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From money guzzling animals to witchdoctors: How belief in witchcraft is costing Nigeria

They are believed to exist in virtually every part of Nigeria and their perceived influence on the economic and social lives of Nigerians is bewildering. They have even formed an umbrella body known as Witches and Wizards Association of Nigeria (WITZAN) through which they meet regularly and make pronouncements on issues affecting the country. A peek into their world reveals how their activities affect the socioeconomic lives of Nigerians.

In February last year, a mysterious snake was said to have snuck into the accounts office of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) in Makurdi, the Benue State capital and swallowed N36 million cash.

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This was the claim of a JAMB sales clerk, Philomena Chieshe who told an auditing team dispatched by the board when she could not account for the monies.

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The monies were proceeds from sales of scratch cards required of candidates before they sit for university matriculations exams. Since then, the current JAMB registrar, Prof. Ishaq Oloyede, has introduced reforms to end use of scratch cards.

But while the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) recently arraigned Philomena and five others in court over the missing money, news broke of a gorilla  at the Kano Zoological Gardens gulping down N6.8million.

Expectedly, the news stirred reactions from Nigerians on social media with one tweeter saying: “Rats chased President, Snake swallowed money, monkey swallowed money, now gorilla don swallow N6.8 million.”

Nigerians have traditionally believed in the mystical and mysterious and tales of shape-shifting powerful witches and wizards have been part of the lore for long. A whole industry revolves around this beliefs for decades with a tradition of shamans, medicine men or witchdoctors providing services to fuel this beliefs. There is a huge economy revolving around this industry with millions of naira turnover. For the many believers in the potency of witchcraft, the losses or gains are not things that can be measured in naira and kobo.

‘How we were bewitched’

Mama Amaka (not her real name), a petty trader at Dutsen-Alhaji in Bwari Area Council of the Federal Capital Territory Abuja said her co-trader, who sells similar items next to her shop, had used charms to frustrate her out of business.

“Every morning she comes with a black handkerchief and waves it in my direction and utter incantations,” she said.

“Consequently I started losing customers and hardly make any sales in a day. I contacted my pastor who prayed and revealed that the woman even came to my shop one night and buried something that is making me sick,” she said.

James Haruna (also not his real name) believes his father was killed 20 years ago through witchcraft.

Haruna, speaking in Kaduna, said following a work place promotion for his journalist father in 1997, a disgruntled colleague became openly envious, something that caused him his job.

“Six months thereafter, my father started complaining of an unusual ailment. One day he returned from the farm to say he was pricked on his right foot by a sharp thorn that was causing him severe pains. We tried to remove the thorn but the pains persisted and after some months, we decided to take him to the hospital.

“While I waited in the hospital for my father to consult a doctor, something stranger than fiction happened. Out of the blues a beautiful lady appeared and beckoned at me and asked if the man being attended to by the doctor was my father.  She said the thorn that pricked my father at the farm was a demonic spell planted by an enemy. After saying this, she disappeared and soon thereafter my father died in the hospital. It was obvious that the spell was planted by my father’s envious colleague who was sacked following his petition against my father’s promotion,” James said.

In the case of Ngozi Okafor (also not her real name) she had travelled to her village for a wedding in November 2018 when she felt a pain on her leg.

“I thought it was an allergy reaction since I usually react to change in weather and environment but by noon the leg was looking reddish and swollen. At night, I couldn’t sleep as the swelling and pain intensified.

“The elders in my family were then called upon and when they saw it, they said it was the symptom of a certain attack that villagers used against themselves because of envy and jealousy. It didn’t make sense to me but I was in so much pain throughout the night as the leg kept bloating,” she said.

The following day some youths in the village were dispatched to the bush to get some leaves, which were ground and rubbed on her swollen leg and she was also made to drink from it.

“Two days later I started getting better after consuming much of the traditional mixture I was made to drink and bath with,” she said.

Stories and beliefs like these have driven hundreds and thousands of Nigerians to patronize medicine men to whom they pay lots of money to curry favours or seek cure or protection. For some of the native doctors, business has always been in boom.

‘How we operate’

Elisha Yahaya, who resides in a sleepy settlement on the outskirts of Makurdi, says he has been practicing as a witchdoctor for 28 years having inherited the practice from his father and learned from a friend.

He claims to have the ability to prepare medicines/charms for about twelve ailments such as typhoid fever, malaria fever, broken limbs and legs. Other abstract services are also rendered by the man to his numerous clientele.

