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Nigerian children accused of being witches march for the passage of the Child Rights Act, 2008
According to 2014 World Bank data, Nigeria is a lower middle income country, where 44% of the population is under the age of 15 years old. In several Nigerian communities, local Pentecostal and Evangelical pastors have accused children of being witches since the late 1990s, including about 15,000 children in the Akwa Ibom state alone. Child witch hunts became more prevalent after the 1999 release of the film, End of the Wicked, which graphically describes the phenomenon of child witches. The film’s creator, Ms. Helen Ukpabio, leads the 150-branch Liberty Gospel Church. She professes that children can become possessed by Satan, which causes them to wreak havoc on their families and communities. Her ideas have spread throughout the nation, leading relatives, community members, churchgoers, and pastors to attribute hardships, such as death in the family, illness, and hunger, to child witchcraft.
Once a child is accused, communities stigmatize alleged child witches. Community members usually attack the child in an attempt to kill the witch inside. They may beat them, attack them with machetes, pour acid over them, and inflict other types of abuse. Priests perform exorcisms or deliverance events in order to try to rid the child of evil spirits. Often they charge high prices for the procedure, which may entail violently shaking the children and pouring potions into their eyes. If the priest declares that the child is still possessed, parents either cast him/her into the streets, or community members may even kill the child. A 2010 report by Gary Foxcroft and Emilie Secker of Safe Child Africa found that 85% of street children in one area of Akwa Ibom State had been accused of being witches. Other data on the specific number of children killed due to witch accusations is unknown.
Two organizations, Stepping Stones Nigeria (now Safe Child Africa) led by Briton Gary Foxcroft, and Child’s Right and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) led by Nigerian Sam Ikpe-Itauma, partnered in 2005 to save accused child witches. The refuge they established in Eket hosted over 300 children in 2009. From 2005-2008, the two organizations used legislative and diplomatic procedures to pressure the government to pass the Child Rights Act into law. The Nigerian government federalized the policy in 2003, and had it been adopted by every state government, it would have become illegal to accuse children of being witches and would have guaranteed additional human rights. Unfortunately, the state governments could not be persuaded.
Consequently, in August 2008 (the exact date is unknown), Mr. Foxcroft and Mr. Ikpe-Itauma led a nonviolent march with the children of Eket and nearby communities to the Akwa Ibom government house in Oyo, where Governor Chief Godswill Akpabio lived. They aimed to convince the governor to pass the Child Rights Act into law. They brought with them an online petition that a United States human rights worker, Kelli Stowe, started through Care2.org. As Stowe reported on Care2.org, she had no affiliation with CRARN or Stepping Stones Nigeria. Over 1,000 people from countries worldwide, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Poland, and many others, signed in support of the passage of the Child Rights Act. It is unclear how CRARN and Stepping Stones Nigeria were notified of the petition and whether or not they presented a paper or electronic copy of the petition to the Akwa Ibom State Governor.
Footage from the march, which appears in the documentary “Saving Africa’s Witch Children,” shows children holding signs saying, “We are not witches or wizards” and “Arrest the false prophets.” Some children wore paper hats that read, “Give us our rights.” When the children and the organization leaders arrived at the governor’s residence, they met guards who denied them entrance. The protesters expressed their demands, sang songs about fighting for their rights, and held up their signs outside the gates for four hours.
The governor realized that they were not going to leave, so he decided to speak with them. The children and their leaders entered the state house and sang while they waited for the governor to appear. They presented him with the petition, he promised to meet their demands, and he signed the bill into law on 5 December 2008, declaring it “a giant stride for our children." Thus the children, Mr. Foxcroft, and Mr. Ikpe-Itauma achieved their goal and concluded a successful campaign.
It should be noted, however, that the Akwa Ibom State did not fully enforce the law. Up to ten children continued to arrive at the refuge weekly after the governor enacted the law, and in 2014, The Huffington Post published further reports of child witch abuse. In July 2009, unidentified armed men invaded CRARN’s refuge, seeking to kill Mr. Ikpe-Itauma. In the process, they beat some of the children living there and left three hospitalized. This violence, however, inspired another nonviolent campaign, in which the children rallied for their safety and the safety of Mr. Foxcroft and Mr. Ikpe-Itauma. They marched to local government buildings, including the Palace of the Paramount Ruler of Eket and the Eket Divisional Police Headquarters, to demand safety for themselves and for their caregivers. They also placed placards along Eket roads expressing that they were not child witches, and demanding that the government implement the Child Rights Act it had legalized a year earlier.