ARUKAINO UMUKORO, in the first part of a two-part series, writes about the tradition of branding children witches in Akwa Ibom and Cross River states in Nigeria
It was plain murder at sunset. The heart-rending screams of 10-year-old Effiong Ita-Freddy shattered the uneasy peace in Atakidiang Ebughu, a sleepy community in Mbo Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom state.
About 20 members of the same family gathered together inside the family compound to watch the gory spectacle; the continued trial of a young boy who had been sentenced to death.
Before then, the boy was tortured for several days, beaten with sticks and cutlasses, until several parts of his body bled. They ignored his cry for help and mercy.
For them, his crime was too abominable to forgive — he was accused by his family members of being a witch. They claimed that his witchcraft had caused the deaths of two family members, as well as the sickness of some of his siblings.
After eking out his final confession on that fateful day in late 2010, his family members gathered to watch him die. They gave him ‘esere,’ a poisonous bean-like seed which is usually found in deep forests. Its poison damages the liver and body organs, and inflicts a violent death on the person.
SUNDAY PUNCH gathered that ‘esere’ is administered to a person suspected of witchcraft. It is a long-standing tradition among people in the southern part of Nigeria, particularly in Akwa Ibom State, where it is rife in Oron nation, the third largest ethnic group in the predominantly Christian state.
They believe the death or survival of anyone who ate ‘esere’ was confirmation that the person was a witch or not.
Effiong finally slumped and died in excruciating pains while his family watched; some with glee, others with pity.
Witnesses to murder, tales of torture
When confronted with the allegation of murder, Effiong’s mother and relatives could not deny it. One of his uncles said the boy had confessed to being a witch and that he was responsible for the sicknesses of his family members.
His mother had a look of guilt and helplessness on her face as she bowed her head, when our correspondent asked why she would allow any of her children go through such torture until he died.
When our correspondent visited the Ita-Freddy’s house, Effiong’s elder brother, Edet, now 25-years old, said his brother had confessed to being a witch.
“The whole family came together as witnesses to his confession. I was there too, but I couldn’t do anything about it then because I was still young. Effiong said the first wife of my late father ‘gave’ him the witchcraft, and then he also passed on the spell to his three other siblings.”
The younger siblings are Grace, 11; Williams, 8; and Victoria, 5.
Not able to bear the pain of watching her other children suffer or face the same end like Effiong; the mother finally summoned courage and sought for the help of a chief in one of the nearby communities. The chief housed the children for a few months, until they were rescued by a non-governmental organisation in Uyo, in 2014.
Last week, when SUNDAY PUNCH met the three siblings in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, they were still traumatised by witnessing their brother’s murder six years ago.
Grace, the eldest, said, “They beat us every day with sticks and cutlasses for several weeks. They said we were the ones that killed our family members and caused their sicknesses. Sometimes, some people in the village called scouts would use cigarettes to burn my face. They would also beat me.”
‘Scouts’ is a term for a group of fearsome boys in the community who are assigned to mete out to jungle justice to anyone confirmed of being a witch.
“They wanted to cut my ear. They dragged me on the floor for long, forcing me to confess to being a witch. They said they were going to kill me if I didn’t confess. I still remember the spot where my brother was buried after he was killed,” she said. Not able to stomach the memory, Grace then broke into tears.
Williams did not say much. He gazed into space and looked at his siblings with wandering eyes.
“They gave my brother something to drink and he died,” Victoria, the youngest, could only say in a shaky voice.
Just like the Ita-Freddys’, six-year-old Iyanam Okon Iyanam, and seven-year-old Ulu Okon Iyanam are siblings also rescued from torture after their family accused them of being witches in 2014.
Following the accusation, the siblings were tortured for days, leaving Iyanam with a broken left arm.
Iyanam, who likes Diego Costa and Willian of English Premiership side, Chelsea, may never get to play professional football in future as he wishes. This is because the injury was so severe that a medical operation could not fix the young boy’s arm. Scarred for life, Iyanam’s arm remains bent till this day. Unlike his elder brother, Iyanam is a boy of few words; he is still suspicious of people, aside from those he has come to know in the shelter for children like him.
