The Ortom-led administration in Benue state is obsessed with witchcraft fears and anxieties, and this obsession is undermining efforts to combat abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs and accusations. Otherwise, how does one explain the government’s opposition to a campaign against witch persecution especially the activities of the Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW) in the state? How does one situate the official misrepresentation of a seminar on witch persecution? I mean why a state panic over the ‘meeting of witches and wizards’, whatever that means? Do witches exist? Can the supposed meeting of witches perturb any state that worth its salt in this 21st century?
Abuses linked to witchcraft and occult beliefs are pervasive. People in Benue are aware of these violations and are often helpless. People despair and resign to this unfortunate predicament. There is a culture of silence over these atrocities. Witchcraft accusations and witch persecutions are widespread because the government is doing little or nothing to address the issue. Witch hunters operate with impunity mainly in rural areas across Benue. Witch persecutors are seldom brought to justice. People accused of witchcraft are subjected to jungle justice and trial by ordeal; they are attacked and murdered in cold blood. For instance, two elderly men were mobbed and murdered after being accused of witchcraft in October. No arrest has been made. No one would be brought to justice for this heinous crime. Alleged witches have reportedly been stoned or strangled to death in many parts of Benue state. Impunity reigns across the region.
In response to these atrocities, the AfAW announced a seminar on superstition and witch persecution in Benue in September. The objective of the event was to explore this vicious phenomenon and how to tackle it. But the police invaded, disrupted, and stopped the event. The police claimed that they got some ‘intelligence’ that witches were meeting at the venue and were instructed to stop the meeting. They did not provide details of the intelligence! The police invasion was an embarrassment to the organizers, who explained to the police and other security operatives that the event was meant to address abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs. The police claimed that they were misinformed, but insisted that the event would not go ahead. The police advised the organizers to reschedule for another date. They asked the organizers to notify them before the next date of the event. A senior police officer told the organizers to come with a letter that clearly stated that they were not witches!
The police forgot that the accusation of witchcraft was a crime under the Nigerian law which they were commissioned to enforce. Sections 210 of the criminal code and 216 of the penal code criminalized witchcraft accusations. And by designating the organizers as witches, the police committed a crime. The police demonstrated a lack of knowledge of the law and a failure of their duties as constituted authorities.Meanwhile, there was no allusion to how to compensate the organizers for the expenses incurred. Some officers told us that the problem was from the government house. They did not provide details. The AfAW rescheduled the event for December 21, 2022. It invited the relevant stakeholders, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the police, media, NGOs, etc. About a week before the program, the Department of State Security (DSS) invited the organizers to come and inform them about the event. This invitation was disturbing. The DSS works in secret. And an invitation meant that they must have secretly uncovered or accessed something of real concern. I wondered if the DSS also entertained the same misconception of the AfAW and its event as the police. I tried to engage the spokesperson in Abuja via whatsapp. But he accused me of ‘grandstanding and raising unnecessary alarm’.
The meeting with the DSS went well. They advised the organizers to extend an invitation to the state police command which we did. Two days before the event, the DSS invited the organizers again for a meeting. At the meeting, the officers asked the organizers to meet with the divisional police officer for the area where the event would be held. We met with the DPO, and he took us to the state police command. He said the Commissioner of Police(CP) wanted to see us. At the state police headquarters, we first met with the Deputy Police Commissioner(DCP) who took us to the CP’s office. But the CP was not on the seat. They asked us to wait for him. While we were waiting, we met with the Police Public Relations Officer(PPRO) who told us to meet with the CP. From all the meetings, it was clear that something was amiss. For no cogent reason, a fringe AfAW event was a security concern in the state. It was annoying that in the course of these meetings, police officers including the PPRO referred to us as these ‘witch people’ even after a repeated explanation that the AfAW advocated for alleged witches and against witch persecution.
The police officers refused to learn and unlearn. The CP later arrived and the DCP took us to his office. The meeting like the one we held with the DSS was positive and encouraging. After of brief introduction of the AfAW and its activities, the CP made it clear that people were misinformed about the Advocacy for Alleged Witches; that the name of the organization conveyed a different message and understanding. He called the chief security officer at the government house and explained to him; he made it clear that the AfAW had been misrepresented. That its organizers had very noble intentions that the government should support.
The CP asked if the CSO could agree to meet with us or get the governor to meet with us so that we could explain and clarify issues. It was at that point that it became clear to me and other colleagues that Gov Ortom was behind the disruption and stopping of our event in September. The CP asked us to go and meet with the CSO at the government house. We went to his office and he was not on the seat. His assistant said he went to see the governor; that we should come back the following day. I tried reaching the CSO through his assistant to discuss and resolve the issue, but he was not picking up my calls. The following day, the organizers met with the DSS and they insisted we get some clearance from the police. The officer asked us to meet the DPO again. The DPO said that he had not received any signal from the CP and asked us to return to the CP. We did but this time, the DCP did not allow us to see the CP. He asked us to go and meet with the CSO for clearance. At this point, we decided that we had had enough; that we would go ahead with the event, and if the police came and disrupted it we would disperse as we did in September.
Before leaving the police station, an officer who was familiar with our case, told us, off the record, to go ahead with our event, that the state house would not give us any clearance. We were told that Gov Ortom called the police and instructed them to stop our event, the ‘meeting of witches’ in September. And the order had not been revoked. The seminar went ahead as planned at the Staff Development Center on December 21. The organizers anticipated police disruption as was the case in September but it did not happen. The program took place without any incident. Fifteen persons attended the event including representatives of FIDA, NHRC, and the media.
Due to the uncertainties over the organization of the program, we could not mobilize people to attend. One survivor of witch persecution was at the program and recounted how his son accused him of being responsible for his wife’s miscarriage and threatened to kill him. The son attacked him with a stick but he resisted him. Family members raised alarm and were able to subdue the son before he could harm him. The son used the stick to smash the windscreen and windows, head and rear light, and mirrors of his car. This survivor came from a distant village to attend the event after listening to a public enlightenment program on the radio Benue the previous day. The AfAW pledged to support him with a sum of 50,000 naira. We will explore ways to empower and rehabilitate other victims of witch hunts in the state and continue to send the message that alleged witches are innocent. Victims and survivors of witch persecution need a platform where they can share their stories and experiences.
They need the support of the government and society. But survivors would not get the support that they need if the state government is against advocacy for alleged witches; if the government cannot make a distinction between a meeting to address abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs and a meeting of ‘witches and wizards’.
The Ortom-led government is mistaken and needs to get rid of the misinformation about the activities of the AfAW and efforts to combat abuses linked to witchcraft accusations. It should take measures to dispel witchcraft fears and anxieties and rally against witchcraft allegations and witch persecution in the state.
Leo Igwe directs the Advocacy for Alleged Witches which campaigns to end witch persecution in Africa