Several thousand children in this region have been declared witches who are 'possessed by evil spirits' but the government is unable to curb the practice, fearing a political backlash.
CALABAR, Nigeria – It is difficult to believe that John Ezekiel is a ‘witch’. But this is why he is now living in a safe house.
Sitting on a chair in an emergency shelter run by the Basic Rights Counsel Initiative (BRCI), in the city of Calabar, in the southern corner of Nigeria, 10-year-old Ezekiel swings his legs and bites his nails anxiously.
Before moving to the shelter, Ezekiel lived with his mother, stepfather and half siblings in a remote community of Cross River state.
In early December 2017, the local church announced Ezekiel was a witch.
“They call me a witch because I used to break plates but I am not one,” he said.
Behind his plate breaking act was a deep-rooted anger and frustration, triggered by the ill-treatment he received from his stepfather. “They don’t give me food to eat, and when my mum does, my stepfather will kick the food. This makes me cry,” he told TRT World.
One day his stepfather threatened to kill him if he did not leave the house once and for all. The 10-year-old slept on the streets for several months until BRCI took him in, financed his education and provided him with emotional and psychological support.
Contemporary beliefs in witchcraft still exist in different countries, including in sub-Saharan Africa and some communities in Europe and the US.
A recent report by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted the violence and abuse towards children accused of witchcraft. In Africa, it is a serious matter as the witch is culturally understood to be the epitome of evil and the cause of all misfortune, disease and death.
Consequently, the witch is the most hated person in the African society and subjected to punishment, torture through toxic exorcism rituals and sometimes death.
Deep religion and superstitious beliefs
Africa’s oil-rich nation of Nigeria is a deeply religious country where superstitions are ascribed to mischievous spirits. Helen Ukpabio is the founder and head of the African Evangelical franchise, Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, based in Calabar. She heads up a growing group of Pentecostal pastors incorporating African witchcraft belief into their brand of Christianity, a practice which has resulted into a campaign of violence against young Nigerians since 1914.
Ukpabio is widely accused of causing the widespread harassment, torture and violent deaths of children accused of witchcraft — many of the stigmatised children are tortured by being bathed in hot water, branded with hot irons, locked up in dark rooms for months and chained in prayer houses.
These Pentecostal preachers have justified the killing and destruction of so-called witches by quoting Exodus 22:18, “Suffer not a witch to live”, as a pastoral tool for defence.
Book publishers Ayomide Publications, in the southwestern Nigerian state of Oyo, published a book named from the chapter and verse in 2010.
Adeyemi Johnson Ademowo, a professor of anthropology at Afe Babalola University said the book is an attempt to document the abuse and unearth the solution to the superstition of child witches in Nigeria.
Dr. Leo Igwe, the founder of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, said there isn’t sufficient political will to address the problem, as “too often state institutions cave in to pressures from religious organisations".
"They sacrifice their duty to citizens on the altar of political expediency,” he said. “State authorities do not want to be seen to be anti religion, in this case, anti Christian.”
Leo explained this has created a situation of impunity, encouraging witch-finding individuals and churches to continue their campaign of violence.
“The church is really not staging a meaningful fight against witchcraft related abuses because it is a witch recognising and witch exorcising outfit,” Igwe added.
Silent policy formulations
Nigeria’s criminal code prohibits accusing, or even threatening to accuse, someone of being a witch. And the Child Rights Act of 2003 makes it an offence to subject any child to physical or emotional torture, or submit them to any inhuman or degrading treatment.
However, only 23 out of the country’s 36 states have formally ratified it.
The Child's Right and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), a charity organisation based in Akwa Ibom, working to safeguard the rights of children, said witchcraft allegations happen across Nigeria, but were most virulent in the Southern Region. Child rights activists estimate that about 7,000 children have been stigmatised as in Cross River and that a similar situation exists in neighboring Akwa Ibom, with about 20,000 stigmatised.
“Belief in witchcraft is everywhere because 99 percent of churches accept it as true,” the network's Sam Ikpe-Itauma told TRT World.
“The stigmatisation does not take place in just one Pentecostal church or city; some Orthodox churches also stigmatize children.”
Dr. Maxwell Ugobo, a Calabar based psychiatrist, said personality disorders, depression, and other psychotic disorders are often misperceived as witchcraft.
Dr. Maxwell said: “Affected children are stigmatised, making them feel worthless, and reducing their self esteem with some health trends.
“Some may eventually get depressed, have acute stress reaction, post traumatic stress disorder and develop a lot of psychiatric disorders”
Ugobo recommends enabling laws that would place an outright ban on actions by the community against perceived witches.
Against this backdrop, the non-profit BRCI, run by Lawyer James Ibor since 2011, to promote and protect the fundamental rights of children, is working with a handful of other groups such as Safe Child Africa, The Witchcraft & Human Rights Information Network and Child Protection Network. Together they provide free legal and supplementary services such as emergency shelter, family tracing and unification, economic, educational and medical support for the children.
Ibor said: “Children who are abused feel self protected when you can demonstrate by bringing the perpetrators to justice by writing petitions to the police for them to investigate and prosecute."
He added that delays in delivering timely justice can cause major disappointment among children and their families, however.
Between 2011 and 2018, the BRCI has documented 350 cases of child abuse ranging from rape, witchcraft dubbing to physical assault and child neglect.
The struggle is far from simple. The lawyer says things get harder in the absence of the government's support, while following up on cases related to 'child witches' costs a lot of money.
“We have very weak institutions to cushion these problems. The police are also culpable because they reinforce patriarchy,” he said.
“A child was taken to a church for witchcraft exorcism and the child didn’t come back alive, we involved the police but they requested money to exhume the corpse for an autopsy, but we couldn’t afford the money.”
The name of the child featured in this article has been changed for privacy reasons.