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To End Witch hunts, Exoticism and Romanticism of African Witchcraft Must Stop

Sassywood and Witch Persecution in Liberia

By Leo Igwe

Attacks and killings linked to witchcraft beliefs persist in Africa. In Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Malawi, alleged witches are subjected to horrific abuses. Unfortunately very little is being done to stop this violent campaign. In fact the world seems not to care about it. This tragic situation is due to a fundamental misrepresentation of African witch hunts by western anthropologists and their African counterparts. Since Evans-Pritchard 1902-1973, African witch hunts have been mischaracterized. Western anthropologists have presented African witch hunts as other than witch hunts in Europe. They have made conscious efforts to otherize African witchcraft, belittle it and use African witchcraft tales as forms of entertainment for western audiences.

As a German friend noted some years ago, for Europeans, witchcraft is superstition but for Africans, it is not. This assumption is a categorical mistake, a misconception that persists. Western scholars arbitrarily made witchcraft a gatekeeping concept, that is, a frame to study and understand African societies. And no scholar dares deviate from this line of scholarship, explanation, and academic legitimation. There is a conflation of African traditional religion, African traditional medicine with witchcraft. Meanwhile, there isn’t such conflation in Christian and Islamic traditions that also contain teachings on witchcraft and treatment of alleged witches. And this conflation has served the interest of these cultural outsiders for too long. It has become standard practice. The time has come for this conflation, which constitutes the basis of authority and scholarship in witchcraft and African studies, to be discarded.

Based on this mistaken and racist representation, western institutions have been reluctant to come out firmly against witch-hunting in Africa. Many in western societies think that witchcraft means something different for Africans. But it does not. Witchcraft is a form of superstition for both Europeans and Africans.

In response, some African scholars romanticize the phenomenon of witchcraft, designating witchcraft as an encapsulation of African philosophy, ethics, and logic. They have forgotten that witchcraft beliefs and witch-hunting exist in other cultures and societies. And if witchcraft is not identified as part of European or Indian philosophies because witchcraft narratives exist in these societies, why should it be different in the case of Africa?

Thus witch hunt, which westerners identify with a darker and less civilized stage in their history is used to make sense of African modernity, rationality, post-coloniality, and contemporarity. This misrepresentation has yielded a situation whereby witch hunts continue to ravage the region. Now some people have wondered if there is an end in sight for witch-hunting in Africa. Yes, there is an end in sight but the world must abandon the misrepresentation, exoticization, and romanticization of African witchcraft. Global and regional institutions need to treat African witch hunts as a wild and dark phenomenon, not as a domesticated, socially useful, and stabilizing mechanism. There will be an end in sight if local and global actors begin to see the African witch hunt from the perspective of the accused and victims, not of the accuser and believer. Simply put, witch hunts will end in Africa when western and Africans place, or learn to place African witch hunts on the same footing as European witch hunts. Witchcraft is an imaginary, irrational belief. Like Godcraft, devilcraft, and spiritcraft, witchcraft is rooted in ignorance and lack of understanding of nature and how nature works!

Witch hunts persist due to limited state presence and weak institutions in the region. Witch persecution is rooted in a lack of social welfare, poor health infrastructure, lack of effective education and policing. Witch-hunting persists due to intense religious and traditional belief in magic, prohibition of criticism of religious doctrines, westernization of science, and Africanization of magic and occult. To end witch hunts in Africa, mechanisms that are used to tackle global problems, epidemics and pandemics, should be adopted including rallying the world against witch persecution anywhere and everywhere. Witch hunts should be treated as a social disease, as a destructive phenomenon that should be tackled head-on without any reservations. Witch hunts are witch hunts, whether they happen in Africa or America, Asia or Australia. Witch hunts are witch hunts whether they happened 300 years ago, 30 years ago or they are taking place right now somewhere in the world. There should be consequences for countries and regions, governments and institutions that fail to address abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs.

Leo Igwe
Leo Igwe
Leo Igwe (born July 26, 1970) is a Nigerian human rights advocate and humanist. Igwe is a former Western and Southern African representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and has specialized in campaigning against and documenting the impacts of child witchcraft accusations. He holds a Ph.D from the Bayreuth International School of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, having earned a graduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Calabar in Nigeria. Igwe's human rights advocacy has brought him into conflict with high-profile witchcraft believers, such as Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, because of his criticism of what he describes as their role in the violence and child abandonment that sometimes result from accusations of witchcraft. His human rights fieldwork has led to his arrest on several occasions in Nigeria. Igwe has held leadership roles in the Nigerian Humanist Movement, Atheist Alliance International, and the Center For Inquiry—Nigeria. In 2012, Igwe was appointed as a Research Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation, where he continues working toward the goal of responding to what he sees as the deleterious effects of superstition, advancing skepticism throughout Africa and around the world. In 2014, Igwe was chosen as a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and in 2017 received the Distinguished Services to Humanism Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Igwe was raised in southeastern Nigeria, and describes his household as being strictly Catholic in the midst of a "highly superstitious community," according to an interview in the Gold Coast Bulletin.[1] At age twelve, Igwe entered the seminary, beginning to study for the Catholic priesthood, but later was confused by conflicting beliefs between Christian theology and the beliefs in witches and wizards that are "entrenched in Nigerian society."[1] After a period of research and internal conflict due to doubts about the "odd blend of tribalism and fundamentalist Christianity he believes is stunting African development," a 24-year-old Igwe resigned from the seminary and relocated to Ibadan, Nigeria
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