A spiralling wave of ritual killings, mainly targeting girls and young women, has sent shockwaves across Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, amid a blame game between the government and other stakeholders.
In villages and city estates alike, hundreds of families are in grief after lifeless bodies of their loved ones, whom they had reported as missing, were found dumped in rivers, thickets, trenches and roadsides.
All the corpses, according to police, had one common feature: missing parts that had either been gouged out or surgically cut off as if to fit a certain prescription.
Tongues, fingers, toes, ears and private parts, including breasts, are among popular parts targeted by the serial killers — said to be jobless young men who sell their ‘goods’ to witchdoctors and other lords of the spiritual underworld.
On March 7, the nation was enraged when a 22-year-old fashion designer was found killed in Lagos and some of her body parts chopped off.
The gruesome murder of Oluwabamise Ayanwola by the driver of a government-owned commercial bus service has left her family distraught.
Comfort Ayanwola, mother of the woman who went missing as she travelled on a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on February 26, described her daughter as “an upright and responsible girl”.
Ayanwola told Nation.Africa that her last-born daughter, fondly referred to as Bamise, was not in any romantic relationship.
On the day she went missing, Bamise had boarded the bus, which she believed was heading to Oshodi, a local government area in Lagos State, at the Chevron bus stop.
But while on the bus, she had become suspicious of the behaviours of the driver and three other occupants of the vehicle.
Shaken, she started voice note chats with a friend, whom she alerted to her fears. But moments later, the chats petered out and her friend could no longer hear Bamise’s voice.
The designer was, thereafter, declared missing after she failed to return home for 14 days.
After frantic but fruitless searches by the family at relatives’ homes, mortuaries and police stations, her mutilated body was found dumped on Carter Bridge on March 10.
In their interview with Nation.Africa, her elder sister, Titilayo, and her mother alleged that Bamise’s private parts had been removed for a money ritual.
“In fact, she had promised to build a house for me but unfortunately became someone whose body parts were mutilated,” the mother said.
Weeks before Bamise’s case, the killing of an octogenarian and removal of her breasts set the people of Imo-Arigidi in south-west Ondo state into rage.
And in January, a 20-year-old man and three friends abducted his girlfriend and killed her before burning her head for money in a ritual in Abeokuta, Ogun State, south-west Nigeria.
The woman was lured by her boyfriend to his room, where she was overpowered and killed on January 29, according to police investigations.
These are just some of the reported cases of suspected ritual killings that have sparked fears in communities as police battle to stop the merchants of death.
The Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND), a non-governmental group, reports that 150 girls were killed in the region for rituals between January 2018 and December 2021.
The Red Cross Society says it receives an average of 10,480 reports of missing persons in Nigeria every year, although it is not clear how many are victims of ritual killings.
In Abuja, Nigeria’s political capital, police records reveal that 301 people were declared missing between June 2020 and November 2021. However, it is not clear how many of these were victims of ritual killings.
The rising killings have attracted the attention of the national government, with Nigeria’s Federal Parliament declaring ritual killings “a national emergency”.
The House of Representatives on February 9 asked the National Orientation Agency (NOA), the media and other stakeholders to help address the situation.
It also asked the country’s Inspector-General of Police to be tough on the criminals and cartels involved in the illicit trade and bring to book.
“While youths in other climes are embracing science and technology as a way of maintaining pace with our dynamic world, some of our youths seem stuck in the mistaken belief that sacrificing human blood is the surest route to wealth, safety and protection,” Toby Okechukwu, the deputy minority leader of the House of Representatives and the mover of the motion, told the House.
Efforts to unmask the killer gangs have borne little fruit but the recent arrests of 17-year-old Wariz Oladeinde, 19-year-old Abdulgafar and 20-year-old Lukman Mustakeem, in Ogun State in south-west Nigeria over the killing of Soliu Rofiat confirmed the essence of such killings.
