Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, is making the news headlines of how some unscrupulous pastors-witchhunters are going about humiliating children perceived to be witches. This act has received nationalists and international condemnation. In a swift reaction, Governor Godswill Akpabio signed a bill into law in 2008 making it a criminal offence, punishable by up to 15 years in prison to label a child a witch. However, his recent attack on a network that issued a Report on CNN that Nigerian children were being taken to forests, burned and buried alive and bathed in acid for being witches, shows the governor could have had the voice of Esau but the skin of Jecob. This writer investigates how it all started. Excerpt:

In many African quarters, witchcraft is a cultural art. In the families the art is practiced, it is believed that the power for becoming a witch is transferred among the family members from one generation to another. Witches are believed, operate in the night, by transforming into birds, cats, rats, bats, cockroaches etc – to suck blood mysteriously and inflict harm on their victim. People who are not engaged in this science go miles to seek for protection traditionally, or as it is common today, in the church. Although, some witches, it is beleieved use their power for good adventures like, foreseeing tomorrow and bringing fortunes to their families. There have been no or rare records of burning or killing of people perceived to be witch in the world history, except as many pastors were alleged, bent to doing so in the Nigeria’s state of Akwa Ibom.

This exposure came when in 2008, about six international film newspapers journalists came to Akwa Ibom State and found children in seclusion, camped in many areas accused of being into witchcrafts. In a picture, it was a piteous sight that most of the children were burnt alive and many hounded away from their families by family members in connivance with pastors who posed to be exorcising them of the ‘evil spirit’ henceforth collecting huge amount of money from the unsuspecting families for the exorcism. Following that, Governor Godswill Akpabio of the state signed a bill into law making it a criminal offence, punishable by up to 15 years in prison to label a child a witch.

The introduced Child Rights Act 2008 was defined as a comprehensive protection for the rights of children, especially children against being labelled as witches and wizards. The Act criminalised such heinous practice on the children and the state introduced free and compulsory education with all the associated logistics and accompanying budgetary provisions, as well as free healthcare for children.

Akpabio geared these policies and programmes towards ensuring the full and robust development of all children in the state irrespective of parental background as well as a strategic measure to counter the effect of poverty on child development. Many local and international organizations lauded his zest. Nigeria as a whole was told to enact Child Rights Act in order to guarantee the future of children in the country. The governor said that Children are very important in the society: that is where the hope of the country rests. He advised that children should be cared for and Nigeria will be sure of a greater future with greater leaders.

When Apkabio signed that Child Rights Act bill into law, many informed Nigerians who were following the rubbish events being meted out on the children in that state in the name of ‘child witches’ were overwhelmed by the development in the state. The governor’s courage lay great emphasis on child development in Nigeria and Nigerians urged the Federal Government (FG) to make adequate budgetary provision to address the needs of children. Akwa Ibom State government led by Akpabio was fighting the war against child labour and trafficking at all fronts and partnered with the National Agency for Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIP).

The Child Rights Act on 5th Dec 2008 in Akwa Ibom State domesticated comprehensively, the protection of children’s rights. Family courts were set-up to try suspects. Conducive environment for child development was created. Enthronement of peace and security in the society was perceived. The Child Rights Act was seen brought an end to child abuse by criminalising and penalising abusers. Mechanisms and programmes for the defence and protection of children were strengthened. Government agencies were empowered to represent the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints reported by individual citizens regarding children’s rights.

In all that, today, the effects of Akwa Ibom State Government’s child development and protection policies and programmes are not being felt within and outside the state as they solidly present unsure process of social development, people development, society stabilization, and a guarantee for the future of the Akwa Ibom children. The state government is lagging therefore, in its positioned status to raise the game on people development in the state to guarantee sustainable livelihood for all.

Few weeks ago, the governor accused a network on a Cable News Network (CNN) programme, which claimed that witchcraft is prevalent in Africa and used video shot in Akwa Ibom State. While reacting to the documentary by the network, the governor characterised the network as appeasing international pity for monetary gains. Such way was how the state government denied the inhumane practices that were meted out on the alleged ‘witch children’ in the state when the foreign journalists photographed the ‘abandoned’ children till it became a disturbing national and international discourse before Akpabio rushed and signed the Child Acts bill into law.

How could the governor have said today that the story was grossly exaggerated, while recalling that in 2008 he signed a bill into law making it a criminal offence, punishable by up to 15 years in prison to label a child a witch? Did he forget that a bill could be signed into law, but relenting on the execution of the implementation such law in useless? It is not about signing a bill into law!

Attacking the Report sent to the United Nations by the network, Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN), which works with children labelled as witches, could be hindsight of the governor. He wouldn’t know all that happens in the state, even that he is the governor. Or, was he attacking the Non Governmental Organization (NGO), to protect the image of his government? – while the ‘voiceless’ children are suffered. He was supposed to thoroughly investigate the report which claimed that Nigerian children were being taken to forests, burned and buried alive and bathed in acid for being witches before coming to the gallery to exhibit half-informed knowledge of the plight of the ‘witch’ children in his state.

He should debunk his statement forthwith that the Report is part of the media propaganda against the state and it was done for pecuniary reasons. If he wants to know why the same set of children are being shown all over the world with the same story, he should make sure that the same old method with which the ‘witch-hunters’ in his state use on these children before the 2008 he signed the Child Act bill into law is pummelled to the soil. It is funny to hear the governor say that these children are being used for monetary reasons and that there is no government that will see children burned alive and killed without taking action. This is a statement like one coming back from Eskimo to Nigeria. The question now is, has Akpabio not heard, read or seen people being kidnapped or killed without the government properly taking action to fish out the culprits?

Apart from the Governor’s yesmen, some indigenes of that state stand a better position to tell him that the negative treatment on these children is happening everywhere in the state, if he cared in earnest. It is a shocker today that the Governor who admitted last year that the child witch of a thing was a problem and that he was committed to stamping this cruelty out, could go back to eat his vomit. He said on the Channel 4 interview that a Bishop that the police caught in relation to the child abuse saga could not be convicted for murder but that he would be able to sentence him with the new laws.

Notwithstanding, it is a welcomed issue that the United Kingdom-based child’s rights charity, Steeping Stones Nigeria (SSN), and its Nigerian partner, the Child’s Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), refutes the governor counterattack on their Report, by saying that he was misled by some people with commercial interest. This, the governor should exonerate himself from with convincing points. He should stop seeing the Report as an embarrassment, rather as a measure in continuing to stem the problem of children being stigmatised as witches in Akwa Ibom State. Governor Akpabio should not have acted, by going after the charity organizations that have been caring for the abandoned children and highlighting their problem. However, Nigerians are not sure why Governor Akpabio reportedly stayed away from the inauguration of the child-friendly centre constructed for children stigmatized for the “child witch” syndrome by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), recently. Did he forget that his government empowered agencies to represent the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints reported by individual citizens regarding children’s rights? So, why did he not investigate the Report before coming to the public for people to laugh him?