3 Feb 2011

Nigerian children's rights advocate harassed and arrested before he could give evidence to Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft

The Lay Scientist (blog on The Guardian - UK) January 14, 2011

The dangerous fight for the 'child witches' of Nigeria

Campaigners believe Leo Igwe's recent arrest is part of a wider campaign of harassment and abuse directed at him and his family over his pursuit of justice for children branded 'witches'.

by Martin Robbins

"Unlike other ministries where witches and wizards are beaten or stoned to death, Liberty is the only Ministry that shows mercy to witches." So boast the Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, whose leader, Helen Ukpabio, is claimed to be one of Nigeria's leading 'deliverers' of witches - ministering to up to a thousand at a time.

Humanist campaigner Leo Igwe and other rational-minded people in West Africa take a rather dim view of branding children 'witches', and claim that in many cases deliverance is far from the serene and gentle experience it is claimed to be. According to Igwe and charities working in the region, children "are taken to churches where they are subjected to inhumane and degrading torture in the name of 'exorcism'. They are chained, starved, hacked with machetes, lynched or murdered in cold blood." Some are apparently bathed in acid.

Criticizing these churches is not a great idea if you value a hassle-free life. In 2009 around 200 of Ukpabio's Liberty followers stormed a meeting of humanists as Igwe prepared to speak, bringing the event to an abrupt and violent end. Fortunately the police were called and intervened, but Liberty immediately sued for $1.3m dollars, apparently incensed that a meeting critical of their activities was allowed by the authorities to go ahead. The case was swiftly dismissed by Justice P.J. Nneke at the Federal High Court in Calabar.

Unfortunately the authorities aren't always on the right side. Religious groups and powerful individuals can wield significant power and influence, especially in local communities, and even senior police officers and lawmakers may share their belief in witchcraft.

Regional leader Governor Akpabio recently caused alarm when - in spite of apparently taking steps to tackle the child witch issue - he abruptly ordered the arrest of officials working for NGOs like Stepping Stones Nigeria who are fighting child abuse in the region.

This was supposedly due to allegations of fraud, but NGOs have been successful in bringing the problem of child abuse to the attention of international media like CNN, and the Governor reacted badly to these reports, declaring them to be "part of the media propaganda against the state" and insisting that he had already resolved the problem. The suspicion of many campaigners is that those bringing attention to the problem may be seen as an inconvenience, an embarrassment, and a challenge to his authority.

No evidence of any fraud has been put forward, but Liberty's website contains an example of the sorts of smears and allegations that have been circulating against NGOs in Nigeria:

"Be informed that some organizations that don't believe in the existence of God called "HUMANIST" have formed organisations in the name of helping the Helpless Child of Africa from being molested. Stepping stone Nigeria is one of such Organisations, it has been investigated by the Nigerian Police and discovered that "Stepping stone Nigeria" is not REGISTERED anywhere in the world. It is used as an Internet SCAM to extort money from the people who are in sympathy with clips of tortured children by some wicked parents not necessaryingly on account of witchcraft. As at June ending Stepping stone Nigeria has made from the public fraudulently the sum of about One Million, Two Hundred Thousand Pounds sterling (£1.2M)"

The allegations are of course nonsense: in reality Stepping Stones are registered with the Charity Commission in the UK, and detailed accounts are filed there and posted on their own website.

Leo Igwe was due to give evidence to the Akwa-Ibom State Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Accusations and Child Rights Abuses today, but found himself arrested and allegedly beaten before being released without charge. He described his ordeal to Sahara Reporters:

"It was a terrible encounter and it was premeditated going by the way they executed the plot to hold me accountable for "kidnapping;" my hands were tied behind me and they beat me mercilessly. [...] My head was swollen and I kept massaging it so that it does not become permanent; from Tuesday night to this morning I was kept incommunicado and had no contact with either my family or my lawyers."

The arrest comes straight after a series of similar incidents: Leo and his father were arrested on the 5th January, and his brother was taken into custody by the state security service a few days later. Regular arrests have become a feature of life for Leo and his family for some years, and campaigners regard them as a pattern of harassment related to his campaigning, and his pursuit of a powerful man living locally who is alleged to have raped a young girl.

