Alberique Houndjo (Benin), Chief Bisong Etahoben (Cameroon), Fidelis Mac-Leva (Nigeria), Anneke Verbraeken (The Netherlands)

Witches exist and they come in numbers

Billions are wasted in stagnant economies because of unspoken realities.

Human rights are violated and development money is wasted under the guise of witchcraft. But local governments, police, human rights defenders and international aid organizations remain passive.

Entrepreneurs being blackmailed. Politicians being poisoned. Houses burned down. Mafia-like gangs committing crimes. Once part of a spiritual system at the service of communities, witchcraft has now become a threat for those communities in Benin, Cameroon and Nigeria.

Witchcraft, or magic, is – for the average Westerner – far away from their personal experience. It is something they laugh about. But for many Africans, using supernatural powers is part of a belief system they grew up with. Their grandparents believed in magic, like the parents of their grandparents - a tradition that goes back ages. It brought social stability, a sense of security for people knowing their remit. There were traditional healers you could turn to when you got sick, there were spiritual leaders you could go to when you needed advice. Of course, there were also bad people who could use the magic to hurt you, but you knew who they were.

That has changed. Money and power have become important elements in this belief system, opening the way to massive corruption, blackmail and crimes at all levels. They all have a common factor: they use the peoples fear for black magic, witchcraft.

Of course there are still a large number of traditional witches or healers using magic only for the good of the individual and the community. But there is a growing number exploiting the fear of witchcraft for their own personal gain.

Damage to the economy

The belief in witchcraft not only has profound consequences for the individual, it also has a negative impact on the entire economy of a country, says Professor Daniel Shishima. He works at the Faculty of Religion and Philosophy at Benue State University in Nigeria and has written several studies on Nigerian development and society. Shishima points out that the country’s progress is being undermined in the name of witchcraft: "It now results in people fighting each other, in people being murdered who could have contributed to the development of the country."

“Witchcraft accusations may lead to destruction.”

American University economist Boris Gershman also sees a connection between stagnant development and the belief in witchcraft, the fear of the unknown. "According to numerous ethnographic case studies, witchcraft beliefs can have a direct adverse effect on interpersonal trust and co-operation through two main channels: by fostering the fear of bewitchment and by spreading the fear of witchcraft accusations. The latter may lead to severe sanctions, from destruction of property to ostracism and even ritual killing.” His research shows that where the belief in witchcraft is widely spread, mutual distrust is considerable.

This has its effect on the functioning of entrepreneurs. Take for example the businessman Idrissou. He lives in Sinendé, northern Benin and owned a taxi company and a company that sold water in small, plastic bags. He earned enough money to support his family, his children could go to school. But then everything changed. One day he was accused of being a wizard. Nobody took a ride in his taxi anymore; nobody bought his water. "I'm ruined," says Idrissou. “I think a competitor started the accusations. He might have thought I sold my water too cheaply."

Or take Basile Sounamèto, he has a furniture factory in Parakou, Benin. He neglects his business and hardly invests: "Why should I? If I do, people will become jealous and go to a witch. Then my business goes up in flames."

According to Saï Sotima Tchantipo, anthropologist and researcher at the University of Parakou, Benin, the same applies to employees and students. "Nobody wants to be better than someone else in case someone gets jealous of you. Nobody wants to be noticed, because then you can become the target of witchcraft." 

This example shows how afraid people can get: “Lately I bought a new car. But I park it 15 kilometres from my home, and take an old, rickety motor for the last part of my journey home, so my neighbours won’t get jealous of my new car”, says a businessman, who prefers to stay anonymous.

Passive society

According to former professor of religion and development, Gerrie ter Haar, the belief in witchcraft results in an extremely passive society. And an extremely gruesome one. Ter Haar worked for Amnesty International in the 1980s. At the time she urged that witchcraft should be put on the agenda, without any result. Her rational, Western-minded colleagues refused to accept it was a major problem. "You mustn't believe that nonsense,” they said. Ter Haar emphasizes that it is not about whether or not to believe in witchcraft. It’s about the consequences of a conviction that witches exist. These are often violent with innocent victims as a result. "That is why aid organizations no longer ignore the phenomena and impact on society. If you recognize what is going on, you may better prepare your employees and projects can be implemented more efficiently."

Aid organisations are in denial.

This recognition still seems far away. "Witchcraft is not on our agenda," says the spokesperson of Oxfam Novib in The Hague. Other NGOs, like Care Netherlands, Hivos and Cordaid also say that witchcraft is not a topic of discussion for them. They couldn’t identify someone in their organisation who was willing to talk. Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International also remained silent after several attempts to contact them.

Billions thrown away

Nevertheless, NGOs have a financial interest in accepting the belief in witchcraft. In 2007, the International Finance Corporation, a division of the World Bank, calculated that no fewer than half of its projects in Africa failed. In 2017, Nigerian technology consultant Chima Okereke listed a number of failed projects. It all involves billions of euros. The causes differ: there is corruption, politics, poor maintenance, not enough initial capital, no proper follow-up, no understanding of local cultures. However, witchcraft is not mentioned because its existence is being denied. Financial institutions and aid organisations refuse to acknowledge that the belief in witchcraft can create threats and damages to projects and their managers.