SUNDAY PUNCH spoke to several children accused of witchcraft in Uyo, and Calabar, Cross River State. Their stories had similar refrain: horror, pain, torture and agony. Many of them still live with the tell-tale signs; physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Mary Odion, 11, and Ekong Asua, 12, were also rescued last year from the dungeon of being branded as child witches. The homes of both children were a few hundred metres apart in Okobo Local Government Area in Akwa Ibom State. They were both accused by their parents of being witches.
Mary was branded a witch after her uncle fell sick and later died of an illness suspected to be HIV/AIDS.
She said, “I was accused of killing him with my witchcraft. I don’t know what being a witch is. I remember then how many people in my family and community always beat me. They wanted to kill me. They beat me with cutlasses and cut my buttocks with knives. I lost consciousness and found myself in the bush. My parents thought I was already dead when they threw me out of the house. But I lived inside the market for two months. Some traders used to buy garri for me to eat sometimes. At other times, I would go hungry for several days because I could not find food to eat; I cried a lot during such times.”
Following the death of his parents, Asua was also accused of being a witch by her uncles that claimed a prophet had told them she was responsible for the deaths. “I said I did not know anything about it, but they did not believe me, they tied my hands and beat me with sticks and said I should confess. After beating me, they took me to the bush and left me there. That was where I met Mary. We lived together on the streets and market for months,” she said.
Child witches epidemic: like Uyo, like Calabar
Our correspondent discovered that the practice of branding innocent children as child witches is also common in Calabar. This is despite the fact that Cross River adapted the Child Rights Act 2003, which is called the Cross River Child Rights Law 2009. The law prohibits stigmatisation of any child, including those branded as witches or wizards.
The journey from Uyo to Calabar took about three hours due to the bad road.
Victor Emmanuel, 11, told SUNDAY PUNCH that he was lucky to survive the ordeal of being labelled a witch by his family. According to him, he was beaten several times by his grandmother.
“We lived in a village in Calabar. My grandmother accused me of being the one that was preventing her from making profit from her trade. I was beaten and given a scar on my head with a small knife to make me confess that I was a witch. I lived on the streets for four years,” Emmanuel told SUNDAY PUNCH, showing the knife scar on his head.
Like Emmanuel, 12-year-old Lawrence Sylvester also had a close shave with death after he was branded a witch by his parents. “We used to stay in Ikoransa in Calabar. My father called me a witch and started beating me after I was taken to visit a prophet. They said it was my paternal grandmother that gave me the witchcraft. I was injured several times from the beatings my father gave me with wires and different objects. There was a time my dad used a pestle used in pounding yam to beat me until the pestle broke into two,” he said, almost in tears.
Sylvester noted that many people in the community also called him a witch until he was driven away from home by his parents. “But I am not a witch. I would like to become a pastor because I would like to correct them and help young children like me in future,” he added.
Similarly, Clement Okon was sent packing after people in his community in Calabar South branded him a witch. Despite his age, 12-year-old Okon is a primary one pupil. But he would never have had the privilege of an education or a place to call home were it not for the help of Good Samaritans.
He told our correspondent how he used to pick food from the dustbins on the streets for years so as to survive. “Other big boys on the street used to beat me up and collect my money from rubber sales. I almost died,” he said.
Other children like 12-year-old Nsikat Monday and 11-year-old Victor Udom also had tales of horror to tell. Both lived on the streets of Calabar for several years, since they were aged five and four respectively, until recently, when they were taken off the streets by an NGO.
Udom was injured with a cutlass by his father on one occasion; while Monday survived an accident after being thrown into the streets.
Some of the parents/guardians of these children had gone into hiding when SUNDAY PUNCH tried to contact them.
‘Suffer not a witch to live’
Edidiong Ben was 16 when his father, Bassey, a pastor in one of the Pentecostal churches in Uquo, Esit-Eket, accused him and his crippled, epileptic brother of being witches.
