Written by Leo Igwe, JREF Research Fellow
An editorial in a Tanzanian newspaper, The Citizen, has rightly identified the belief in witchcraft as a barrier to development in the region. Witchcraft beliefs constitute serious obstacles to progress in the areas of justice, education, health, infrastructure, and more. Witch beliefs remain strong in Africa despite "rapid scientific and technological advancements." In fact, some scholars have argued that the growing trend of witchcraft accusation in Africa is a reaction to the exigencies of modernity. In Tanzania, as in other parts of Africa, witchcraft is a lingering custom that predates modernity. Witchcraft is a way many people explain and react to evil or misfortune, and to strange or extraordinary phenomenon.
The people in Tanzania "fallaciously attribute their existential predicaments to witchcraft. Problems such ill health, tragedies, drought, inclement weather, vermin outbreaks, loss of employment or poor harvests are wrongly believed to have been caused by supernatural powers."
Incidentally, those often suspected of witchcraft are persons who are made scapegoats of the ‘failings’ of the society. And they include women (particularly elderly women), children, and people with disabilities.
According to the editorial, people in Tanzania are “fed with fear, rumours and lies that instil and harbour suspicion, enmity, jealousy, despair and revenge” by pastors and witch doctors. They poison family and community relationships, causing members to turn against each other.
The editorial draws attention to the scale of the problem.
"Worse still is the fact that some preachers of certain denominations instil fear in their followers, making them believe that all their negative situations are a consequence of sin or the work of witches and evil spirits. Some houses of worship even discourage their flock from going to hospital when they fall sick, since exorcism and prayers and touch of their anointed hands will [allegedly] cure them.
"Suspected witches or sorcerers – often old people with red eyes, dry skin, wrinkled faces or those badly deformed – are systematically hunted down and killed in cold blood in various parts of the country.”
Misfortunes like these, affirms the editorial, have nothing to do with witchcraft.
“While we respect freedom of worship and religion, we firmly believe human failings, misfortunes, illnesses and accidental or natural deaths have nothing to do with witchcraft.
"Granted, you could suffer injury, poor health or even death thanks to your negligence or someone else’s evil schemes, but then, that would be scientifically verifiable. However, some of our people rush to conclude that you are a victim of some sorcerer’s machinations. Tanzanians must learn to solve problems rationally instead of looking for external and unverifiable causes. We also appeal to law enforcers to play their part and bring to book those who take the law into their own hands.”
Such appeals have, in the past, fallen on deaf ears due to fears and panic associated with witchcraft. There is a lack of political will - on the part of authorities -to enforce anti witchcraft laws in African countries because most law enforcers believe in witchcraft and fear spiritual repercussions.
Apart from fear, corruption is another factor hampering efforts to combat witchcraft-related abuse. For instance, in Calabar, in Southern Nigeria, efforts to bring to book those implicated in the murder of a 5 year old girl, Goodness Offiong, for witchcraft have yet to yield result. In August, Goodness was reportedly accused of witchcraft by the mother who took her to a prayer house in the city for an exorcism. She allegedly died - was tortured to death - in the course of being exorcized. A local child rights group, the Basic Rights Counsel, reported the case to the police. But the police are dragging their feet and have yet to act. They are asking the petitioners to "mobilize" (bribe) them before they can commence a thorough investigation. In Nigeria, individuals or groups who petition the police are often expected to bribe or "mobilize" the police before they can commence investigation into any case.
Leo Igwe is a research fellow for the James Randi Educational Foundation, and a regular contributor to randi.org.