The killing of persons accused of witchcraft continues to take place in different parts of Africa despite the existence of enabling laws and human rights mechanisms.
Occasionally there are arrests, prosecutions and conviction of witch killers. But that has not brought this murderous campaign to an end. Alleged witches in Africa are at risk of being attacked, tortured or lynched with impunity by mobs. This regional calamity continues to spread.
Recently there was an encouraging development in Southern Africa. In Zambia, nine persons - Chipushi Kapempe, Joseph Chama, Mwewa Mwange, Rabbison Cholwe, Charles Chulu, Chola Mwape, Francis Kwesele, Derrick Ngosa and Mwape Supriano - were sentenced to a total of 315 years imprisonment for killing and burning seven people accused of witchcraft(1). Chipushi Kapempe and his colleagues were part of a witch-finding gang that stormed a local community and identified and abducted suspected witches, who were later murdered and buried in a grave. One of the witnesses told the court that the uncle, Chamina, was abducted by the young men who claimed he would be taken to a witchfinder because he was implicated in the death of a local chief.
Belief that people can kill others through magic or witchcraft is common in Africa. Due to high mortality rate on the continent, suspicion of witchcraft is rife, witchcraft accusation is widespread and witch hunting often erupts. In most cases, vulnerable members of the population - women, children and elderly persons - are targeted and indicted for this ‘occult crime’.
Witchcraft related killings also take place in other parts of Southern Africa. In 2011, two elderly people were lynched in a local province in Mozambique after being accused of witchcraft. They were among 20 elderly persons who were murdered for witchcraft in the country last year(2).
A witch hunt is also believed to be behind the killings of two people in South Africa. One was hacked to death and the other burned alive. Four people were reportedly injured in the attack in Slovo Park, Eastern Cape, after a mob descended on two homes where they believed witchcraft was being practiced(3).
In Ekiti in Southern Nigeria, a local chief was quizzed by the police following the murder of a 70 year old woman, Mrs. Rebecca Adewumi, who was accused of witchcraft. Adewumi was alleged to have caused the sickness of a local evangelist through occult means. This allegation was based on the dream of a little girl on the community. Consequently, Mrs Adewumi was dragged to the palace of the local chief, stripped naked and forced to drink a concoction believed to have the power to make a witch confess. But the woman did not confess or die after seven days as was expected. Hence some youths went and dragged her out under the rain and flogged her. “They scrapped her hair with broken bottles and used a giant scissors to cut her fingers. They set her on a tyre and burned her slowly while she was still alive.”(4) This savage treatment is often meted out against victims of witchcraft accusation not only in Nigeria but in other countries across the region(5).
The state government has condemned the killing, vowing to bring the perpetrators to justice. The State Commissioner for Women Affairs, Social Development and Gender Empowerment describing it as “criminal, barbaric and a contravention of laid down laws”. She decried the occurrence of such an unfortunate incident in this modern age. But such lamentations are often empty and ineffective. For instance, no arrests of suspects have been made. Instead, there are indications that some prominent persons in the community are prevailing on the police to stall the investigation and prosecution of the case.
In Nigeria, witchcraft accusation is a crime. Like the case in Zambia, those who killed Mrs Adewumi should be arrested and charged for murder. But in this case, it may not happen. Justice will likely be denied due to so many reasons. As in many parts of Africa, there is lack of political will to prosecute witchcraft related killings. Many of those who prosecute these cases - police officials and judges - are witchcraft believers. They are afraid of tinkering with this ‘occult crime’.
Another reason is that witch killing cases often involve prominent people in the communities - traditional chiefs and community leaders - who are considered ‘sacred cows’. Local authorities lack the political will to bring these ‘sacred cows’ to justice particularly in matters concerning witchcraft.
There is a lot of pressure from the witch believing populace on police and court officials to misapply and misinterpret the law by prosecuting the accused and acquitting the accusers. Officials in Nigeria must begin to emulate their counterparts in Zambia, and uphold the rule of law without fear in order to combat witch killing and related abuses.
Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.
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