Sentenced in God's Name: The Untold Story of Nigeria's Witch Children


It is almost twenty-two years since the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This human rights treaty gives all children (under 18 years) a comprehensive set of economic, social, cultural and civil and political rights. It embraces  and legitimizes the needs of children and provides a basis for their well-being.  

  Although this Convention is relatively new, (November 20, 1989) it is the most widely and most rapidly adopted human rights convention in history (ratified by all governments except the richest, the United States of America and one of the poorest, Somalia). Nigeria ratified the Convention on April 19, 1991. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) which entered into force on November 29, 1999 spells out the basic human rights to which children on the continent are entitled. Nigeria ratified this Charter on July 21, 2001. The Nigerian Constitution (1999) also provides adequate protection for the Nigerian child. It avers that 'every person has a right to life and no person shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment; no person shall be held in slavery or servitude'.  

  These legal instruments notwithstanding, children in many parts of Nigeria continue to be deprived of their basic rights. You only need to pick up a newspaper to see the depth of deprivation and sorry state of the Nigerian child. There are still huge problems regarding child-marriage, female circumcision, child labour, poor nutrition, sanitation, health, education, and justice for children in Nigeria.

  But nothing has attracted greater national and international attention in the last year than the issue of so-called 'child witches' in Akwa Ibom State, south-south of Nigeria. Even though the carnage has been going on for years, it took a documentary "Saving Africa's Witch Children" by the UK Channel 4 TV network on November 12, 2008, to bring global attention to the horror experienced by children, some not even a year old.

  The last time the Nigerian public heard anything as bizarre as what is going in Akwa Ibom State was in late 19 th century (before the formal creation of Nigeria in 1914) when Mary Slessor, a Scottish Christian missionary in Calabar, not too far from the centre of the current Inquisition, worked to stop the killing of twins who, according to one account, were ' strangled or thrown alive into the forest, because one of them was begotten by the devil in a secret mating' . It is not that there haven't been stories about witchcraft since then. It is just that witchcraft was presumed to be an adult problem; something often associated with scraggly and lonely old men and women.

  The movie 'End of the Wicked (a witchcraft movie)' produced a decade ago by one pastor Helen Ukpabio , according to folklore, changed all that. The movie cast children as witches and wizards responsible for many of the problems their parents and families go through: unemployment, bad fortune, poverty, sickness, death, etc. Ukpabio, mother of three children, placed on herself, and by extension other pastors, many of whom go by the titles prophet and prophetess, the power to deliver children from witchcraft.

  Of course, superstition is a way of life in most parts of Africa; Nigeria is no exception. But the abuse of children by branding them witches, and burning them, literally, is certainly a new low for religious charlatans and opportunists who never miss any chance to prey on the poverty and ignorance of Nigerians.

  The Channel 4 documentary laid bare the atrocities of 'men and women of God' who sentence helpless and innocent children, and toddlers, to death in the name of exorcising witchcraft. These children -- victims of religious terror of the worst kind, usually from poor homes and largely illiterate parents -- are exposed to all forms of dehumanizing treatment from abandonment, starvation, to physical abuse and violence.

  In the midst of this religious travesty, a few individuals and organisations have taken it upon themselves to support and comfort these hapless children. Of particular interest is Sam Ikpe-Itauma and his Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) who are in the forefront of rehabilitating these abandoned children who have become social outcasts.

  Their burden can only be made lighter by a government response that is not only swift but effective. There is no basis for this violence against children on the strength of Nigeria's obligation to continental and international charters on the rights and welfare of the child.

  The Akwa Ibom State government has enacted the Child Rights Act (CRA) so there is no reason for the police whose alibi has always been there was no law to occasion the arrest of erring pastors, parents or anyone involved in any form of torture, trial by ordeal or inhuman treatment of children. The CRA makes offenders liable to 10 years imprisonment without an option of fine. It is important to ensure that all citizens of Akwa Ibom State are made aware of the CRA.

  As part of its oral testimony project, the Youth Media & Communication Initiative (YMCI), Nigeria's foremost youth media organisation, has put together in this booklet some chilling stories and interviews of these vulnerable children who for no fault of theirs are being made to suffer untold hardship and inhuman treatment. We hope this booklet will generate the necessary interest and attention to put an end to this savagery carried out in the name of religion.  

  Of course, this practice is not limited to Akwa Ibom State as the report shows. Now is the time to save 'witch children' wherever they may be in Nigeria. These children need all the support they can get. As leaders of tomorrow, children must be protected from acts that dehumanize them and make them incapable of growing up as healthy, normal, and responsible adult citizens.

Chido Onumah is Coordinator, Youth Media & Communication Initiative