Witch Hunting Requires an International Response

Leo Igwe

Cover Image: A “witch” shelter in Ghana. Photo from Vice News.

 


One of the state’s overarching obligations is protection of its citizens. Accordingly, a modern state must fulfill—or be made to fulfill—this duty. The state is supposed to ensure the security of lives and property. Discussions on the responsibility to protect human lives have mainly focused on four key areas: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. In 2005, the United Nations accepted the responsibility and will to act in situations where states fail in their duty to protect their citizens. The United Nations is committed to addressing these areas of concern and to taking protective and preventive measures. However, one phenomenon will require transnational attention and remedies: witch hunting.

Unfortunately, no mention has been made of witch hunting and other atrocities that are committed in the name of witchcraft and occult fears. There was no reference to the obvious lack of political commitment to protecting accused witches and to preventing violence linked to witchcraft beliefs, whether actual or perceived. In other words, member states of the United Nations have not deemed it worthwhile to address, at the highest level, crimes that are committed against alleged witches worldwide. This global moral failure and disappointing oversight must be urgently addressed.

There is overwhelming evidence that states are unable to protect their citizens from accusations of witchcraft. The United Nations needs to step in to fill this gap and rectify this dereliction of duty by its member states. For instance, like war criminals and perpetrators of ethnic cleansing, witch hunters take actions that undermine peace and security in various countries. They perpetrate egregious human rights violations and atrocious and horrific crimes with impunity. Accusers attack suspected witches in the middle of the night; they beat them up or murder them in cold blood. Witchcraft exorcists shackle, starve, and assault suspected witches. The victims are men or women, children or elderly persons, including people living with disabilities. Witch hunters destroy the houses and belongings of alleged witches and subject them to trial by ordeal. This often involves forcing them to drink poisonous concoctions that sometimes lead to death or serious injury.

For instance, as I write this piece, the fate of seventy-year-old Auntie B, a Nigerian woman from Edo State in Southern Nigeria, hangs in a balance. Auntie B is a widow from Idumoza, Irrua, in Esan Central in Edo state. She was accused of being responsible for the death of a child. According to local sources, the woman was twice alleged to have harmed children through occult means. In the first instance, a child said before his death that the auntie gave him some food to eat. People suspected that some magical substance in the food led to the death of the child. The case was reported to the elders of the community. But the elders dismissed the case on the grounds that the matter was not brought to them to consider when the child was still alive.

Not long after this child passed away, another child took ill in the community and also claimed that the same auntie had given him something to eat. That matter was reported to the elders. This time, the elders ruled that the woman should be taken to drink a magical potion containing toxic substances. Those who wanted to administer the substance asked the accusers to pay 50,000 naira (USD $150), but the accusers could not afford the fee. Auntie B therefore did not drink the substance, and she is temporarily out of danger.

Auntie B continues to live in fear because she could, at any time, be attacked or killed by her accusers. Killing an alleged witch is considered a form of community service, a way to avenge and neutralize the source of danger to the community. Auntie B’s village, Irrua, is near the Ozalla community, where at least twenty accused persons died after drinking concoctions under similar circumstances in 2004. Those who perpetrated the crime have not been brought to justice because powerful people (including an ex-military officer) were said to be behind the accusations and deaths of the alleged witches.

In Ghana and Burkina Faso, there are makeshift shelters where alleged witches take refuge. Hundreds of alleged witches, mainly women, who fled their homes and communities after being accused of perpetrating occult harm live there. In Ghana, these shelters, popularly known as witch camps, predate colonialism. In fact, in recent years the government of Ghana has threatened to close down these witch sanctuaries instead of tackling witchcraft allegations that force people to flee their homes and communities. Suspected witches are treated as undeserving of state protection in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

Meanwhile, it is not only in Africa that states have failed in their responsibility to protect citizens who are accused of witchcraft. On the Indian subcontinent and Oceania, alleged witches suffer a similar fate. Suspected witches are targets of mob violence and extrajudicial killings. In India, it has been reported that four persons who were suspected of practicing witchcraft or black magic have been murdered in the village of Jharkhand in the district of Gumla. Their killers stormed their homes in the early hours of the morning, dragged the alleged witches to the village square, and lynched them. Suspected witches are subjected to similar horrific abuses in Nepal and Papua New Guinea.

In many cases, these atrocious crimes happen near police stations or offices of provincial or municipal authorities. In fact, suspicions of witchcraft frequently begin among police officers and other state security agents, so no arrests are made. In the situations where some of the attackers are arrested, they are seldom successfully prosecuted. Witnesses are afraid to come forward to testify against witch killers, because they are often persons in stronger socio-cultural and political positions with the means to victimize those who testify against them. In many countries, witchcraft allegation trumps the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens.

Without an effective mechanism to tackle witch hunters and address horrific crimes linked to witchcraft beliefs, the transnational epidemic of witch persecution and killings will continue. The United Nations needs to act quickly to protect alleged witches and prevent witch hunting and witch cleansing in communities worldwide. The United Nations needs a mechanism that will enable it to sanction member states that are unable to fulfill their responsibility to protect alleged witches from attacks, persecutions, murder, trial by ordeal, banishment, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatments. This mechanism will permit the United Nations to reprimand member states that refuse to call to order or penalize those who incite violence against alleged witches, including traditional healers, pastors, mallams, and other so-called religious experts. United Nations agencies need to prioritize stemming harmful practices linked to witchcraft beliefs in various sectors so that they can effectively address allegations that affect children, women, elderly persons, and people living with disabilities.

Witch hunts supposedly ended in Europe centuries ago, but vicious crimes linked to witchcraft beliefs have continued in many parts of the world. Witchcraft allegation presents a global challenge. It constitutes a religious, health care, environmental, human rights, and development issue. The United Nations must lead efforts to end witch hunting in this century and ensure that states fulfill their duty to protect alleged witches around the globe.

Leo Igwe

Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and currently a research fellow at Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, University of Bayreuth, Germany.