Battle over Nigeria’s “Child-Witches”

Child-witch stigmatisation continues in Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria:

…The Akwa Ibom State government has concluded plans to rehabilitate 21 abandoned children who were discovered taking refuge at two locations in Eket local government Area.

The commissioner for Women Affairs and Social welfare, Mrs. Eunice Thomas disclosed this when she visited the children at the premises of the Eket Sports Stadium and the moribund Qua River Hotel.

…Interacting with the commissioner, the some of the children said they were chased out by their parents and relatives who alleged that they were witches, while some of them said they were forced out on allegations of pilfering and truancy.

Most of them alleged that their ordeals were caused by their step mothers. Master Godswill Felix Okon said he was about taking his Common Entrance Examination when her aunt took her to a church where the pastor alleged that he was a witch, culminating in his being sent out of the house by his aunt.

Back in September, state governor Godswill Akpabio had assured CNN that the problem of children being accused of witchcraft was “under control”.

The Akwa Ibom authorities have been quick to find someone else to blame for the children’s plight: some of the children had been receiving support from Stepping Stones Nigeria Child Empowerment Foundation, an affiliate of the UK-based charity Stepping Stones Nigeria. Back in March I noted that SSN, which brought the problem of “child-witches” in Nigeria to international attention in 2008, was recently forced to terminate its link to CRARN, a hostel for stigmatised children in Akwa Ibom, over a child protection issue. According to Thomas and to Aniakan Umanah (Commissioner of Information and Social Reorientation), this means that SSN, rather than the government, is responsible for the abandoned children:

… Umanah… described the activities of Stepping Stones Nigeria as a scam. “All the money they have used Akwa Ibom children to make is not commensurate with what they claimed to do for the children; they have nothing to show for it. £2m is not a small amount of money. Stepping Stones Nigeria and its team of blackmailers should not use tar brush to paint Akwa Ibom black in the eyes of the world. They should stop advertising our children to the global media to make money. It’s a ruse; and we are tired of them.”

I dealt with accusations against SSN here, and SSN’s accounts and reports can be seen on the website of the UK Charity Commission here (total income since 2007 in fact comes to less than £1 million). I should also add that last week I attended a public event organised by SSN in London, and I have confidence in the organisation’s probity and competence.

Sadly, the politically-motivated attacks on SSN appear to have the support of CRARN, which was angered by the termination of the relationship. Last month, it was reported that:

A High Court Judge in Akwa Ibom State, Justice Joy Unwana has commended the Child’s Right and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) for initiating the campaign against branding, torturing or killing of children as witches and wizards in the State. Justice Unwana made the commendation while answering questions in the Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Accusation and Child Abuse having submitted a memorandum to the commission.

…”I have children and know what it takes to maintain them. I have been to CRARN several times even when UNICEF commissioned a complex recently. I have been talking to the Director, Sam Itauma, to know what is happening there. If people like these decide to shoulder the responsibility of others and the society, I think they should be encouraged. I learnt in the news that the UK organisation, Stepping Stones pulled out their support with phoney excuses after using CRARN and Akwa Ibom children to make a lot of money. Government should really check the recurrence of this and avoid unnecessary touting by such foreign NGOs.”

However, Unwara’s recommendation for CRARN appears to have been at least partly unheeded, and Thomas has recently removed a number of children from CRARN to a “Security Village”. This site says 200 children were removed, although other sources give a much lower figure. One of those involved in the removal, Ata Ikiddeh, had previously worked with CRARN and has left a comment on this critical article (link added):

I am Ata Ikiddeh. I am the one who has been accused in an earlier article by Sahara Reporters of kidnapping and abducting these children from CRARN center in Esit Eket to Uyo. If you feel i abducted these children, you can walk into a police station and ask for a warrant for my arrest.

Listen, no child was coerced or forced. I negotiated and spoke to the children, knowing that any form of duress or coercion would have been a scandal both in the national and the international press. We have captured the whole process on video.

In the end 19 children willingly agreed to come with us and about 70 children chose to stay behind.

The Honorable Commissioner has done a lot to rescue abandoned children in the State…

In contrast, CRARN’s counsel, James Ibor, claims that 100 children were taken, and that the “Security Village” is unsuitable:

On May 16, 2011, a mere six days later, Mrs. Eunice Thomas, Akwa Ibom State’s infamous Commissioner for Women Affairs, together with her team, stormed the premises of Child’s Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), with a centre at Esit Eket, abducted over one hundred of its children, forced them into Akwa Ibom Transport Company (AKTC) coaster buses and drove them to Akwa Ibom State Special Children Centre, Uyo.

Interestingly, the Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Accusations and Child Rights Abuses made a finding on the said centre to the effect that it is understaffed and lacks adequate facilities to cater for as few as fifty children. Moreover, even its few staffers are ill-trained; and they freely profess belief in witchcraft, and that the children under their charge are indeed witches as charged.

The National Mirror, meanwhile, raises a question about the removal team’s authority:

The team claimed to be executing an order made by the Witchcraft Panel currently investigating the “Child Witch syndrome”  in the state which alledgedly ordered that the centre be closed down. But, investigations carried out by National Mirror at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Abraham showed that the commission is yet to submit its report to the government, neither did it make any such order as claimed.