According to Ogun State police spokesperson Abimbola Oyeyemi, the boys have all confessed to the crime, claiming they planned to use the burnt human head for a money ritual.
Another suspect, Oseni Bello, a herbalist, admitted to preparing concoctions with human body parts for money but that he is not involved in the killings.
In another incident, on February 1, a 25-year-old suspected ritual killer in the south-west Ondo State confessed that he had been promised $60,000 (N30 million) to deliver human parts to a Lagos syndicate.
He said he had gone to a cemetery to harvest body parts from corpses when he was caught.
A 20-year-old man was also arrested for killing a university student in a ritual, while a 22-year-old suspect confessed to killing his 21-year-old younger brother for money.
Some stakeholders have blamed the scourge on the Nollywood industry, which features money rituals in some of its movies, saying they influence the actions of vulnerable youth.
In his submissions while moving the motion in Parliament, for instance, lawmaker Okechukwu, said:
“Ritual killing has become a predominant theme in most homemade movies which, if not checked, our younger generation may begin to view as an acceptable norm.”
Others blame the flaunting of ill-gotten wealth, moral decadence, a get-rich-quick syndrome and the taste for high life.
But in a formal reaction, the National Film and Video Censorship Board (NFVCB) disagreed that Nollywood ritual movies play a role in influencing the youth.
NFVCB’s boss Thomas Adebayo, who was reacting to the directive of the information minister on censoring such movies, said Nollywood alone should not be blamed for the spike in ritual killings.
“All of us should be blamed,” he said.
Nigerian parents, he said, are responsible for the increase in ritual killings because they have failed to raise their children properly.
“A majority have relegated their parental duties to the government. The government is not going to start training your child or monitor his or her behaviour. It is a grassroots and foundational problem,” he said.
“When the foundation is wrong, there is likely going to be a very terrible side effect of it.
“Movies are the reflection of the image of the society, and as a reflection of the society, they depict what happens in the society, and how the society responds to the ills.”
He wants parents to take charge and scrutinise the content their children are consuming on TV and phones.
“Such movies (depicting ritual killings) are classified 18 and above. It is rated 18 because the younger ones might not be able to understand the entire idea reflected in the movie as much as an adult. Some movies are for educational purposes, they serve as a deterrent for crimes and social vices,” he said.
Dr Kunle Hamilton, the president of Shadaville Ministries, a Lagos-based enlightenment centre, believes religious leaders, who should show the way, have also failed Nigeria.
“Our religious houses and their leaders now grapple with high levels of immorality and corruption too within their ranks. They are therefore losing their moral authority in fighting the same things they are guilty of,” he said.
Igwe Emmanuel Ugwu, the traditional ruler of Ibagwa Nike in southeast Enugu, while condemning ritual killings as “alien to Igbo culture”, attributed them to the society’s big appetite for quick wealth.
“In the past, anyone found guilty of ritual killing was banished in line with the sacred orders of rural communities,’’ he said.
As police work to arrest and prosecute the killers, various stakeholders are joining the campaign against serial killings.
Sunday Oyinloye, the national convener for the #Ngloryback campaign, released a 32-second jingle on “stop killing Nigerian girls for rituals’’.
The jingle will be aired on radio stations across the country to drive the message to the grassroots.
The government is also planning a national sensitisation campaign against ritual murders, according to Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed.
Mohammed said the National Orientation Agency was partnering with religious and community-based organisations and non-governmental groups in the campaign.
The National Film and Video Censors Board has also been directed to take the issue into account when reviewing and classifying films and videos.
Popular Abuja-based Islamic cleric Fouad Adeyemi, the chief imam of the Al-Habibbiyyah Islamic Society, said on March 18 that the millions of unemployed young people should be helped to find legal ways of making money to take their minds off crime.
“The use of human beings or human parts for ritual is not in our value system and we will not accept such,” said Balogun Olaleye, the chairman of the Ogun Alternate Medicine Board.
“The board will deploy all means to track down unscrupulous traditionalists who are involved in rendering such services.”