A recent article by a fellow contributor on this platform raised thought provoking issues pertaining to the treatment of individuals accused of witchcraft in Africa. I felt compelled to add my voice to this subject from a legal perspective particularly with regards to the plight of children facing accusations of witchcraft.
Over the past few years, the practice of labelling children as witches and subjecting them to violent exorcism has become prevalent in some parts of Africa. Experts claim that poverty and revivalist churches have fuelled the lynching of children who are often blamed for the misfortunes that befall communities. When communities are under pressure, there is a tendency to look for someone to blame and this plays into superstitious traditional beliefs that someone is responsible for the negative occurrences. Defenceless children are unfortunately always an easy target. According to UNICEF this phenomena is most prevalent in countries such as Nigeria, Benin, Angola, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. *
The devastating impact on the children facing witchcraft accusations has no doubt been enormous. A documentary titled “Return to Africa’s Witch Children” narrated by British actress Sophie Okonedo, reveals how children as young as 2 years old are thrown out of their homes by parents.* The horrific child abuse that young victims are subjected to as a result of beliefs linked to witchcraft, has left scores of children physically and psychologically traumatised.
At the moment, the scale of the problem is difficult to quantify because of the lack of a central database in most countries where very few victims report abuses but some close sources have revealed that in areas like Eket in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, the problem persists.
The findings unearthed by the charity Stepping Stone in 2009 in Akwa Ibom State Nigeria, offer a glimpse but it is almost impossible to know the full scale. At the time the events in Akwa Ibom State Nigeria were brought to the attention of the international community, Human Rights organisations across the world felt that this was the tip of the iceberg. *
The history of the rights of children in Nigeria, to be more specific, the Niger Delta is mired in widespread violation. It is common knowledge that a good number of law enforcement officers in the region fail to investigate reports that are passed on to them. Reports of abuse of children and sometimes elderly citizens accused of witchcraft are simply dismissed as “spiritual matters”. The passive approach to issues concerning abuse of children is of great concern to many human rights activists. High ranking officials in the judiciary are equally not proactive in making sure that victims who take their cases to court have some sense of justice.
While some critics might applaud the government for enacting The Child Right’s Act 2003 into law, the length of time it took for Nigeria to enact into law the principles enshrined in its international obligations found in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the AU Charter on the rights and Welfare of the Child is shockingly long.
The Child’s Rights Act 2003 (CRA) which states that “No Nigerian child shall be subjected to physical, mental or emotional injury, abuse or neglect, maltreatment, torture, inhuman or degrading punishment, attacks on his/her honor or reputation” took ten years to become law. *The fact that it remained a draft bill for a very long time shows the lackadaisical approach that has been taken over the years by those in positions of authority.
High levels of corruption by enforcers of the law have led to vulnerable members of society particularly young defenceless children being unprotected. Ineffective and corrupt judicial systems as well as ill equipped law enforcement personnel, jeopardise the future prospects of children. The question we all need to ask ourselves is – who will protect defenceless children and other vulnerable people living in poverty, facing accusations of witchcraft in Nigeria?
Community leaders and those in law enforcement need to take a stand and speak out for vulnerable groups in society. Remaining passive to the abuse of children is tantamount to carrying out the acts. Local NGOs need to start working with communities to change attitudes by raising awareness as well as training leaders within the community and parents about the rights of children. There is also the need to deal with the root cause of the problem – POVERTY. The attacks on children are a symptom of a much deeper problem.
The Nigerian government has national as well as international obligations to protect its citizens and ensure that laws that have been passed are adhered to. There are currently many NGOs tirelessly working to improve conditions on the ground and educate communities about their rights. A bigger impact can be made if those in leadership positions such as the judiciary and law enforcement (Police) become more proactive.
Those in authority cannot bury their heads in the sand and hope the problem will just fizzle away. A more coordinated effort needs to be taken to deal with the lawlessness that has overtaken many parts of the country. If no concrete solution is found to safeguard children and other vulnerable groups irreparable damage could be done to the image of the country for many years to come.