In what appears to be another move to combat the allegations of witchcraft and child abuse, the governor of Akwa Ibom state, Chief Godswill Akpabio, has inaugurated a six member Commission to inquire into witchcraft accusations and child rights abuses in the state. He charged them to recommend appropriate actions to be taken to protect children from being branded witches and wizards in order to guard against future occurence.
The governor asked the Commission to determine the veracity of all the allegations of witchcraft against children and infliction of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment upon such children and to examine the role and culpability of all the allegations and abuses or practices and make recommendations.
He then urged the people of Akwa Ibom to cooperate with the Commission in order to ‘obliterate this blot from the pages of our history’. The Commission is chaired by Justice Godwin Abraham and has Barrister Theresa Obot, Dr Okon Edet Akaiso, Dr Essien Edward Essien, Rt Rev John Koko-Bassey, Barrister Uduak Victor Ekwere as members. The Commission was given six weeks to submit it report. Anyone who has been following the ‘child witch saga’ in Akwa Ibom state would regard this as a welcome development. Surely it is, particularly when looked at on the surface. But taking a critical look at this development, one wonders why the state government decided to set up this Commission after passing into law the child rights act which prohibits witchcraft acusations and child abuse. If the government had yet to determine the veracity of the allegations of witchcraft against children and infliction of degrading treatment on them why did it sign into law the child rights bill with sections that prohibit child witch stigmatization. That there is already an existing law enacted by the state implies that the government is not in doubt as to the veracity of the claims of witchcraft accusations and child abuse. So what is the rationale behind setting up this body? Does it mean that the allegations of witchcraft and child abuse were not verified before the government enacted the child rights law? If there is one thing any intelligent observer of the situation in Akwa Ibom is expecting from the government, it is not to setting up a body to inquire into the allegations of witchcraft, but to facilitate the enforcement and implementation of the child rights law which was enacted in 2008. Since this law came into force two years ago, Akwa Ibom has not recorded any successful prosecution. Not even one offender had been convicted or punished under the child rights law in the state. And this has nothing to do with the veracity of the allegations of witchcraft but everything to do with the gaps in the political will, in the policing and justice system in Akwa Ibom state. And if this Commission could at the end of the day succeed in closing these gaps and ensure the full implementation of the child rights act, then the whole idea of setting it up would have been worthwhile.
But that seems unlikely. Going by the pronouncement of the government of Akwa Ibom particularly its reactions to the international media coverage of the problem of witchraft accusations and child abuse, some people think the government might at the end of the day have some hidden agenda for setting up the Commission. In August, CNN broadcast a report on child witch stigmatization in Akwa Ibom state. It highlighted the role of churches in fueling the problem, and what governemental including the UN- agencies were doing to address this menace. That report on CNN angered the government of Akwa Ibom state for reasons I have yet to understand. Because the government was given the opportunity by CNN to state its case and present its own side of the story but it wasted it. The CNN reporter interviewed the Commissioner of Information to know what the government was doing to tackle the problem of witchcraft accusations and child abuse but the Commissioner used the space to attack individuals and NGOs whom he accused of exaggerating the problem and using it to raise money for themselves. The governor, in his own reaction, was visibly upset. He also blamed the NGOs for using the same images to generate international sympathy and funds. However he outlined the efforts his government had made to tackle the problem including enacting the child rights law, providing free education to all children from primary to secondary level and making some donations to stigmatized children in Eket. The governor admitted that, after two years of enacting the law, not a single offender had been successfully prosecuted. It was not long after this broadcast on CNN, which rattled the Akwa Ibom state government, that the governor inaugurated this Commission.
The world is watching. And many are wondering what could be the real motive behind setting up this august body. It is only time that will tell what the actual mission of this Commission is. I hope at the end of the day, this Commission would not be used to witch hunt individuals and groups particularly those whom the government accuses of using the witchcraft problem to dent the image of the state internationally.
I hope the Commission will not be used to undermine the work of NGOs who are complimenting the efforts of the government in the fight against child witch stigmatization. The Commission should be used to recognize the selfless efforts and the humanitarian gestures of individuals and groups who have worked over the years under very dangerous circumstances to tackle this social scourge with little or no assistance from the government. The Commission should work to fill in the gaps in the response by the state to this embarrassing phenomena and facilitate the total eradication of child witch stigmatization in Akwa Ibom.
Leo Igwe, IHEU Representative in West Africa, lives in Ibadan