Leo Igwe will continue to fight for the children of Nigeria, while the International Humanist and Ethical Union are putting pressure on regional authorities to try and bring an end to the arrests. Stepping Stones Nigeria have continue their work in the country in spite of the threat of arrest. All three deserve a lot of support.

This article was found at:



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  1. Americans Should Protest Nigerian Witch-Hunter's Visit

    by Michael Mungai, Huffington Post January 11, 2012

    If you live in the U.S. and you are:

    •In bondage
    •Having bad dreams
    •Under a witchcraft attack or oppression
    •Possessed by mermaid spirits or other evil spirits
    •Barren and having frequent miscarriages
    •Experiencing an unsuccessful life of disappointment
    •Experiencing financial impotency with difficulties
    •Facing victimization and a lack of promotion
    •Experiencing a stagnant life with failures

    ...You need not wait for too long. Helen Ukpabio, a Nigerian evangelist, will be traveling to the United States in March where she will be preaching in Texas. All ye people in the U.S. who have been struggling with the possession of mermaid spirits no longer have to be like fish out of water, someone's finally coming to shore you up.

    While it is laughable that there are credulous people in this world who believe in such fishy claims, the real issue that should trouble every American is that their impending guest is also a notorious child-witch hunter. Ukpabio alleges that Satan constantly manifests himself in the bodies of children through demonic possession, turning them into witches and wizards. Condemned as witches, these children are splashed with acid, buried alive, immersed in fire or expelled from their communities. According to Nigerian humanist campaigner Leo Igwe, Ukpabio "is a Christian fundamentalist and a Biblical literalist. She uses her sermons, teachings and prophetic declarations to incite hatred, intolerance and persecution of alleged witches and wizards." Ukpabio, we learn from Igwe, claims to be an ex-witch, who later founded her own church to pursue her "anointed mission" of delivering people from witchcraft. Her ministry's services include deliverance sessions that identify and cast out demons. Her church has extended witch- hunting branches all over Nigeria and even to other countries.

    This won't be Ukpabio's first trip to the United States. In her last visit to Houston, Texas in 2010, she defended herself by arguing that her critics pick on her because she is an African. She cited J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series, arguing that if Westerners do not take Rowling's work seriously, then she (Ukpabio) is a hapless victim of Western racism. However, while Rowling's readers tend to buy brooms, hats and "magic wands" for their children to play with, parents inspired by Ukpabio are more likely to buy machetes and physically confront the alleged demons living in their children's bodies. Also, citing Western interference and racism has now become the mantra for many unscrupulous Africans pursuing self-serving ends. They unfairly take advantage of Africa's injurious history with the West, a topic that elicits sentimental reactions from most Africans whenever it is invoked.

    "If a child under the age of two screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan," Ukpabio writes in her book, Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft. In many rural African settings, these symptoms are common in almost all babies. In a country where more than 10 percent of children die before they reach five years, what these babies need is immediate medical attention. By instructing gullible Nigerian parents to persecute their own children, she continues to enrich herself, through her books and remittances from exorcisms. In this, she joins the growing list of televangelists who are fleecing poor Africans all over the continent, promising "miracles" for a fee.

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  2. continued from previous comment:

    I first learned of her nefarious campaign in the heartbreaking documentary, Dispatches: Return to Africa's Witch Children. For the past nine years, I have worked with street children in Kenya, most of them coming from abusive backgrounds. I have watched over young boys who occasionally experience dreadful nightmares due to the trauma they endured under violent parents, guardians or relatives. This distress haunts the children for a long time and their suffering has caused substantial inhibition of their psychological and intellectual growth. It therefore disturbs me to see Ukpabio, hiding behind the immunity of religion, inflicting even worse torture on Nigerian children.

    My appeal to rational Americans is to ensure that Ukpabio, with her hateful campaign against defenseless children, knows that she is not welcome in their country. She should be met with hostility similar to the protests against the Pope's visit to the United Kingdom. While we should all respect the freedom of everyone to practice their religion, this respect should stop where it starts harming those around them. Like in the popular phrase attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins. In the name of religion, crimes against children continue with no justice or accountability from relevant authorities. However, protesting against Ukpabio's visit to America would be a step towards the right direction in giving a voice to her unfortunate little victims.