Last night Channel 4 broadcast Saving Africa’s Witch Children, as part of its Dispatches strand. The programme focused on children accused of being witches by Pentecostal pastors in Akwa Ibom state in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria, and the work of the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network. Several pastors were featured, including Helen Ukpabio, who has featured on this blog several times in the past, most recently here. The problem makes for grim viewing: we see children who have been horribly mutilated, and in one case left brain damaged after having had a nail driven through her skull; others appear withdrawn and tearful after being rejected by their families and threatened. We also see the hostility of aggressive and angry adults against the charity workers who challenge the witch teaching and offer support to children living rough.
The first pastor we meet is the rolex-wearing Bishop Sunday Ulup-Aya, who makes children drink a strange “poison destroyer” medicine made up of “African mercury”, his own blood, and pure alcohol. He explains, in a jerky and giggling manner, that
I have power here on earth that is bound in heaven…I killed up to 110 people who was identified to be a witch…We have 2.3 million witches and wizards in Akwa Ibom.
His services cost “400,000”.
Also featured are Prophetess Cecilia Udoyeo and Franklin Udoeyo, of the Covenant Global Mission. They have a group of subdued children in a room at the back of their church; the prophetess tells us that
In the night we have to tarry [i.e. fight] with them, so they may not go to the coven, so we have to tarry with them until it is 5 and we know they cannot move again. The Spirit of God has overwhelmed them. That is why we will allow them to sleep by daytime.
Franklin adds, regarding one girl:
She has grown up to a level of becoming a Queen in the coven, so one day the Lord helped me I was able to remove the crown, her power was removed.
The girl now sleeps in Franklin’s bedroom. Some of the children have been living at the church for three years.
Ukpabio herself is then featured, and we are treated to scenes from her Christian horror film End of Wicked, which shows witch children eating human flesh, flying around, and making an man’s eyes pop out. In 2000 only a few children were ever accused of witchcraft, but the upsurge since then – there are frequent arrivals at CRARN’s shelter – is blamed by a local community leader, Chief Victor Emet, on Ukpabio and her film. The filmmakers also visit a village where everyone has seen the film, and where a girl has been ostracised for witchcraft. The locals are outraged when the child is brought back into the village, one man smiling as he tells us “I want to kill that small girl”. Here’s an extract I found on Youtube:
Ukpabio, however, denies any responsibility:
Witchcraft is a problem all over Nigeria..I never hurt anybody. Be careful, mind your ways…We have about 150 churches in Nigeria. I am a voice in this country. So, a white man or a white woman cannot come into my country and say nonsense against me and mess up the whole situation.
She accuses the interviewers of not having seen her film, and demands to know why she is being targeted rather than J.K. Rowling. Ukpabio’s supporters have left similar defensive rants on this blog, as I noted here. And as for the Biblical basis of child witchcraft, Ukpabio tells us that
I can show you and teach you many places in the Bible.
The interviewers go on to meet Ukpabio’s denominational leader in the Pentecostal Fellowship, Apostle Dr Cletus Bassey, who is clearly an educated man. Bassey claimed not to know about Ukpabio’s films specifically, but agreed that such works are harmful:
We should be able to let our people know that that is not a true picture of what we should present, especially from our culture…It’s not presenting a true picture of a nation we are trying to build, it’s not presenting a true picture of children we are trying to raise, it’s not presenting a good picture of a society we are trying to sanitise. I think that such videos should be discontinued and should be discouraged. And we are doing everything in the Pentecostal circles to discourage such things, especially among those who because of money have tried to get themselves involced un issues like this.
Towards the end of the programme, children from CRARN protest outside the residence of State Governor Godswill Akpabio, one child poignantly telling the camera that
I want to ask the government to tell my parents I’m not a witch.
After some hours Akpabio agreed to see them, and he offered support and a (belated) promise to ratify the federal Child Rights Act. This law has now been adopted, but apparently ten children a week are still arriving at CRARN, and no pastor has yet been convicted.
One underlying social reason given for the upsurge in child-witch accusations is the juxtaposition of extreme povery with the obvious wealth of the Niger Delta oil industry. Also, the industry’s pollution of the environment has damaged the livelihoods of fishermen and others, to that there is a pervasive sense of things going wrong.
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