children accused of witchcraft by their families, local spiritualists and worship places and are then tortured or killed by their accusers. Many of these minors are sentenced to a life of suffering in silence after being branded as witches. The ordeal could twist a child’s personality for ever.
Okon’s travails had all the ingredients of jungle justice. A non-governmental organisation, the Humanist Association for Peace and Social Tolerance Advancement and its partner, Child’s Rights and Rehabilitation Network, which took up his case, said the poor orphan was roused from sleep by his guardian, who was looking for a scapegoat for her misfortune. She took Okon to her husband and asked him to confess to being a wizard. Though the boy rejected the witchcraft label, his aunt still went ahead to throw him into the river.
Such is the nature of witchcraft trial – heads you lose, tails you lose. Once the accusers have made up their minds that the minor is a witch, possessed by spirits that have brought evil on them, the punishments that usually follow include physical violence, mistreatment, abuse, infanticide and abandonment. When such accusations and the resulting trial-by-ordeal don’t result in death, the survivors are scarred and stigmatised by their peers, cruelty that is so crude for children to bear. While some of the cases are reported, it is particularly disturbing that many of such horrendous cruelties largely escape public attention.
Campaigners against the inhuman practice reported that around 15,000 children have been labelled as witches in two of the 36 states of the federation over the past decade and around 1,000 have been killed. Between July and October 2009, three kids accused of witchcraft were killed and another three were set on fire. Just last September, three children of the same parents in Unyenge, Mbo LGA, Akwa Ibom State, suffered physical attacks after being accused of witchcraft. They are aged 14, 10 and seven. Although they were rescued by officials of African Aid Education and Development Foundation – an NGO – the trio had been orphaned shortly before the attack because some villagers had murdered their father on similarly spurious and unproven allegations that he wanted to use witchcraft to kill a resident of the area. Their attackers were not brought to book.
Relying on unsubstantiated reports, some Nigerian fringe churches are aiding the practice of labelling and stigmatising children as witches, wizards and sorcerers. In Ibadan, Oyo State, a little girl, Bose, had a six inches nail driven down her skull by her own father in 1994, but managed to cheat death by a whisker after being rescued by some good Samaritans and later adopted by the state military administrator, Col. Ike Nwosu. Bose’s life changed immediately.
After a damning report of witchcraft stigmatisation in Akwa Ibom went global in 2008, the state government filed charges against one Okon William, a self-styled bishop, who allegedly confessed to the killing of 110 children accused of witchcraft. But the case assumed a bizarre turn when one of the witnesses, an NGO official, was charged as an offender by the government. The church is meant to be a place of succour to people, not a centre to inflict pain on members of the society, and exploit gullible parents seeking help.
These barbaric acts have no place in our society in the 21st century. State governments should stop playing politics with the issue of child development, and collaborate with relevant NGOs and other international agencies to rescue our children from ignorant and wicked adults.
Define as the use of magical spells that aggregate evil spirits to produce supernatural effects in human life, witchcraft is practised all over the world, but it is widespread in Africa, where modern trappings of civilisation have yet to reach the recesses of many villages and local communities. In the past, witchcraft accusations were levelled mainly against adults, but Africa’s vulnerable children are now at the receiving end.
Not so ready to bear responsibility for their economic and other misfortunes, children are often accused of being harbingers of bad luck by many families. In ‘Children Accused of Witchcraft’, a report authored by UNICEF in 2009, says, “Many social and economic pressures, including conflict, poverty, urbanisation and the weakening of communities, or HIV/AIDS, seem to have contributed to the recent increase in witchcraft accusations against children … they are part of deeper social problems affecting society.”
We cannot agree more. Also tormented by squalor and hopelessness, many parents send their children to their relatives to raise them. These relatives often turn out to be their albatross, maltreating the kids and labelling them witches and wizards at the slightest opportunity. The government should be sensitive to this evil trend, and bring those who perpetrate such savagery against children to justice. Our parliaments at the state level need to review and reform existing laws to protect children from ignorant, vicious adults.
Children are special and represent the future. But Nigerian children face an uncertain future arising from outdated practices and failure of governance in the country. Despite repeated assurances by the federal and state governments that they would achieve the goal of education for all by 2015, Nigeria has a high number of children roaming the streets. According to UNICEF, 10.5 million Nigerian children are out of school. This is said to be the highest in the world. Sixty-two per cent of them are estimated to be girls and reside predominantly in the northern part of the country. When we add the problem of witchcraft in the South, it is obvious that as a country, we are headed for a shaky future because of the neglect and cruelty we inflict on our children.
Any form of cruelty against minors should be treated as a serious crime. There should be a national programme that will decrease the vulnerability of children to abuse and exploitation; develop a nationwide capacity to provide a rapid, effective, and measured investigative response to crimes against them; and enhance the capabilities of law enforcement agencies to bring child abusers to justice. The setting up of a family court to tackle the increasing cases of child witchcraft by Akwa Ibom State should be emulated by other states. States that have not adopted or implemented the Child Rights Act need to speed up the process of adoption and implementation, a global convention that was adopted by the Federal Government in 2003. UNICEF says only 16 out of the 36 states have domesticated the law meant to protect children from abuse, give them education and protect them from drug abuse, among other provisions.
Governments should also create awareness about the rights of children in our communities in order to stop the abuse and the jungle justice against the nation’s greatest asset – our children.
December 7, 2014 by Punch Editorial Board