Claire P. Ayelotan, PhD
In July 2023, Martina Okey Itagbor was brutally murdered in a gruesome lynching incident. She was dragged out of her home and set on fire in the streets opposite the Catholic Church she attended regularly. Witnesses reported that her perpetrators stood by and watched as she writhed in agony until her body was reduced to ashes. Afterwards, her remains were swept into a nearby gutter with a broom. The victim’s daughter, attending the church then, attempted to intervene, but was restrained by other congregation members. Among these members, some were Martina’s accusers.
Prior to this incident, other women had experienced a similar fate. For instance, on 27th August 2022, two widows in the Ebbaken community in Cross River State were killed by local youths for alleged witchcraft. No arrests were made. In 2022, Amarachi Okechi, a widow, was accused of witchcraft and publicly beaten by 30 youths in her village after claims from her brother-in-law’s wife. The incident was filmed as Amarachi was tied up overnight and abused for days. The wife of Abia State’s Governor eventually intervened. Four men in Adamawa State killed Martha Mamman on 4th December 2022, accusing her of witchcraft and causing three deaths. After a forced confession, they burned her. Love Nwanyanwu barely avoided a similar fate for alleged witchcraft on 8th November 2020. Prompted by her husband’s nephew, she was attacked by her in-laws. In 2017, in Adamawa State, pregnant Ayina Afraimu was bound and beaten with sticks to death after accusing her of causing some deaths and sickness in the village.
The month following Itagbor’s demise, two Nigerian police officers in Adamawa State were dismissed for their role in lynching two women accused of witchcraft. Neither faced legal repercussions, highlighting societal tolerance for such actions and underscoring the persistence of patriarchy.
As mentioned earlier, the individuals who were victims of such heinous acts were not merely strangers, but they were someone’s grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunties, friends, and neighbours. Tragically, some of these individuals had their lives cruelly taken away, leaving behind their heartbroken beloved families. For those who survived, the trauma and stigma associated with the accusations of witchcraft will forever alter their lives. The label assigned to them is permanent and carries a heavy weight of discrimination and social exclusion.
Despite their differences, these women share a common experience as individuals who have been labelled as witches. They were often viewed with suspicion and fear, and their reputation as evil bearers was a source of constant stress and hardship. The accusations of witchcraft have put their familial loyalties to the test, causing irreparable damage to familial relationships. In some cases, family members may openly support their accusation and lynching, while others strongly oppose it. The emotional toll of such conflicts is immeasurable and serves as a painful reminder of the deep-rooted social problems plaguing our society.
Is witchcraft a Curse in Africa?
In an article published a decade and a half ago by Professor La Fontaine in The Guardian, the headline “Witchcraft Belief is a Curse on Africa” effectively conveyed the detrimental effects such beliefs can have on societies. It is a fact that witchcraft belief is a bane to Africa and its people. However, it should be noted that this issue is not confined to the African continent, but is a global problem, with historical evidence demonstrating that beliefs in witchcraft have never contributed to the advancement of human personal or societal development on any continent.
While it is one thing to acknowledge the existence of such beliefs, it is quite another to employ them during times of stress, which often leads to accusations. Accusations of witchcraft are a social mechanism utilised to both control and evade personal responsibilities. It thrives in a tension-filled environment and may be used to explain any situation, regardless of its relationship with existing tensions. Individuals with any gender orientation, age, or background are not exempt from such accusations. While women are mostly victims of accusations, children are increasingly being labelled as witches or wizards in various parts of Nigeria, leading to an upsurge in the number of private NGOs that provide shelter to victims in cities and States such as Akwa Ibom. Given its endemic nature, many accusations remain concealed, and cases similar to those of Martina Itagbor only come to light when someone publicly discloses them.
Any accusation of witchcraft that results in the death of a woman is considered a form of femicide, also known as feminicide, and is gender-based violence. Femicide is what Diana Russell coined as “the killing of females by males because they are females”. Although men (and children) were not immune from falling victim to an accusation, as detailed in my research, what set apart femicide because of the charge of the crime of witchcraft is the typology of the targeted women. These are primarily women with aggressive characteristics, widows, single mothers, women with disabilities, older women, and other vulnerable female groups.
