Ojodu Motor Park in Lagos.

 Ojodu Motor Park in Lagos.

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Nigerian street children branded witches face rejection, abuse

Nigeria may be Africa’s most populous and second largest economy, but it has many poor people, some of whom are stuck in a vicious cycle of want while being branded witches.

Officially, the government says it has passed laws to protect children. Yet many of those languishing on the streets are also labelled practitioners of the dark powers.

So common are the children in Cross River and oil-rich Akwa Ibom states that authorities have struggled to convince the public to stop shunning them.

In Calabar, the capital of Cross River, and Uyo in Akwa Ibom, these children walk about in rags, frail and impaired by malnutrition.

They are labelled witches by so-called seers, especially in new-generation churches, and relatives who want to cheat and deprive them of their rights.

Lilian Ekanem, the chairperson of the Cross River State Child Protection Network, says branding poor children witches or what she calls the child witch syndrome is rampant in every part of the Cross River and Akwa Ibom. 

“It is a common phenomenon, a mind-set and cultural norm in which people believe that children can be witches and for being ‘witches’, they are consequently abandoned,” she said.

The situation is more critical, she said, because religiously brain-washed parents habitually drive their children out of their homes, disown them and abandon them to face the harsh conditions of street life. 

Adams Utuk, project manager for the non-governmental group Children of the Lord Rescue, described the actions as cruel, insisting that the hapless children are unnecessarily traumatised for reasons that are beyond their control.

“A child does not know how he or she was born, so if the child purportedly has witchcraft powers … the first person to be queried should be the parents,” he said.

Utuk said that some of the children fall sick and die in the course of being tortured in order to compel them to confess to crimes they did not commit. Many die of starvation and ill health.

Social worker Victoria Akpabio said: “All of us are responsible for this problem. In some churches, for instance, you go there and they will call your child a witch. Some claim to have special powers to deliver such children. They torture them under the pretext of exorcising the demon of witchcraft.’’

She explained that some of the children, out of fear, confess that they are witches, “so, when a child begins to speak in that manner, you should understand that there is a problem somewhere’’. 

Dr Alex Ifeka, a medical doctor and psychologist, dismissed the child witch syndrome, explaining that it is a manifestation of hallucinations among some children. They have terrible dreams, he said, and when they try to narrate the nightmares, people may misconstrue it as confessions of witchcraft.

Dr Ifeka explained that sometimes when children are traumatised, heavily deprived or abused, these conditions can affect their frame of mind.

“When the child is speaking, he or she may be muttering words that are not usual and normal, causing people to blame it on witchcraft manifestations,” he said.

“Why not think of other possibilities: the child may be sick; the child may need to see a psychiatrist; the child may be in fear, and you know fear can make one behave abnormally. In actual fact, these children need help but people often decide to call them witches.’’

Some people brand children witches, he said, as part of a plot to inherit the properties left behind by their dead parents.

“In essence, some wicked relatives drive out these children in a plot to inherit their parents’ property and they cleverly resort to branding the unfortunate children witches as part of their Machiavellian tactics.’’

Some pastors who claim to spiritually cast out witchcraft from the children are deceptive and do not have the divine powers that they claim to have, said Luca Patrick, a senior pastor in the Church of Divinity in Calabar.

“In the process, they get these children brutalised, badly beaten, burnt and facing all manner of inhuman treatment, all in the name of deliverance. This is absolutely wrong and inhumane,” he said. 

“And community leaders, probably due to their ignorance of the child rights law, which outlaws any form of torture or abuse of a child, allow this kind of wrongdoing to prevail in their communities.”

In May this year, charity group African Children’s Aid Education and Development Foundation (ACAEDF) rescued 234 children from child witch-branding in the south of Nigeria.

ACAEDF executive director David Umem said on October 14 that some of the children had been reintegrated into the society, with many still drawing support from his group.

Oliver Orok, former Cross River commissioner for social welfare and sustainable development, said states have started implementing the provisions of the Child Rights Act.

The governments have started prosecuting violators of the rights of these children, but Dr Esther Onoyom Ita, the chief executive of Society for Youth Development and Rescue Initiative, said the action was inadequate.

Dr Ita, who also runs a children’s home in Calabar, said her group is working to rescue these children “but there are thousands of them out there. How many can we rescue?”

“We work in partnership with the Federal Psychiatric Hospital in Calabar. Some of the children have been diagnosed with conditions like attention deficit disorder, which is a serious problem.’’

One of the survivors of the child witch syndrome, Dominic Inyang, now an adult, said: “I went through hell in the name of church deliverance. I thank God I was picked up and trained by a Good Samaritan.’’ 

“My life before now was very bad. I was rescued and I have acquired secondary school education.’’

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said that accusing children of witchcraft amounts to abuse of a grievous nature that cannot be overlooked.

NHRC principal legal officer Kachollom Tachio noted that the rights of the traumatised children were abused and they must get justice.

The United Nations children’s agency Unicef said in September that 10 of Nigeria’s 36 states and the federal capital of Abuja are yet to domesticate the Child Rights Act that is meant to protect children.

Boco Abdul, a knowledge management specialist at the Unicef office in Enugu, said citizens should hold the government accountable when it is not living up to their expectations, adding that the agency is committed to creating child-friendly communities in Nigeria.

She urged Child-Friendly Communities Initiative volunteers to ensure that they spread the message of child rights, child protection, and sustainable health.

Racheal Adejoh Andrew, chairperson of the Abuja chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida), said they are working to ensure that the Child Rights Act is included in school curriculums so that young children also know their rights early in life.

With proper enlightenment and implementation of the law, she said, the branding of children as witches will end.