Child Witches in Nigeria: A Lesson for International Policymakers and Activists

Child Witches in Nigeria: A Lesson for International Policymakers and Activists

From Seventeenth century Europe to modern day Africa, targets of witchcraft accusations are often the least advantaged members of society. From the witchcraft craze that swept seventeenth century Europe and America, to ongoing accusations throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, community ‘outsiders’ remain most at risk. These tend to be older and unmarried women. But since the 1990s in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, children are suffering increasingly from witchcraft accusations.

Common themes in reporting child witches include their role in the untimely death of relatives or other community level misfortunes. Following this, children are either cast out from communities to fend for themselves or are actively held and tortured in hopes that they will confess.

Before any outside activist or policymaker can try and change this situation, they must first understand the context of indigenous customary religions and traditions in which this issue operates.

A  philosophy underpinning ‘indigenous’ religions in Africa is the agency and involvement of the spiritual realm in everyday life. For example, in the Yoruba religion prevalent in parts of Nigeria, the ‘Orishas’ or spirits are always present. As ambivalent entities they can cause good and bad luck.

Christianity and Islam may be the two most popular religions in Nigeria, but they are both importations. Whilst Christianity came via the work of European missionaries and colonial powers, Islam took hold through the trans-Saharan merchant trade from the Middle East. Nevertheless, the social influence of pre-existing African religions creates a hyper awareness of the supernatural in everyday life. Although this isn’t the sole cause of witchcraft allegations in Africa, it explains people’s readiness to accept witchcraft claims and the meddling of spirits in daily life as fact.

But why are children suffering so much in the Niger Delta? And why over the past twenty years in particular?

Economic uncertainty, the profitability of exorcisms, and Nigeria’s media culture have created a toxic environment for witchcraft mania in modern Nigeria.

Feeding the national appetite for witchcraft whilst stirring up further fear and suspicion of children at a cultural level, Nigerian film and television is known to sensationalise the idea of child witches. The rise of so-called Pastor-Prophets has also contributed to the child witch craze by capitalising on societal fears through offering exorcism services for children.

Underlying these social factors is the economically and environmentally dire situation occurring in the Niger Delta. In 2006, The United Nations Development Programme reported that despite the region’s identity as Nigeria’s oil hotspot, its residents experience high rates of unemployment, conflict and a poor environmental state. These factors make it easier for communities to seek a powerless scapegoat for these issues such as children.

Like other African nations experiencing high levels of child abuse through a culture of witchcraft fears, Nigeria introduced a law prohibiting child witchcraft accusations in 2012. But clearly mere legislation is not enough to change the politics amongst the country’s most rural and impoverished communities.

A number of NGOs operating in the region hope to put a stop to the issue. Gary Foxcroft, programme director of Stepping Stones Nigeria points to the social and economic repercussions the oil industry has enacted over this farming and fishing region. Over the year’s oil spills have devastated the farming land and marine life. Not only has this caused agrarian devastation, it’s also led to people consuming contaminated fish, leading to a number of deaths. These events have created a perfect environment for witchcraft accusations Foxcroft claims, “as poverty worsens ‘there’s social decay and a social vacuum in which these accusations thrive” he adds.

In the global psyche, a spirit of acquiescence in relation to the child witchcraft issue in countries like Nigeria endures. This is because widely held stereotypes stipulate witchcraft as an essential part of African culture. This has led to consumers of media around the world not to be shocked or appalled when the abuse of African children as victims of witchcraft allegations is reported.

We must all take this epidemic as a global Human Rights issue and not as some untouchable part of what we think may be part of an essentially ‘African’ disposition. Whilst a respect for African spiritualism must be adhered to, the abuse of children shouldn’t. Just like the torture and murder of women as ‘witches’ in seventeenth century Europe is no longer supported by Christian churches, Africa’s indigenous religious leaders and church representatives directly or indirectly condoning child abuse through belief in witchcraft should be singled out, condemned and subjected to national and international law.


Featured image | Brown face mask, Panu Gabon | Ann Porteus | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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