When Akpan Affiong was accused of being a witch in October 2022, she was dragged by her children and villagers to Iwangukwu forest in Akamkpa Local Government Area in Cross River State to be lynched.
The 74-year-old was accused of being responsible for the sudden death of her relatives.
A few weeks before the incident, her son had died from injuries sustained after an altercation with a police officer, and her sister, who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, had passed away. Both deaths were blamed on her.
Affiong’s voice faltered in the forest as she endured slaps and sticks on her frail back; worse was the haunting cries of her children demanding, “Confess that you are a witch!”
“With all the emotional pain that my son and sister’s death brought me, I was accused of killing them because I was older and a prophecy by a prophet,” Affiong said.
Just moments before she was to be burned, she was rescued by one Jude Ugba (not his real name), a community youth leader. In what seemed like a miracle, Ugba singlehandedly intervened and prevented an unspeakable tragedy from unfolding, after which he contacted Ebe Ukara, chairperson of the Child Protection Network (CPN) in Cross River, who took her out of the community.
But Mrs Martina Okey Itagbor, a woman in her 70s, was not as lucky as Affiong. Itagbor was burnt to death as recently as June 30 2023, in Old Netim, a town in Cross River State’s Odukpani Local Government Area, after some youths accused her of using witchcraft to inflict an illness on a community youth.
Branding older people as witches is partly rooted in the patriarchy, said James Ibor, a human rights lawyer, adding that most older people branded as witches are women, and it is because society thinks they are defenceless.
“The subjugation of women also makes them too vulnerable and weak to defend themselves.This is why most victims of witchcraft allegations are old women,” he said.
He said the practice is also rooted in religion and superstition, advocating for the regulation of churches and other religious centres that brand people as witches.
The persecution of individuals accused of witchcraft has long been a significant problem in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Nigeria. It continues to be a stumbling block in achieving the goals outlined in the UN General Assembly’s Declaration on the elimination of violence against women issued in December 1993.
The torture and various forms of violence inflicted upon these women, in the absence of any evidence against them, represents a violation of their rights, as stated in Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibits the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
Nigeria’sCriminal CodeAct provides in Section 210 that any person who accuses another of being a witch or having the power of witchcraft; or makes or takes part in making, selling or using, invocation, worship or possessing any juju, drug or charm or control over any human remains connected with witchcraft, human sacrifice or other unlawful practice; is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for two years.
Despite the existence of such international and national instruments, the persecution of women suspected of witchcraft continues unabated in Nigeria.
Rescuing alleged witches
After Affiong was rescued, Ukara, the CPN chairperson, reached out to Ibor, the human rights lawyer, who connected them to Leo Igwe, founder of the Advocacy for Alleged Witches or AFAW.
Igwe got an apartment for Affiong outside the community and involved the police, who arrested some perpetrators and later took them to court.
Igwe’s drive to end witchcraft branding started in 2019 after his doctoral degree in religious studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, where his thesis focused on witchcraft accusations in northern Ghana.
When Igwe beamed his light on Nigeria and saw that the practice was also rife here, he contacted advocacy organisations in Nigeria to integrate fighting for alleged witches into their advocacy. But when they did not respond, he started AFAW.
“Everybody believes that someone is doing juju or charm to harm you. And when misfortune comes up on those people, people are glad. But I noticed that these people who do the juju and are seen as powerful also get sick and die [despite their assumed powers],” he said.
AFAW focuses on creating a witch-hunting-free society using sensitisation and collaboration with the police and the National Human Rights Commission or NHRC to prosecute offenders.
AFAW has a network of 70 advocates across Nigeria responsible for reporting and escalating incidents of witchcraft branding in their communities. When the issue is escalated, its central team, where possible, arranges to remove the accused from the environment and provides medical assistance while contacting the relevant government agency for appropriate legal actions.
The group, which relies on donations and volunteers such as lawyers to provide free consultation and prosecutions, has helped rescue 30 witch-branded people.
Once a year, they make a donation call, mainly targeting non-African friends, to fund their intervention programs.
Like Affiong, Agnes (not her real name) was one of three people rescued after members of their community in the Boki Local Government Area of Cross River attacked nine of them with machetes and subsequently threw them into a fire to burn after accusing them of witchcraft.
She was quickly rushed to the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, where she remained hospitalised for two years and underwent multiple surgeries.
Throughout her harrowing journey, “Through the help of AFAW, I was able to settle my hospital bills. And they always care for me and speak to my children,” she said.
Near zero convictions
But while AFAW has helped rescue 30 alleged witches from hostile community members across several Nigerian states, including Cross River, Abia, and Anambra, its court cases have been delayed unnecessarily due to the slow legal process in Nigeria, said Ibor, insisting that prosecution remains one of the ways to end the menace.
Out of AFAW’s 16 court cases, it has secured only one conviction, while 15 are still pending.
Also, there have been instances where the police hinder AFAW’s work. In 2022, for example, while on a public campaign to end witchcraft branding, Igwe said police officers came and disrupted the program asking them to leave the area and accusing them of supporting witches.
He regrets that it is the same institution AFAW depends on to defend the rights of the alleged witches and prosecute perpetrators that sometimes disrupts campaign activities.
Notwithstanding, he insists that the fight against witchcraft branding is one he is determined to continue despite challenges “because just like the helpless victims today, who knows who will be wrongly accused tomorrow?”
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.