The father allegedly claimed that both children were responsible for the low turnout of worshippers in his church, as well as the poor sales from his local gin business.
Branding Edidiong’s crippled brother as the ‘small demon,’ the father reportedly ordered him out of the house, and into the rain. Edidiong said as his crippled brother struggled to leave the house through the backyard, their father, in a fit of fury, held him by the arm and flung him into the rain, and into a water-filled ditch outside. Unable to help himself out of the ditch, the boy was left to drown until he died.
After the incident, one morning, Edidiong’s step mother reportedly woke up saying she had a nightmare where she saw him chasing her with a machete. The father did not need any more confirmation of his son’s alleged ‘wizardry.’ He then reportedly tied Edidiong’s hands and feet and suspended him upside down from the roof of the house, and used horsewhips to torture him for over two hours until the rope suspending him from the roof cut off.
In excruciating pains, Edidiong managed to crawl out of the ‘torture room’ until he saw a neighbour who heard his loud cries for help.
He lived in the open with other children at Uquo junction for months, under harsh conditions, until he was rescued by Child’s Right and Rehabilitation Network NGO a few years ago.
The Founder and Director, CRARN, Mr. Sam Itauma, remembered the incident vividly.
“In 2009, following a petition by CRARN, Edidiong’s father was arrested by the police alongside other five parents who labelled their children as witches and tortured them. They were later released without being charged to court due to the pressure by members of the community and the church members’ pressure.”
Itauma said Edidiong was taken back to his father in 2012 but was driven out of the house a few days later. “When he came to the CRARN Children Centre, he narrated his ordeal to us, albeit incoherently. He said he was later picked up by an unknown person who took him to Kaduna State where he served as a houseboy. He needs psychiatric care.”
A lawyer and Secretary, Basic Rights Counsel, Calabar, Cross River State, Mr. James Ibor, said the lack of education, poverty and high rate of unemployment were key factors to children being branded as witches by their parents or communities.
He said, “When people are poor and uneducated, they are easily persuaded by sometimes fraudulent pastors that keep them captive by branding their children witches. Tune in to the television and you will hear some pastors say ‘suffer not a witch to live.’ This is wrong.”
A UNICEF report, Children Accused of Witchcraft: An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa, noted that ‘children accused of witchcraft are subject to psychological and physical violence, first by family members and their circle of friends, then by church pastors or traditional healers.’
The report noted that, “Once accused of witchcraft, children are stigmatised and discriminated for life. Increasingly vulnerable and caught in a cycle of accusation, they risk yet further accusations of witchcraft. Children accused of witchcraft may be killed, although more often they are abandoned by their parents and live on the street. A large number of street children have been accused of witchcraft within the family circle. These children are more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence and to abuse by the authorities. In order to survive and to escape appalling living conditions, they use drugs and alcohol. Often victims of sexual exploitation, they are at increased risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection.”
The report also stated that the belief in witchcraft is widespread across sub-Saharan African countries, adding that, “Far from fading away, these social and cultural representations have been maintained and transformed in order to adapt to contemporary contexts.”
Ibor added that Nollywood movies have also contributed to the phenomenon and stigmatisation of ‘child witches,’ with popular movies sometimes depicting children as witches who could possess supernatural powers that could harm others.
‘Hope’ for child witches
Two-year-old Hope, like his name signifies, is the embodiment of the power of faith in life and destiny.
He stretched forth his hands to be hugged when our correspondent met with him.
Picked up from the streets on January 30, Hope was abandoned for more than eight months somewhere in Ikeya, in Okobo LGA, Akwa Ibom State, and left to the mercy of the weather and passers-by.
The Founder and Executive Director, African Children’s Aid, Education and Development, Uyo, Mr. David Emmanuel Umeh, told SUNDAY PUNCH they had been doubtful about the child’s survival.