Understanding the mind of the perpetrator
Public lynching linked to witchcraft accusations is gradually becoming part of Nigerian extrajudicial attacks, popularly known as ‘jungle justice’. This is self-effect justice perverted to those suspected of wrongdoing by the group of people or the community without involving law enforcement agents. A lack of trust in the judiciary system often compels many people to take the law into their own hands. Plus, to the perpetrators, the police are irrelevant and might release the victims. In addition, where such beliefs are upheld by members of the police officers themselves, the chances of the victims being released or vindicated may be minor.
Most jungle justice in Nigeria is often executed by youth; however, it shows no regard as the universality of jungle justice linked to witchcraft accusations has shown disparities in the age and gender of the perpetrators. As explained in the media journals, some perpetrators were in their 60s. Moreover, the perpetrators were mainly men, suggesting a disguised aspect of misogynism. However, this does not exclude the involvement of women. The mothers of the boys who died and other women validated Martina’s lynching, as some of them came out of the church and stood watching the attack with no remorse or action to prevent her death.
Jungle justice imposes accountability on all parties involved in extrajudicial punishment, which constitutes a form of collective violence that undermines the rule of law. However, the concept of “equal responsibility” can become complicated, particularly when seeking to understand the motivations and cognitive processes of those who participate in such actions. First, moral disengagement is a crucial factor in these situations, as ethical principles are disregarded and acts such as lynching Martina and other women are deemed morally justified. In this instance, jungle justice, as a form of communal purging, is an ideal means of eliminating elements that are considered evil within the community. Second, it is of utmost importance to comprehend Philip Zimbardo’s contribution to the theory of deindividuation, which posits that individuals may lose their sense of self-awareness and accountability in group settings and engage in behaviours that deviate from social norms. In situations where religious fervour is present, it may exacerbate the effects of deindividuation, leading individuals in group settings to be more inclined to engage in extrajudicial actions, such as jungle justice. Combining firm religious beliefs and group dynamics can diminish individual accountability and increase the likelihood of such acts being perpetrated.
Jungle justice, often associated with poverty, may have less to do with economic conditions and more with religious or spiritual beliefs. This is evidenced by the fact that many individuals participating in these acts of violence are not necessarily impoverished. In fact, within a religious context, such as the biblical account of the stoning of Stephen, it can be seen that economic status may not be the primary motivator for these acts of violence. Instead, religious beliefs and doctrinal issues may be more significant in motivating such action. For instance, Martina’s lynching in front of a Catholic Church adds a layer of symbolic spiritual meaning to the church’s setting of the act of jungle justice. Often considered a place of sanctuary and moral guidance, the church becomes a backdrop for an action that contradicts legal and, arguably, ethical norms. This juxtaposition can create powerful emotional and cognitive dissonance for observers and participants, affecting how the act is interpreted and remembered. Similarly, in cases of jungle justice related to accusations, my analysis in the following section suggests that religion may be a more significant factor than economic disadvantage in motivating these acts of violence.
What factors contribute to the escalating incidence of witchcraft allegations against vulnerable populations in Nigeria?
To assert that witchcraft beliefs are not prevalent and flourishing in Nigeria is to disregard the tragic fate of those accused and ostracised, including women, children, and men. This belief system has infiltrated various segments of society, ranging from ordinary folk to educated, religious institutions to the political sphere, university communities to local markets in bustling urban areas.
Two intertwined elements, among others, played a significant role in this phenomenon: Beliefs and Christianity. It is noteworthy that Christianity, as a religion, cannot subsist without the endorsement of beliefs. It is important to note that labelling occurs in other religions; however, Christian missionaries and the Saros aided the promulgation of witchcraft beliefs and eventual accusations during colonialism. For clarity and to inform those unfamiliar with the term, the Saros comprised Western-educated Nigerian Creoles, who, in collaboration with Western missionaries, introduced Western cultural and religious practices to Nigeria and Yorubaland. This led to the dehumanisation of local religions and reinforced beliefs such as evil, evil spirits, demons, and witchcraft. The Saros, along with their counterparts in other regions of Africa, were successful in anglicising several traditional socio-religious rites, artworks, gods, and personalities as witchcraft or witchcraft practices, making witchcraft a generic term throughout the continent.