“I have a concoction that I prepare for my clients to ward off bad luck; it is prepared in a calabash to be bathed with for eight days. On the eighth day I go round the client with either a foul or cock (depending on whether the client is a male or female). Once I do this I take away the ill luck from you and you begin to prosper in your business or trade,” he said.

Some of his practices include ritual sacrifices such as “burying goats alive” to help people avoid repaying debts or to influence court judgements. The clients supply the sacrificial animals in addition to the fees they pay.

“I charge N5,000 for charms seeking justice while I charge N40,000 for debt recovery charms. I also charge N50,000 for concoctions that make the blind see. For those who come seeking good luck, I charge them N10,000,” he said. His services, according to him, also include countering the effects of witchcraft.

“I use the proceeds from this ‘business’ to fend for my family. I don’t have a signpost but my clients come from far and near. In a week, I get an average of six clients and make an average of N50,000,” Yahaya said.

The range of people who patronize this practices are varied. Yahya said his clients include politicians who come to obtain charms and spiritual interventions to outdo their opponents and win elections.  He claims a governor re-election in the 2019 elections is one of his patrons.

“For these categories of clients I charge from N200, 000 and above,” he said.

Somewhere in Etsako West Local Government Area of Edo State, Nurudeen Umosor Igenegbai, who prefers to be addressed as a doctor has been in the practice since 1985.

He too said he inherited his practice from his father

“I have a shrine in my house (Ogun Shrine) and when people come here I swear before the shrine and it summons guilty persons. I serve the shrine every Ewo day,” he said.

Some of his clients, he claims, include women and men with fertility problems

He is also patronized by students, civil servants, businesspersons, and market women, among others.

“If a student doesn’t perform well in school, they do come to me to prepare medicine for them to do well. On business, market women from Yoruba land, Igbo, Port-Harcourt, Delta, Bayelsa and Abuja, among others, do come to me to prepare charms for them to prosper in their businesses. Anytime they have problems they do call on me to come and prepare medicine for them,” he said.

On average, he has five clients visiting daily but on the Ewo day (when I usually serve my shrine); I do have over 15 clients,” he said.

Professor Daniel Shishima of the department of Religion and Cultural Studies, Benue State University, Makurdi says belief in witchcraft cuts across cultures.

“This belief is in almost all African societies. For instance, the Tiv call it Tsav, the Igbo call it Amozu while the Yoruba call it Aje. It is believed that witches have instruments, which they use to help them achieve their aims,” he said.

He explained that for believers in the potency of witchcraft, it is believed that practitioners can take on animal forms, like the snake mentioned by Philomena earlier in the story, to achieve their objectives or harm their perceived enemies.

An Abuja-Based lawyer and rights activist, barrister Jimoh Hameed, said the belief in witchcraft is so entrenched in the Nigerian psyche that there are laws criminalizing the practice.

“Looking at the provision of the Criminal Code in section 210, you will observe that witchcraft and juju are criminalized. Then when you look at the provision of Section 216 of the Penal Code it also criminalizes witchcraft and juju,” he said.

But the Nigeria Police says it does not investigate things that are within the metaphysical realm. Spokesperson of the Nigeria Police Force, Frank Mba, said anything within the spiritual or metaphysical realm is outside their sphere of operation.

“We don’t investigate magic, we don’t investigate voodoo, we don’t investigate spirituality, and we don’t investigate metaphysics. So anything within the realm of divinity or metaphysics is outside the scope of our mandate,” Mba said.

He however said  when a Nigerian is forced into submitting himself or herself to a shrine or is forced into taking an oath in a shrine, the person that does that act can be investigated and charged for an offence called ‘trial by ordeal’.

“That is the only time you find us charging somebody to court for something that has to do with voodoo or divinity. Secondly, even though we might not investigate metaphysics, divinity or voodoo, if a suspect is arrested for stealing pants, we will investigate the suspect and charge the person to court for offences so disclosed.

“The defining questions are; is this act empirically, forensically or scientifically verifiable? Secondly, is it defined as an offence under the laws of the land? Once you cannot answer these two questions, then it is outside our sphere,” Mba said.

Professor Shishima thinks he knows why the practice has persisted.

“Nigerians want power so they think that witches and wizards can help them,” he said. “Somebody who wants fame resorts to witchcraft and someone who wants employment uses witchcraft or magical powers to get a job. Others who want the position of governorship or any top elective positions seek witchcraft powers.

“People are afraid of those who have witchcraft powers because they even kill with those powers. Those who have it believe that they are untouchable,” he said.

 

NB: This report was done with the support of Money Trail Project (www.moneytrail.org)

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