On Saturday, September 17, 2022, officers from the state police command took over the premises of the Greenbelt Hotel, the venue of a seminar on witch persecution in Benue. The Advocacy for Alleged Witches(AfAW), a non-governmental organization that works and campaigns to end witch persecution in Africa, organized the event. Witchcraft accusations and related attacks are pervasive in Benue. Recently, the mob attacked and almost killed a woman in the state, following an accusation of causing sickness and the eventual death of a young man through witchcraft. Some relatives rescued her and took her to a safe location. The police did not intervene. In parts of Benue state, a witch-finding group, Okinibi, attacks, strangles and stones to death suspected witches. AfAW organized the event to sensitize the Benue public, and draw attention to these human rights abuses.
Police officers were at the hotel premises as early as 8 am, before the organizers arrived. They said that the Commissioner of Police(CP) instructed them to stop the event. They ordered all participants to leave the premises. Efforts by the organizers to get the CP to allow the event go ahead were unsuccessful. One police officer from the state investigation bureau told the organizers that they got some intelligence that the seminar was a meeting of witches, and were instructed to stop it. A meeting of witches? An officer said that the police considered the meeting a security breach. The police officers could not disclose the source of their intelligence; they seized the conference banners and took away other event documents. The decision by the police to disrupt and stop a seminar on witch persecution under the pretext that it was a meeting of witches was unwarranted. It was a demonstration of fear and ignorance of the law and constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
First, the CP and the police public relations officer were all duly informed about the event; they were in touch with the organizers before the program. The police could have called to seek clarifications if they had any concerns. But they did not. Again, there is nothing hidden about AfAW's campaigns and activities. Information about the programs of AfAW, rescuing and rehabilitating victims of witch persecution, is out there online and offline, in print and electronic media, and can easily be accessed. Soft copies of the event banners, which they seized, are online, and contain telephone contacts that police authorities could reach for more information. Fear, prejudice, and willful ignorance motivated the actions of the police and their lack of diligence should be excused.
The police misdirected resources and intelligence, and ended up stopping an event that should have been held. The police equated a meeting to address human rights abuses in the name of witchcraft to a meeting of witches. Is that not absurd? Who should the police institution blame for their lack of proper understanding and their inability to distinguish a meeting of witches from a meeting to address abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs? One female police officer said that she swore not to step her foot at the venue where 'witches' were meeting. A senior police officer noted that he did not see the 'alleged' in the in the name of the organization until the day of the program. He claimed that once he saw the name 'witches' on the poster, he concluded that the event would not hold.
It is pertinent to remind the police that Nigerian law does not recognize witchcraft, and under the law, witchcraft accusations are criminal acts; identifying somebody as a witch is an offense. So by calling the AfAW event a meeting of witches and wizards, the police violated the law. They transgressed because they branded the organizers and participants at the event witches. By criminalizing witchcraft accusations, the law tries to forestall miscarriage of justice and other horrific abuses that result from allegations of witchcraft in societies like Nigeria, where witchcraft fears and anxieties are pervasive.
Now, let us address another pertinent issue. What if witches planned to meet in Benue, what 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 do not have such powers. And here are the reasons. The police are a constituted authority and should act in line with their mandate as prescribed by the law. The Nigerian constitution has outlined the functions of the police. So, police interventions should be guided by the provisions in the constitution, not by the religious or belief whims and caprices of police officers and politicians. The constitution recognizes the right of every Nigerian to meet, associate, and assemble. The police must act to protect, not deny these rights, including the rights and liberties of Nigerians who describe themselves as witches, Satanists, and occultists to meet and assemble. Yes, the police should act to protect the rights of witches.
Some people would argue that this is a contradiction, especially in a situation where identification of and as a witch is a crime under the law? No, it is not. Nigerian law is an evidence-based law. The law does not recognize witchcraft or witches because there is no evidence for witchcraft or witches. Witchcraft is not a justiciable crime; witches do not exist. Witches are not persons; they cannot be citizens, and cannot obey or break the law. The meeting of witches, which the police in Benue came to stop or disrupt last week, is not recognized in the constitution. There is no evidence that such meetings hold or are held anywhere. So, the police, by stopping - pretending to be stopping, or disrupting any real or imagined meeting of witches, act ultra vires, that means, beyond their powers. As shown by what happened at Green Belt Hotel on Saturday, witchcraft fears and anxieties are pervasive in the Nigerian police force, and these occult fears are hampering the ability of the police to effectively combat crimes and atrocities linked to witchcraft beliefs. Witchcraft fears cause the police to misinterpret the law and misapply the limited police resources. Witchcraft is superstition, and witches are imaginary entities. The police should learn to act in deference to the letters and spirit of the law and constitution of Nigeria, not based on fantasies and fears of witches and wizards.
Leo Igwe directs the Advocacy for Alleged Witches, which campaigns to end witch persecution in Nigeria.