In the first quarter of the year 2000, then a student of the University of Calabar, Sam Itauma, upon a trip to his home town in Akwa Ibom State, was still seated astride the motorcycle as it wove its way through the crowd in the market square near his home in Ikot Afaha, Eket, when he saw another crowd near the not too far town hall doing something really bizarre.
Akwa Ibom is not far from Calabar where over 100 years ago, Scottish missionary Mary Slessor stopped the killing of twins, whose births were considered by the natives for many years at that time as an evil curse.
Perhaps this is why today; cruelty to children can be easily stomached by indigenes of the State.
Eket is a small oil rich yet poverty stricken city. There, child abuse has recently taken on a new dimension. Although the people worshiped Ala the ‘earth deity’ through their ancestors, now Christianity has been predominantly fused with the traditional local belief system so that there is an upsurge in the number of prophets and pastors, some of them founders, others pastors of churches which are local franchises of big denominations, who have discovered that they can only prove their spirituality by naming children, 15 years downwards, as witches.
In conjunction with communities and local militias comprising mainly of the youth, children are declared witches, rounded up, tortured, abandoned, maimed and even killed.
In a depressing case, a pastor denounced an unsuspecting and vulnerable boy of about 10 years. Thereafter, his father tried to force acid down the boy’s throat in a desperate bid for exorcism; the acid spilled over as he struggled, burning his face. The boy died a month after.
If the fact that no one was punished for the boy’s death was alarmingly enough, then the most depressing part of it all is that the boy’s passing was celebrated as ‘one less mouth to feed’!
According to my friend, Mr. Sam Itauma, founder of the Child Right and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), in recent times, over 30,000 children have been maimed, abandoned, tortured and even killed at the behest of pastors, with the blessing of society.
Sam Itauma was nicknamed ‘King of Witches’ because for over 15 years, he assumed the arduous task of taking into his home kids who have been abandoned, most times at great risk to his own life.
When he saw the crowd on that fateful day, he quickly jumped down from the motorcycle and ran into the thickest part of the mob. Under the supervision of a boy, he discovered that they were actually beating a five-year old accused of witchcraft. It was a very rowdy crowd, with many of them holding all manner of instruments that could inflict mortal wounds on a person. Upon seeing Sam, because she knew of his reputation, the little girl began to plead with him to save her life. Sam saw the visible stripes thorn into her flesh from the long canes that had been used on her. By then she had crawled into a hole that had formed under the root of a large hibiscus tree that had bowed to the rhythm of a great wind, which was just large enough to cover the upper part of her body. Some of the boys were pulling at her legs to pull her out, while others kept raining torrents of cane on the visible part of her body. Still groaning in pain and crying for help, she clung desperately to the roots of the large tree in hiding.
Mr. Sam related how a chill ran through his spine upon seeing that spectacle. He was confused and in tears. In desperation, he yelled at the ring leader, a boy he knew very well, that if the girl dies he will make sure he was prosecuted.
One of the boys in the crowd warned him to stop wasting his time trying to save a little ‘witch’, while there were many more in the town hall already condemned. Confused, Sam dashed for the town hall not far from the market square.
The level of madness dawned on him when he saw that over 40 people, mostly kids, had been rounded up earlier in a large witch hunt that was akin to a pogrom. They had received so much beating that about eight of them had actually died. The little girl was one of them but had escaped at the town hall. Her assailants had pursued and caught up with her at the market square.
The CIA World Fact Book 2017 puts Nigeria’s population at 186,000,000, with children below the age of 14 being put at slightly over 42 percent, meaning that today we have over 70 million children in Nigeria. Yet, only a very negligible number of kids are not abused in one way or the other today.
Alimajiris and child brides, resulting in extreme cases of VVF, abound in the North as street hawkers, child labourers, house helps; while out of school kids are in the West, as baby factories disguising as orphanage homes abound in the South-East in general and Enugu State in particular. And now these unfortunate souls called child ‘witches’?
Everywhere one turns, it appears we are taking out our frustrations on the most vulnerable, even though all our major religions admonish us to protect and cherish them as the future of our species.
For example, in Kano State alone, over three million alimajiris are left by parents, who are extremely poor, in the hands of mostly illiterate imams with no knowledge of child care. Sometimes up to 50 almajiri children are left to one man, left to begging for alms and doing menial jobs, from which they make return to the imams.
According to the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education, Adamu Hussaini and Chioma Chuka of Tech-Her, Nigeria has the highest out-of-school kids, not only in Africa but in the entire world!
Yet the popular ‘woman of God’ in Port Harcourt and her co-travellers believe and preach that ‘Satan manifests himself in children as witches and wizards’, and find the heart to exploit poverty, ignorance and superstition to further their trade, by making videos and writing books on ‘ways of discovering a child witch’, and denouncing the kids as such. Parents are made to pay as much as 400,000 naira in some cases for the ‘deliverance’ of these kids.
It is depressing to know what millions of Nigerian children in their formative and highly impressionable years are going through today.
What is going on in Akwa Ibom is a clear case of child abuse, aided and abetted by a willing and an insensitive adult society and it must be stopped with immediate effect. Children accused of witchcraft are subjected to psychological and physical violence, first by their family members, and then circle of friends, local militias, church and pastors or traditional healers. Once accused of witchcraft, children are stigmatised and discriminated for life.
On December 5, 2008, under some type of pressure, the former governor of Akwa Ibom State signed the UN Charter on the rights of children into law, listing stiff penalties for offenders, yet since then nothing much has changed. In fact, it was not long after that one dubious figure by the name of ‘The Bishop’, who owns a church in Ibaka, Akwa Ibom State, confessed in front of cameras to single handedly killing over 110 child ‘witches’. Reliable sources say that figure is way more than that. He was arrested and charged to court. As I write, this man is free and left to continue his business.
Because belief in witchcraft practically disappeared in Europe with all its attendant ills, it was previously believed that the same thing would happen here. But the current situation indicates the contrary. Far from fading away, the social and cultural representations have been maintained and transformed in order to adapt to contemporary contexts.
If one visits the CRARN facility in Eket, one would see a very strong example of unbelievable survival, remarkable bravery and a tale of madness, of a people, that should ordinarily protect the most vulnerable in society.
I think it is time for the government to step in, not in words but through action, to study the issue of child abuse in detail, understand the systems of representations of specific beliefs, the actions and social mechanisms related to mob justice, religious operations and traditional institutions, and the political, economic and social situation of contemporary Nigerian societies that will enable the development of effective actions for child protection and awareness‐raising with regard to the fundamental rights of the Nigerian child.
Our kids deserve nothing less.