Leo Igwe Arrested and Beaten

Attack comes one day before he was due to speak to inquiry on child-witch accusations

Director of hostel for children stigmatised as witches also arrested

From Sahara Reporters:

Leo Igwe, an activist arrested last Tuesday in the ongoing onslaught against child rights activists by the Akwa Ibom State government, was released today by the Police who claimed it was a case of mistaken identity.

Leo (along with a colleague named Ernest Asuquo) has now been released, and he claims that he was beaten in custody.

The Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Information is now saying that Leo was arrested in a bank for “fraud-related issues” rather than as a case of “mistaken identity”, but either way the timing is remarkable: Leo was detained just one day before he was due to give evidence to a Commission of Inquiry into witchcraft accusations and child rights abuses the Nigerian state. Leo had issued a statement about the commission last week:

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?… Since this law came to be 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 has everything to do with the gaps in the political will, in the policing and justice system in Akwa Ibom State…

…I hope at the end of the day, this Commission would not be used to witchhunt 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 stigmatisation…

The context here is that State Governor Godswill Akpabio, who had originally supported the campaign against child-witch stigmatisation, appears to have crumbled under pressure from powerful evangelists such as Helen Ukpabio. In 2009, Ukpabio sent her followers to disrupt a conference on the subject organised by Leo, and she has tried (and failed) to have Leo silenced through the courts. She also maintains an abusive website which accuses Leo of being part of a conspiracy against her – the conspiracy supposedly also includes me, for blogging on the subject.

Meanwhile, another activist against child-witch stigmatisation has also been arrested; according to the Daily Trust:

There was drama at an Akwa Ibom High Court in Oron yesterday when a child rights activist, Sam Ikpe-Itauma, who was in court as a witness was made an accused person.

The activist had been invited as a principal witness to testify against a clergyman, Bishop Samuel William, who is being prosecuted for maligning children accused of witchcraft.

William, the Bishop of Spiritual Healing Church, Ibaka, has been standing trial for his alleged confession to the killing of more than 100 “child witches”. The confession is reportedly contained in a documentary aired on BBC Channel 4. But when the case came up for hearing on Tuesday in Oron, the Prosecuting Counsel for the state, Mr C. J. Udoh, applied to the court to amend the charge to include Ikpe-Itauma as an accused.

Sam Ikpe-Itauma runs a hostel which looks after children who have been abandoned as witches; Ukpabio has tried to have it closed down, and she has denounced Sam as a “wizard”. According to Sahara Reporters, the authorities somewhat cryptically claim that the arrest was “a result of a court bench warrant that summoned him to testify in the ongoing case against the pastor.”

Bishop Sunday William (or Sunday Okon Williams) featured in the 2008 documentary as Bishop Sunday Ulup-Aya, in which he was shown explaining how he makes children drink a strange “poison destroyer” medicine made up of “African mercury”, his own blood, and pure alcohol; he also boasted that he had “killed up to 110 people who was identified to be a witch”. He appears to have operated mainly in the countryside and to have worked independently. Ukpabio is very different from this: she is a powerful figure with allies in the Nigerian Pentecostal establishment, a network of urban Liberty Gospel churches, and access to the media (her influence has spread widely through films). In contrast to Ulup-Aya’s semi-magical rituals, Ukpabio claims that she can cure child witches simply through prayer at her church. Both, though, would have have to look elsewhere for their livelihood should people cease to believe that misfortune is due the existence of child witches.