Child Witch-Branding and the Rise of Pentecostalism Across Nigeria

Witch-hunting may be considered a barbaric historical practice in the West but in Africa, it is a very real and very dangerous phenomenon which is increasing with the rise of Pentecostalism. Thousands of children every day are being branded witches and consequently tortured into confessing non-existent crimes, forced to undergo horrific “exorcisms” by preachers, and even abandoned or killed by their own families or communities. This is particularly prevalent in parts of Nigeria, such as in Akwa Ibom, where it was estimated in a 2008 report that over 15,000 children have been branded witches, as have 85% of the region’s street children, according to a 2010 survey. Despite Nigeria’s adoption of the Children Rights Act in 2003, which aims to prevent child abuse and trafficking, the law is not being enforced properly and children are the ones suffering the consequences.

Witch-branding is a relatively recent phenomenon in Nigeria. Its roots can be found in the rise of Pentecostalism in the 1990s. In fact, the Niger Delta area, where witch-branding is most prevalent, now has more places of worship per square mile than anywhere else on earth, according to Al Jazeera. Pentecostalism centers upon the belief that there is no such thing as a natural cause, and that any misfortune is either the work of Satan or his servants, in the form of witches and wizards. As such, any misfortune suffered under this belief-system has its natural scapegoat, and in a society riddled by poverty and illness, the need to find someone to blame is high. It is children that have become that very scapegoat since they do not have a voice to defend themselves, and often, they themselves are brainwashed into believing that they are witches, and therefore evil.

The practice of branding children witches has also become a very lucrative one for Pentecostal preachers who are able to “exorcize” children of the influence of Satan for a price, or as they call it, “enact deliverances”. In the BBC documentary Saving Africa’s Witch Children, a preacher who calls himself “the Bishop” says that he personally has killed 110 witches, and now practices deliverances by feeding children a concoction of alcohol, mercury, and his own blood for two weeks, while also pouring a liquid into their eyes and ears. For this, he charges parents 400,000 Naira (equivalent to 1108 USD), and if they cannot pay the children are held captive till they can. In fact, preachers will often denounce a child as a witch during services attended by the whole community, and then charge the family a sum to exorcize that child or face the consequences. As Ebe Ukara, a desk officer for the Child Rights Implementation Committee in Akamkpa said to Al Jazeera, “even in cases of HIV, these fake prophets will tell a person, ‘No, it is family witchcraft that is attacking you, so don’t go to the hospital, come to my church”. She further states that 60% of the child abuse cases she sees are prompted by a pastor denouncing a child as a witch.

The belief in sorcery is so deep-rooted that it is stronger than family ties. Children are tortured by their community and family members into confessing crimes. For example, on Saving Africa’s Witch Children we encounter Mary, whose mother poured acid over her and tried to bury her alive. Then, Ekemeni, who was tied up with chicken wire, starved and beaten for two weeks by her family, and a young boy whose older brother peeled the skin from his upper leg with hot water, kerosene and a lighter. The belief pervades all levels of society so that once a child is suspected of witchcraft they will not even be admitted into hospitals for fear of the misfortune that they will bring, and therefore their horrendous torture wounds are left untreated. Children branded witches are also denied access to education as schools will not admit children suspected of witchcraft.

This belief in children as witches is reinforced by popular Nollywood films such as The End of the Wicked, produced in 1999 by Liberty Films, which depicts children being inducted into covens, eating human flesh and destroying their communities. As Chief Victor Ikot states in Saving Africa’s Witches, “I believe that the origin of child-witchcraft is a consequence of a film [The End of the Wicked] by a self-styled prophetess or evangelist, Helen Ukpabio, or the Liberty Church”. These films on child witchcraft are advertised not as fiction, but as a warning to community members on the dangers of harboring a witch amongst them. As stated in the Liberty Films website, “Liberty Films delivers the truth in a fresh and exciting way, and has led to the deliverance and salvation of many”. The “prophetess” Helen Ukpabio is the owner of Liberty Films and heads over 150 church branches, each spreading the message of child sorcery. In her “instructive” manual Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft, she identifies the characteristics of a witch as being “feverish” and “scream[ing] in the night”, all common symptoms of underfed, impoverished children.

However, while prophets and preachers enrich themselves by promoting this belief which leads to horrific child abuse, several charities and centers have also been set up to counter their efforts and re-educate children. The Child’s Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) for example, provides a home, schooling and medical support for children who have been abandoned as witches and re-educates them to believe they are not creatures of Satan. Similarly, Gary Foxtrot of the Stepping Stones Nigeria charity offers shelter and food to children, helps reunite them with family members who have abandoned them, and reports violations to the police. More importantly, however, the charity also works to provide long-term solutions, by engaging with government leaders and the judiciary so that children’s rights are enforced. Stepping Stones even successfully lobbied for the ratification and implementation of the Child’s Right Act in Akwa Ibom. Despite this, however, no preachers have yet to be successfully convicted or imprisoned for their crimes in denouncing children. There is no effective deterrent yet in place against witch-branding, and it is this that allows individuals such as Helen Ukpabio and “The Bishop” to profit from child abuse without fear.

Moreover, the key and underlying problem in witch-branding is a lack of education and a deep, irrational and superstitious belief which needs to be effectively countered in schools and communities alike. A report by UNICEF, working with CRARN, has shown that the belief in witches, far from being localized, is held by all levels of society, affecting law enforcement, social welfare workers, hospital workers, lawmakers, and school teachers. 95% of Nigerian society. Illnesses including HIV, hepatitis and cancer are held to be caused by “witches”, rather than looked at in terms of their medical causes. While such fear pervades society, those who could help, don’t. It is essential, therefore, to educate children on natural causes and demonstrate how the belief in witches is promoted by profit-driven institutions, rather than biblical truths.