Economist Gershman clearly sees a connection between the belief in witchcraft and the effectiveness of aid projects, certainly where joint action by project managers and local communities is a condition to succeed. "In countries where people are fearful because of this belief, there is less co-operation, social networks are dropped, joint projects are avoided, people are suspicious and there is less social interaction." According to Gershman, this "social erosion" is one of the elements that "hinders the fragile process of African economic development."

Trade in body parts

The belief in witchcraft is also a source of corruption, blackmail and crime. For example, all over Nigeria knickers are stolen from washing lines. They are popular in certain ceremonies and people are willing to pay around 750 euros for one pair. People believe the panties have the power to make money for you or make you successful. It’s mostly online fraudsters, called the Yahoo Boys, who are taking advantage of this misunderstanding. It’s of course a completely innocent offence compared to the trade in human body parts. In Cameroon, for example, a young man was arrested in 2014 with the head of his father in his hands. He explained that a politician had promised him 30 000 dollars. Body parts are used in ceremonies to assure high standards of living. So it’s the rich, the powerful and successful, who use these expensive ceremonies and it’s mafia-like gangs who participate in this lucrative trade. It results in horrible discoveries: in 2014, in a forest east of Lagos, Nigeria, some kind of human slaughterhouse was discovered. It had an improvised operating table surrounded by human bones as the gruesome centrepiece.

Gangs are also active in extorting entrepreneurs, politicians and sometimes even entire villages. Those who do not pay, are threatened with witchcraft. Dah Gbediga Adoko is the leader of a monastery in Benin and claims to have magical powers. "There are bad people who use the fear of witches to make money. But make no mistake. Witches exist, and when they come, they come in large numbers. We know how to chase them from a house, a neighborhood or village. We don't ask for a reward, people often give something on their own initiative."

Politicians in the grip of witch-mafia

Politicians often use witchcraft for their own good, to get more votes or to make life difficult for their competitors. Therefore they will not easily pass laws that tackle the excesses. "Many politicians visit me. Even the governor visits," says Nigerian healer Elsisha Yahaya. "They have to pay more than an ordinary person. I charge them 500 euros. For others it 25 euros."

A Nigerian politician became a victim of witchcraft when he wanted to participate in the elections. "I got bleeding gums and I started to smell bad. I couldn't speak anymore. My opponents sent a hawk, a pigeon and an eagle to keep an eye on me."

One way to survive as a politician is to join a certain group that provides protection through magical ceremonies. That, of course, costs money: "I have to pay a sum every month," said the politician who wants to remain anonymous. It’s an example how mafia-like gangs can have a major influence on politicians.

Witchcraft is punishable but the definition is vague

Police are powerless

Witchcraft is punishable in Benin, Cameroon and Nigeria. It actually proves that even the authorities think witches and wizards exist. Why making laws against it, if you don’t believe in it? However, the laws are symbolic: a witch or wizard is rarely arrested. "It is difficult to investigate, evidence is hard to find and the definition is vague," said Nigerian police spokesperson Frank Mba.

Also in Benin not many people are arrested. "We often have to deal with accusations without a shred of evidence," says police commissioner Sinendé. "We treat it as slander. But arresting these slanderers is also difficult, because it is often popular leaders and healers who accuse people." According to the commissioner his fellow policemen are not very eager to make those arrest: "They are afraid of becoming a target themselves." If arrests are taking place, only a few cases will go to court.

An exception is the Eastern Region. Here, in the poorest region of Cameroon, the Court of Appeal handles around ten to twenty cases every month. In this region, the belief in witchcraft is deeply rooted.

The beast that ate seeds

Scientists do not expect big changes in the near future; the belief in witchcraft is profound. As a result crime, extortion, the violation of human rights and (partially) failed development projects will continue. Ter Haar has some advice that might change people’s attitude towards witchcraft: “As discussions about landownership are at the root of many witchcraft situations, the development of a trustworthy land registry is important.” It means that in many conflicts about landownership, witchcraft seemingly plays a role. It is abused as an instrument of power, to settle a dispute. But of course no witchcraft is actually at play. However, people believe so and thus it’s a very powerful threat.

Ter Haar also offers some suggestions in order to build awareness and stronger communities. “Schools should offer a broader curriculum. They should also give lessons in inter-human relationships. Furthermore, the media could do their bit in demystifying witchcraft."

“Witchcraft does not dissapear when science and logic start developing”

Ter Haar has some advice for NGO’s as well: “They shouldn’t limit themselves to the socio-economic aspects of development. Taking the religious system seriously will improve their efficiency.” Despite her advice, Ter Haar is not optimistic about the future: "I see spiritual confusion only increasing due to numerous political and economic crises. Witchcraft does not disappear when science and logic start developing. There are many Africans who studied in Europe or the United States and yet believe in witchcraft."

"We couldn't get children. We did visi specialists everywhere, all the way to Paris. As a last resort, we saw a traditional healer. He said that there was a beast in my wife's belly eating all my seeds. He took the beast out and a few weeks later my wife was pregnant," says anthropologist Aimé, who teaches in Cotonou, Benin. He got his grade in Belgium.

More about witchcraft in The Demonic Universe.

This story was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project.

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