Witch Fear and Law Enforcement in Benue State -By Leo Igwe

On Saturday September 17, 2022, officers from the State Police Command stormed the premises of the Greenbelt Hotel, the location of a seminar on the persecution of witches in Benue. The Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW), a non-governmental organization that works and campaigns to end the persecution of witches in Africa, organized the event. Witchcraft accusations and related attacks are rife in Benue. Recently, mobs attacked and nearly killed a woman in the state, following an accusation of causing the illness and eventual death of a young man by witchcraft. Relatives rescued her and took her to a safe place. The police did not intervene. In parts of Benue State, a witch-finding party, Okinibi, attacks, strangles and stones suspected witches to death. AfAW organized the event to raise awareness in Benue and draw attention to these human rights violations.

Police went to the premises of the hotel from 8 am, before the arrival of the organizers. They said the Commissioner of Police (CP) ordered them to stop the event. They ordered all participants to leave the premises. Efforts by organizers to get CP to allow the event to proceed were unsuccessful. A police officer from the State Bureau of Investigation told the organizers that they had received information that the seminar was a meeting of witches and that they had been ordered to arrest it. A reunion of witches? An officer said police viewed the meeting as a security breach. The police could not divulge the source of their information; they seized conference banners and other materials from the event. The decision of the police to disrupt and stop a seminar on the persecution of witches on the pretext that it was a meeting of witches was unjustified. It was a display of fear and ignorance of the law and constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

First, the PC and the police public relations officer were all duly informed of the event; they were in contact with the organizers before the program. Police could have called to seek clarification if they had any concerns. But they didn’t. Again, there is nothing hidden in AfAW’s campaigns and activities. Information about AfAW’s programs, which rescue and rehabilitate victims of witch persecution, is available online and offline, in print and electronic media, and is easily accessible. Electronic copies of the event banners, which they seized, are online and contain phone contacts that law enforcement could reach for further information. Fear, prejudice and willful ignorance drove the actions of the police and their lack of diligence must be excused.

The police diverted resources and intelligence and ended up stopping an event that should have taken place. Police equated a meeting to address human rights abuses in the name of witchcraft to a meeting of witches. Isn’t that absurd? Who is the policing institution to blame for their lack of understanding and inability to distinguish a meeting of witches from a meeting to address abuses related to beliefs in witchcraft? A policewoman said she had sworn not to set foot on the place where the “witches” gathered. A senior police officer noted that he did not see the “alleged” in the name of the organization until the day of the broadcast. He claimed that once he saw the name “witches” on the poster, he concluded the event would not be held.

It is pertinent to remind the police that Nigerian law does not recognize witchcraft and that under the law, accusations of witchcraft are criminal acts; identifying someone as a witch is a crime. Thus, by calling the AfAW event a gathering of witches and wizards, the police violated the law. They transgressed because they branded the organizers and participants of the event as witches. By criminalizing accusations of witchcraft, the law attempts to prevent miscarriages of justice and other horrific abuses resulting from allegations of witchcraft in societies like Nigeria, where fears and anxieties related to witchcraft are pervasive.

Now let’s address another pertinent question. What if the witches were planning to meet in Benue, and if the AfAW event was indeed a meeting of witches and wizards as some imagined? Is it within the powers of the police to disrupt or stop such a gathering? The answer is no. The police have no such powers. And here are the reasons. The police are a constituted authority and must act in accordance with their mandate as prescribed by law. The Nigerian constitution has defined the functions of the police. Thus, police interventions should be guided by the provisions of the constitution, not by the religious or creed whims of police officers and politicians. The constitution recognizes the right of every Nigerian to assemble, associate and assemble. The police must act to protect, not deny these rights, including the rights and freedoms of Nigerians who describe themselves as witches, satanists and occultists to meet and congregate. Yes, the police should act to protect the rights of witches.

Some people will say this is a contradiction, especially in a situation where identifying a witch and as a witch is a crime under the law? No, this is not the case. Nigerian law is an evidence-based law. The law does not recognize witchcraft or witches because there is no evidence of witchcraft or witches. Witchcraft is not a justiciable crime; witches do not exist. Witches are not people; they cannot be citizens, and cannot obey or break the law. The meeting of witches, which the Benue police came to arrest or disrupt last week, is not recognized in the constitution. There is no evidence that such meetings are held or held anywhere. So the police, in arresting – pretending to arrest, or disrupting any real or imagined gathering of witches, is acting ultra vires, that is, beyond their powers. As what happened at the Green Belt Hotel on Saturday shows, fears and anxieties relating to witchcraft are pervasive in the Nigerian police, and these hidden fears are hampering the ability of the police to deal effectively with crimes and atrocities. related to beliefs in witchcraft. Fears of witchcraft cause police to misinterpret the law and misapply limited police resources. Witchcraft is a superstition and witches are imaginary entities. The police must learn to act within the letter and spirit of the law and constitution of Nigeria, not on the basis of witch and wizard fantasies and fears.

Leo Igwe heads the Advocacy for Alleged Witches, which campaigns to end the persecution of witches in Nigeria.

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