Excerpts follow from an article by Marc Ellison
The stigmatization of children as witches is a recent phenomenon in the Niger Delta region, which suddenly exploded in the 1990s. By 2008, it was estimated that 15,000 children had been branded in the southeastern states of Akwa Ibom and Cross Rivers. According to research from that period, cases that had been documented included children and babies who had had nails driven into their heads, been forced to drink cement, set on fire, scarred by acid, poisoned, and even buried alive.
Bassey recalls how two girls were accused by a pastor two years ago at the Divine Zion of God Church in the small town of Akpabuyo in Cross River State. A pregnant congregant had gone past her due date by several weeks, and the seven and 10-year-old girls were held to be responsible and branded witches. The woman had approached a pastor at her local church and paid for a consultation. Although she gave birth successful shortly after, the damage had been done. A week later, Bassey heard the girls’ screams as he returned from his fields. They had been tied to a palm tree, and were being beaten with canes and machetes by three men.
Ebe Ukara, a desk officer for the Child Rights Implementation Committee in Akamkpa, says that 60% of the child abuse cases that cross her desk are witchcraft-related, and more often than not prompted by a pastor’s declaration. Those pastors, she says, can make a tidy profit from people who turn to them for help, although she stresses that not all Pentecostal churches are out to hoodwink their followers.
Judging from the billboards that adorn roundabouts – from the capital of Abuja to the Niger Delta – beer and salvation are big businesses in Nigeria, commodities to be bought and sold.
A handful of Nigerian organisations such as the Basic Rights Counsel Initiative (BRCI) and Way to Nations try to do more than just rescue youngsters accused of witchcraft – they try to reunite them with the very relatives who have ostracised them. Such attempts are rarely successful, even with extended family members.
“How do we break the news to these children that your aunties, your uncles are not willing to even see you?” says Lawyer and child advocate James Ibor. “These kids then maybe start to even think that they are witches.”