Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom is in danger of doing something that’s unforgivably evil. In the name of protecting the image of his state, he has set out to destroy two organizations that are doing an admirable job of rescuing innocent children who are stigmatized as witches and wizards – and then subjected to brutalization.
In a recent CNN program devoted to the plight of Akwa Ibom’s “witch” children, the state’s commissioner of information, Aniekan Umanah, resorted to the most bizarre of lies. Unabashed, this commissioner told the world, in effect, that the problem was a mere hullabaloo and fiction, the product of a scam by two groups – one, the UK-based Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN) run by Gary Foxcroft, the other, the indigenous Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), run by Sam Itauma.
Following his commissioner’s shameful attempt to convince CNN viewers that the young victims of witchcraft persecution were actors and actresses directed by Foxcroft and Itauma, Governor Akpabio delivered an address to the state where he spoke along the same lines. In Akpabio’s facile script, the many children being sheltered, fed and educated thanks to the collaborative work of SSN and CRARN are victims, not of depraved witch hunters, but of two men determined to make a fortune.
The governor’s allegations are the more astonishing because he must know that his claims were deceptive. As a duly registered entity in the UK, Stepping Stones Nigeria is required by law to file documents disclosing the donations it received as well as its expenditures. If Akpabio had any proof that SSN’s funds were diverted, he could send Foxcroft on his way to jail by forwarding the evidence to British authorities.
But the governor and his commissioner are the ones making facile fiction out of a gory reality. The fact is that children, thousands of children, in Akwa Ibom are accused of witchcraft, and then beaten, burned, maimed and killed on the grounds of the unproven, ignorant charges.
It’s a shameful, shocking reality, and one that should challenge the governor and his cabinet to keep sleepless nights until the traumatized children are safe and their tormentors brought to book.
Instead of doing this, the governor and his commissioner have taken the low road. They have decided to wage a vile campaign against the two men whose dedication and advocacy have made a world of a difference in the lives of some of these persecuted innocents.
Governor Akpabio was not content to stop at vending a falsehood by accusing SSN and CRARN of fraudulent exploitation. Since his declaration of war – ostensibly on Foxcroft and Itauma, but in actuality against the unfortunate children that the two men care for – “security” men have turned the town of Eket, where the children are sheltered, into a theater of indiscriminate shooting. It is nothing less than evil to compound the travails of children who have been put through hell-grade suffering. Itauma, the portrait of a loving father to these maligned, mauled children, has been forced to look constantly over his shoulder, and to run for dear life.
It’s bad enough that Mr. Akpabio did not offer to make the resettlement of these children a singular mission of his administration. In seeking to slash and burn those who offer succor and a glimmer of hope to the castaways, the governor is, in effect, savaging poor children who had already suffered cruelty on a scale that would horrify anybody with a modicum of humanity.
It was in late 2008 that BBC Channel 4 first exposed the hideous dehumanization of children in a documentary titled “Saving Africa’s Witch Children.” As I wrote in an earlier column, “I was transported to one of the most gruesome, barbaric and dehumanizing documentaries I’ve ever watched.” Here’s a longer excerpt from that earlier column: “In an instant, I was placed in front of a wrenching gallery of savagery, horror and cruelty perpetrated at children. Innocent, helpless children!
“For some minutes, I gazed in absolute shock. I shook with shame, revulsion and rage at these graphic images of children killed, mutilated, burned, starved and abandoned, all on the grounds that they are ‘witches and wizards.’ A shirtless man in a village looks straight at the camera and states with deadpan ease, ‘I want to kill that small girl.’ Another woman, apparently a mother, pointed to two or three of her children and said they had confessed to killing their grandmother – with witchcraft! The camera pans to a young, big-eyed girl, her expression one of shy befuddlement. Then the narrator explains: ‘This is the story of Africa’s child witches, like five-year old Mary denounced as Satan made flesh.’
“One girl tells how her “senior” brother poured boiling water on her, scalding her skin. Another girl’s torso shows the hideous injury inflicted when her father made her sit on a fire. There’s the story of a thirteen-year old girl, stooped on the ground, her skull still showing the scar of a nail driven into it!”
There’s no question: that documentary calls into question the very humanity of those who make an evil, bloody sport of preying on the most helpless, voiceless but important segment of our population.
Adding to the shock value of the documentary was the revelation that several so-called Christian evangelists had joined the cottage industry that tainted children as witches and wizards. The documentary featured a man named “Bishop” Sunday Ulup-Aya, a self-styled “poison destroyer,” the poison he destroys being witchcraft, and the bearers of that poison being innocent children. Some of the accused witches and wizards are still toddlers. Before they have learned to walk, they have been diagnosed as blood-sucking witches or wizards by this obviously deranged “bishop” posing, like many other crazed miscreants, as “a man of God.”
The dean of these defamers of children is one Helen Akpabio. Ms. Akpabio fancies herself an evangelical warrior against witchcraft, but she is, instead, a trader in superstition – and a manufacturer of horrors. Deluded in her fervor, this woman even concocted a formula for detecting witchcraft in children, some of them toddlers. Among her preposterous signs that a child is under the spell of witchcraft are fever and bouts of crying.
In other words, if a child is sick – and most of the children in Akwa Ibom are in poor health – and cries on account of ill health or hunger, then Ms. Akpabio’s diagnosis, in all likelihood, would be witchcraft.
Genuine Christians everywhere must be outraged at the misuse of God’s name by sadists and merchants who do incalculable harm to children.
The animalization of the children of Akwa Ibom would never have been condoned in a society where citizens are enlightened and enjoy a decent standard of life, the government alive to its responsibilities, the chief of which is the safeguarding of life and property. The documentary, then, exposed the profound weakness if not glaring absence of the instrument of governance in Akwa Ibom. Akwa Ibom is, in this regard, like the rest of Nigeria, a space rife with aborted hopes, riddled with comatose dreams and unrealized potentials.
The whole child witchcraft saga is borne of a history of national failure. I wrote in 2008: “As Nigeria’s misery index has risen, many citizens – unable to put food on the table, or to gain access to healthcare, or to generally live with the dignity of human beings – have taken to superstition, make-belief and magic. Instead of recognizing the objective factors and forces that devalue their lives, they accept some pastor or imam’s lie that they are victims of ‘spiritual attack&#
8217; by diabolical neighbors or even sinister relatives.”
Governor Akpabio should cease his inelegant stomping against Foxcroft and Itauma. Perhaps he’s exasperated that the continuing focus on the agony of the child “witches” taints the state’s image. If so, he must realize that the way out is to commit time, energy and resources in a sustained war against the species of ignorance and poverty that breeds virulent superstition and acts of violence against children too handicapped to speak up in their own defense.
If Mr. Akpabio wants a good fight, I propose that he take on the likes of Ms. Akpabio who invoke God’s name to justify the infliction of unspeakable bodily and mental torture on God’s beautiful, even if impoverished, children.