By the post-imperialist era, Christianity had gained considerable traction in Africa. However, in the 1970s, the emergence of Pentecostalism gave rise to a syncretistic fundamentalist movement. It is indisputable that the foundation of Nigerian Pentecostalism is grounded in concepts from various sources, including traditional religions, Nigerian-initiated local churches, and Western, Asian, and Judeo-Christian beliefs. It is a matter of great concern that some Pentecostal churches today openly promote teachings on witchcraft and its connection with malevolent forces. Furthermore, such ideologies have infiltrated the doctrinal principles and convictions of several traditional churches. Any attempts to discuss witchcraft-related topics are often met with hostility from Christian organisations, primarily due to a fear of the perceived phenomenon.
Consequently, this fear is an exploitative tool by these churches, especially the Pentecostals, in accumulating members, as witchcraft beliefs have become ubiquitous in Nigerian households, states, regions, ethnic groups, academic settings, and the political sphere. The practice of witchcraft is believed to be a manifestation of demonic influence, and those who engage in such practices are considered the emissaries of the devil. Since the spiritual controls the physical, nothing happens by chance. Thus, every misfortune, comprising accidents, job losses, barrenness, illnesses, marital issues, exam failures, disabilities, poverty, and other socioeconomic incapacities, is blamed on witchcraft.
Labelling an individual as a witch systematically means projecting blame onto an external source, rather than engaging in introspection or examining one’s contributions as the root cause of any misfortune. Regular attendance at places of worship in an excessive and compulsive manner can often function as a means of avoiding personal responsibility for one’s decision-making. Individuals who are overweight and spend a considerable amount of time participating in church activities may regrettably attribute their subsequent health issues to the intervention of a witch, despite their own lifestyle choices, such as excessive eating, being a contributing factor. Although they may not all be Pentecostals, those who set Martina alight and the mothers of the boys who died in the accidents were convinced Martina was responsible for their sons’ demises. It is unlikely that they would believe that overspeeding or dangerous driving was the cause of the accident, as someone must have told them that the witch was responsible. Another consideration is that many individuals within the legal justice system may also be members of religious organisations that emphasise witchcraft. This adds a layer of complexity to why the act of jungle justice, which involves sidestepping legal norms, may not be viewed as problematic by some members of these churches.
Moreover, congregants often seek counsel from religious leaders who are aware of the demands for such services. However, this guidance comes at a cost, notably financial contributions through various offerings, tithes, and church-building projects. The relationship between religious leaders and their followers involves a transactional business arrangement. It is important to note that special prayer and deliverance sessions cannot be conducted without the eventual purchase of anointing oils, handkerchiefs, sermon materials, or a monetary contribution to the pastors through cash or bank transfers, if necessary.
When the notorious Dick The Butcher suggests to his boss, Jack Cade, in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”, it is considered a dark joke that killing all the lawyers for their absence @highlighted the importance of authority figure in maintaining or disrupting social order. Given the potential connections between Dick’s response to Pentecostal leaders, it is crucial to acknowledge their role in perpetuating witchcraft-related beliefs. While they may not directly participate in acts of jungle justice, they cannot be absolved of their complicity. Their teachings and beliefs about witchcraft unleashed Pandora’s box of events and attitudes that were challenging to reverse. The question remains: How many families and households have been torn apart due to their ideologies? Prayer points such as “all witches in my family must die, die, die” indicate their contribution to enabling jungle justice. How many witches are members advised to be caught? Their mothers, aunties, sisters, or grandmothers?
Were these pastors in question aware and willing to acknowledge their role in perpetuating the witchcraft accusation phenomenon, and did they exhibit a genuine understanding of the harm caused by their actions? By preaching on these topics, they create a narrative framework in which others may be interpreted as tacit endorsements of extrajudicial measures against alleged witches. Their pastoral authority gives credence to these beliefs, and their influence can extend far beyond the church walls, affecting community attitudes and actions and lending weight to the ideology that motivates collective violence. This can lead to unintended but severe consequences, such as acts of jungle justice, which are challenging to contain once unleashed. In this way, they bear indirect responsibility for the results, much like Shakespeare’s lawyers, whose absence upends the social order.
Unlike Shakespearean Dick, we cannot kill these pastors because we do not want to end our lives in jails. However, we can curb them. How, then, do we curb them all? Regulating the teachings and contents disseminated by churches could serve as a remedy to curb the prevalence of witchcraft accusations and associated acts of jungle justice. Such regulations can offer a framework for promoting socially and ethically responsible teachings and influencing community attitudes and actions. However, this remedy might be complex to implement, given the issues of religious freedom and autonomy, as it poses ethical, legal, and societal challenges that require careful consideration.
The question is, who has the guts to do that without ‘dying by fire’?