Okinibi and Witch-Hunting in Central Nigeria
I just returned from a short visit to Idoma land in Benue state in Central Nigeria. A medical doctor whom I met at a local conference in Ibadan drew my attention to the pervasive practice of witchcraft allegation and the horrific abuses by witch hunters in this region. Idoma is one of the main ethnic groups in Benue. I have never been to Benue state and do not speak any of the local languages. Although I have read about witchcraft beliefs among the Tiv in Benue, I knew very little about witchcraft related abuses in Central Nigeria. The medical doctor told me that a woman was brought to his hospital following injuries that local witch-hunters inflicted on her. He urged me to visit to have a detailed knowledge of this violent campaign, and also to meet with the victims. I arrived at Benue on September 22 and the following day, I had a meeting with journalists at the radio station in Makurdi. James Ibor, a child rights activist and an attorney based in Calabar was at the meeting. Both of us were interviewed for a radio program called security watch. The program was broadcast on Thursday, September 26 with a repeat broadcast on September 28, 2019.
We discussed the security implications of witchcraft allegations and what the Witchcraft Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) is doing to tackle harmful practices that are linked to witchcraft beliefs. The following day I traveled to meet with the elders of Aadoka community. Before the meeting, I had another radio interview at Joy FM in Otukpo. I was in a company of two lawyers and we discussed the intersection between witchcraft allegations, law, and human rights. One of those who phoned in during the program pointed out that jungle justice was the only option in a situation of witchcraft imputation since such allegations could not be entertained in courts. In my response, I noted that law prohibited jungle justice and trial by ordeal. One of the lawyers pointed out that illegality could not be used to remedy illegality.
The plan was that I would, first of all, meet with the elders from Aadoka and the elders would lead me to meet other community members and some of the victims the following day. However, due to concerns over security we postponed the second leg of the meeting. I met with seven elders (four women and three men) who recounted some heart-wrenching stories of abuses and atrocities that were committed against alleged witches in their community in recent years.
At the meeting, the elders noted that witchcraft allegations were hampering the progress of their community because people were using flimsy allegations to attack, kill and destroy lives and property. According to them, the allegations were often linked to dreams. Little children of 10 years would dream that they saw usually elderly women giving them soft drinks or biscuits or pure water. They would inform their parents who would subsequently notify the elders. The villagers will convene and the accused will be asked to publicly respond to the allegations. After listening to the accused, he or she is asked to bring a goat or ram. In some cases, disputes over the allegations result in the beating of the accused. The alleged witch may be asked to swear an oath. And as part of the oath-taking, the elders would slaughter a goat and put the blood inside a Calabash and ask the accused to drink. If the accused fails to pay the penalty or take the oath, he or she will be banished from the community. If the person refuses to leave the community, a local cult group called the night spirits will attack or kill the person at night. I agreed with the elders to address the issue on a case-by-case basis. Here are the four cases that were recounted and we agreed to focus on at the moment.
The first case is that of Ms. O. She is about 65 years. A child accused her of being responsible for his sickness. The child said that she saw Ms. O in his dream and reported to the parents. The parents went to a prayer house where they confirmed their suspicion and then took the matter to the elders of the village. The accused person was brought to the village square and asked to swear an oath but she declined. They asked her to leave the village but she refused to do so. The Okinibi or night spirits went and destroyed the crops in her farm. In addition, the night spirits went in the middle of the night and attacked her with broken bottles. The woman was taken to Nazareth Hospital and then to Otukpo General Hospital. According to the elders, the woman remains in hiding.
According to local sources, Okinibi, night spirits, are those who enforce the decisions of Aleku. Aleku is the local god and used to be domesticated at a shrine. People used to go to the Aleku shrine to worship, make sacrifice and pledges. Following the spread of Christianity, the shrine was pulled down. The tree and other sacred accessories at the shrine such as masks were destroyed. But the priest, an elderly person, who is the custodian of Aleku has continued to operate. Persons who have problems and challenges consult him. The Aleku formed the Okinibi. These are youths in the twenties and thirties and they operate mainly at night hence they are called the night spirits. The Okinibi execute the directives of the Aleku during the day if and when necessary.
In another case, a girl child claimed that she saw a woman, Ms. E. in the dream giving her biscuits. The girl reported to the parents and the parents asked the accused to respond to the allegation. The accused told the parents of the girl that she was not there in the dream with her and so did not have anything to say regarding the allegation. The parents of the girl reported the accused to the elders of the community who asked her to take an oath and clear herself of the allegation. In the course of the argument over the oath-taking, some youths in the community descended on the woman and beat her thoroughly. The accused managed to escape and ran to her house and the mob followed her and started pulling down the house. The woman eventually fled the community and is living somewhere in Otukpo.
But the case of Mr. D. was quite horrific. The man was accused of witchcraft. Unfortunately, they never gave him the opportunity to defend himself or respond to the allegation. One night, the Okinibi, wearing masks, went and kidnapped him. They took Mr. D. to a primary school field and beat him to death. The Okinibi inserted a stick into the anus, tied him up with a rope and dragged him on the road until he died. The case was reported to the police but they did nothing. No arrest was made and the matter died. The widow and the children are still in the village where they live in constant fear of their lives. The fourth case was that of Ms. J. Her relatives, the elder sister and step-brother accused her of witchcraft. The villagers banished her and she was sleeping on the streets and inside the bush. Her only daughter, married and living in the same village was unable to accommodate her. Instead she used to go and feed her on the street where she was staying. When the elders were alerted, they sanctioned her. The elders asked her to pay a heavy fine and warned not to give her food again. Another woman, Ms. F, who was living in a neighbouring community saw Ms. J and pitied her. She took Ms. J to her house and was taking care of her. But after 1 year and 3 months, Ms. F said she became tired and urged her only daughter to come and take custody of the mother. On the very day that Ms. J returned to live with the daughter, the Okinibi mobilised and stoned her to death. They left the corpse on the roadside. The daughter later came and covered the corpse with a piece of cloth and buried it. According to Ms. F who recounted the story, it seemed that the woman had a premonition that she would be killed. That as Ms. J was leaving her apartment, she told her “God will bless you I know you would not see me again”.
I agreed with the elders that we would visit the community later in the year. Priority will be given to the welfare of survivors and families of victims. For instance, in the cases of Ms. O and E, efforts will be made to find out where they are currently residing and support them to pay medical bills or offset other costs that they had incurred as a result of the attack. Some assistance will be extended to the families of Mr. D. and Ms. J. to mitigate the hardship and suffering that they have been experiencing following the murder of their family members. I also plan, if possible, to reach out to the Okinibi or night spirits, and initiate a conversation on how to end their atrocious activities. I hope to put in place a skills acquisition/entrepreneurial scheme that will provide the ‘night spirits’ who renounce their Okinibi membership alternative sources of income. I also plan to initiate a conversation with leaders of the prayer houses in the region to make them understand the link between witch persecution and their prophecies.
The case of Ms. O was linked to a prayer house where the accused was identified as responsible for the illness. In fact, before leaving the state, I visited three prayer houses, Love Ministry, Mount Zion Salvation Ministry, and Prophet Jude Ministry in Otukpo. Incidentally, I did not meet any of the men or women of God who presided over these ministries. At prophet Jude’s residence which doubles as a prayer house, I saw over 20 women and children listening to his sermons. I was told that women were the leaders most of the prayer houses in the community. In addition to other actors, faith leaders should be part of any initiative to stamp out witch persecution in Benue state and in Nigeria.