“His condition was very critical; he had worms and severe kwashiorkor. His health complications also affected his private part and ability to urinate. Because of malnutrition he was also lacking important nutrients a typical growing child need for the brain to develop properly. But thankfully, from the diagnosis, nothing is wrong with his brain. With constant feeding, he will develop normally.”
Danish Anja Ringgren Lovén, a co-founder of ACAEDF, said some of the youngest boys at the children’s centre were always around Hope, noting that “they always play with him and protect him like he was a brother.”
“All our children have all gone through the exact same abandonment and torture like Hope. And for me to see how all of our children take such good care of each other is simply breath-taking and really shows the hard work and devotion of my staff. They teach and raise our children to become strong, loving and educated individuals with compassion and love for the world,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
A nurse, Rose Effiok-Okon, gave an insight into Hope’s condition and recovery.
“Hope’s condition was critical because he was malnourished on the street for many months. He had infection like lesions on his skin. He was admitted on January 31 and discharged after a month at Uyo Teaching Hospital. Now all those infections have been resolved, but he is still on drugs, and will be going on corrective surgery on his genitals because it has an abnormal opening and affects his urination. This could have been caused by a birth defect or what is called a congenital abnormality. I don’t know if that was why the parents branded him a witch.”
Effiok-Okon described Hope as “a nice and intelligent child.” SUNDAY PUNCH noticed he was always eager to play with the other children at the centre or watch the older ones play football, with an eagerness to join. Everyone at the centre, both young and old, seemed to have a fondness for the playful two-year-old.
“When he soils his clothes unexpectedly, he calls it to one’s notice. He likes to eat neatly and does not mess up his clothes. He was on a special diet for some time until his weight was restored normally. With time, we believe he will get better. One can’t say if he was well breastfed by the mother to protect the child from major health problems,” she said.
Effiok-Okon said children like Hope, who were labelled witches and abandoned by their parents, relatives, communities and left dangling between the harsh conditions of life and death, were left traumatised.
She said, “Due to the trauma from repeated abuse on these children, some of them are aggressive and scared when they are initially rescued and brought to the centre for the first time. They gradually adapt because we love and accept them as our children, give them good food and they go to school every day. We organise holiday classes for them to keep them busy; they also have football field for recreational therapy, and occupational therapy to make them forget the emotional and physical abuses they had suffered.”
Reacting to the branding of children as witches and their attendant torture or death in the state, the Police Public Relations Officer, Akwa Ibom, Cordelia Nwawe, said the state police is doing a lot to stop the practice.
Nwawe said, “We warn the parents and families; children have rights, and we follow up with the kids to ensure they have proper education. We arrest and charge to court those who mete out physical harm to a child. When cases get to court, it goes to the Directorate of Public Prosecution. We take it quite seriously. We do jingles on television and radio; we talk to the people for them to realise we won’t condone assault on children because someone thinks they are witches.
“Mob action is also a serious offence in Akwa Ibom and the state police won’t let this lie. We charge to court and look for persons who instigate the act. The Commissioner of Police has said this is unacceptable; we have zero tolerance for violence in any form.”
Akwa Ibom’s Commissioner of Information and Communication, Mr. Aniekan Umanah, told SUNDAY PUNCH that the practice was criminal stigmatisation of innocent and vulnerable children.
He said, “There may be isolated cases. We have always encouraged people to report such cases to security agencies and government, because we have a fully established welfare department in the ministry of women affairs and social welfare saddled with this responsibility. We need to get to the root of this. Anybody who fails to report such is contravening the law itself and is an accomplice. This practice is not acceptable in this state.
“Anyone who has any information on this or any criminal activity should please draw the attention of the security agencies, the social welfare department or better still, the ministry of information, to it. Government will prosecute these set of people, including the family, or anybody who brands a child a witch.”
Itauma added that witchcraft related abuse was not restricted to Cross River or Akwa Ibom states, as it has become a widespread phenomenon in Nigeria.
“Government needs to take a holistic approach and launch a widespread campaign to curb this monster otherwise; children will continue to be at the mercy of some phony pastors who label them witches.”