By Leo Igwe
Recently, an advocate in Rivers state drew the attention of the Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW) to a post on the Facebook page of the Opobians Blog. The Opobians Blog publishes news and information for and from the Opobo communities. The post highlighted an incident of witch-hunting in Opoboland. It stated that an alleged witch had been caught in one of the communities. The post had a photo of about 9 men, one of them, the alleged wizard, was kneeling on the ground. The page also had a video and a comment in pidgin English. The person who made the post stated that an alleged wizard, who went to do some juju, was “caught” at Aaron Jaja. The post said that the accused had taken some “plenty oath”, apologized and promised not to indulge in those activities again. It stated that a local cultural group, called Owu-Ogbo handled the matter. I contacted the owner of the page for more information and an explanation of what transpired. He agreed to communicate only via Whatsapp. He explained that the alleged wizard was an elderly man from the Owujie compound. The youths caught him at Aaron Jaja compound. I inquired to know specifically what the man did.
He said the elderly man was pouring some drink and making incantations. Some persons who saw him raised alarm. Then, some members of the Owu-Ogbo came and administered an oath. As part of the oath, the accused pledged not to indulge in those actions again. I found the explanation unsatisfactory. It was not clear to me the infraction that the man committed. What was wrong with making incantations? How did an incantation translate into witchcraft? I inquired to know more about the incantations and the oath-taking, about the exact offense of the man but the Opobians blogger could not disclose any more information. Through another contact, I got in touch with the president of the Owu-Ogbo cultural group. He provided me with some background to the incident. The president told me that the Owu-Ogbo cultural group was the ‘traditional police’ for the Kingdom of Opodo. That their role was to ensure law and order in the communities. He confirmed that the alleged wizard was caught in the “act” around 1 pm on March 12, 2021. At this time, many people had gone fishing. He was pouring some saltwater on the ground and making incantations. The president noted that saltwater had a lot of magical significance in the community because it “comes and goes”!
He further explained that any incantation made with some saltwater would come back to haunt and harm the individual or community. He linked the incantation with cases of death in the community. In a particular case, a young man in his 40s, who had a Ph.D., suddenly passed away. Some people suspected that someone in the community might be responsible; that someone must be using juju to kill other members. So when they caught this suspected wizard, they made him swear an oath. He promised to be of good behavior, and not to indulge in ‘witchcraft activities’. According to the president, from time to time, the group purges the community of evil, malevolent occult individuals. He recounted another incident that happened last year. Sometime in 2020, they noticed that many people were inflicted with elephantiasis. Look, elephantiasis is a parasitic infection that is caused by a filarial worm, not by juju or witchcraft. Unfortunately for the Owu-Ogbo and many Opobians, this is not the case. Now after some investigation by Owu-Ogbo members, they found out that someone in the community was using charms to cause elephantiasis in the community. They accosted the man, but he flatly denied it. The president said they took the man and two other suspects to a local shrine, known as Amakiri, where they made him take an oath. The man died weeks after taking the oath. After the death, people refused to bury in Opobo. I asked him what happened to the man’s corpse. And he said he did not know, that very likely the corpse was buried somewhere else outside Opobo or was thrown into the river. Thrown into the river? I kept wondering what could have led to the man’s death. Did somebody secretly murder him making it seem as if it was the oath that killed him? I was curious to know the details of the oath-taking, especially the content of the concoction that the man was given as part of the oath-taking. Was he given some poison in the name of oath-taking? I asked the president to tell me the content of the drink that was given to oath takers. But he said that it was a secret. I pressed to get him to disclose it to me. He later stated that they used some sand from the Amakiri shrine, or some sand from the foot of the suspect or the sand and leaf of the Ichite plant. They mixed these with some local gin. I asked him if that was all that they used to prepare the concoctions. He said that the rest was a secret that he would not disclose to me. I inquired from another member of the Opodo community and he said that sometimes they used some saltwater, human urine, or feces. I wondered if that was the secretive part of the oath-taking process that the president refused to divulge.
A member of the Opobo community who advocates against witch persecution and other superstition-based abuses told me that he started questioning the oath-taking and witch finding process some years ago. That was in 2005/6. The incident took place at Fubara’s compound. According to this Opobian, somebody died, and on the day of the burial, those carrying the corpse suddenly hit the house of another member of the community. The owner of the house was accused of being responsible for the death. But the man said that he did not know anything about the death. Subsequently, he was forced to take an oath and was later banished from Opobo land. According to this Opobian, the belief was that if the man set foot on any Opobo community, he would die. After some years, the man returned to the community. Not too long after his return, some people accused him again. This time, the man did not wait to take the oath or to be banished. He fled the community. After some years, he came back to the community and remained there until his death. AfAW’s Opobian contact believes that people who are accused of engaging in witchcraft activities, of killing and causing diseases through occult means, are innocent. He pointed out that unlike in other communities, the victims of witch persecution in Opobo are predominantly men, adult males.
It is pertinent that all Opobians begin to question witchcraft beliefs and other narratives of causing misfortunes through occult means. As this piece has illustrated, superstitious notions can lead to egregious human rights buses. Opobians who object to witch-hunting and other harmful traditional practices should speak up and speak out against these misconceptions and related violations. Many Opobians should become advocates against witch persecution and other superstition-based abuses. They should start mobilizing and campaigning to stamp out these primitive and horrific rituals. Inhumane and abusive practices should not be condoned or tolerated in the name of culture or tradition.
Oath-taking and traditional autopsy/carrying of corpses should be banned in Opobo communities and beyond. Case of diseases, accidents or deaths should be taken to health and police authorities, not to Owu-Ogbo. Owu-Ogbo is not a medical association and should not be allowed to manage health related issues or administer oaths to any suspects in the community. Members should not investigate the causes of death and diseases. The Owu-Ogbo society should desist from trying and punishing any suspects because they lack the expertise, diligence, and constitutional powers to do so. The group should work with the state police, not as the police in the community. Owu-Ogbo should focus on promoting and fostering humane and civilized aspects of Opobo culture and society. The government should take all necessary measures to eradicate oath-taking, witch persecution, and other harmful traditional practices in Opobo and the entire Rivers State.