Leo Igwe

Nigeria | A self-acclaimed evangelist’s campaign incites hatred and violence

Many Nigerians still believe in witchcraft. Campaigns by evangelists to ‘free from witchcraft attacks’ only strengthen the primitive belief.

Helen Ukpabio is the founder of Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries in Cross River State, Nigeria. She is known for conducting public campaigns inciting harassment and violence against those accused of witchcraft. From May 8 through 12, this self-acclaimed evangelist, notorious for witch-hunting, will be ministering at a witch-hunting event in Calabar, Cross River state.

Ukpabio’s campaign is disturbing for many reasons. Her programme reinforces beliefs in witchcraft, and incites hatred and violence against those accused of being witches. Many parts of the country have been grappling with the problem of witchcraft accusations and the related persecution of children and adults. Recently, a couple accused and subsequently murdered their daughter in Adamawa state. There have been reports of killings and abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs in Benue, Bauchi, Kano, Plateau, and Cross River State. To end violations and abuses linked to witchcraft beliefs, Nigerians need to rally against witch-hunters and witch-hunting events. Nigerians need activities and campaigns that dispel witchcraft fears and anxieties, that loosen the grip of these suspicions on their minds. Unfortunately, Ukpabio's Freedom from Witchcraft Attacks strengthens this belief and invests this mystical notion with force, motivating those convinced of witchcraft attacks to accuse and abuse members of their communities.

Ukpabio makes people believe that witchcraft attacks and occult schemes are real. Her church links lack of happiness, ill health, and poverty to witchcraft, and invites those suffering “witchcraft attacks” to come and be freed by her ministry. Her events are advertised to heal, cure, exorcise, and neutralize witchcraft attacks. Ukpabio reinforces the notion that covens exist and are places where witchcraft attacks and other forms of occult harm are planned, hatched, and executed. Hence her poster states that the covens would be in trouble, and witches would be on the run.

These events incite hatred and violence against alleged witches. Alleged witches are not spiritual entities but other human beings, family and community members; often vulnerable members of the population, mainly women, children, and people living with disabilities. Believed to be or smeared as perpetrators of harm and misfortune, alleged witches are hated and treated without compassion. Due to the witch-hunting gospel of the likes of Ukpabio and her church, people attack, banish, torture, and persecute alleged witches, blaming them for their misfortunes. To stop witch persecution, campaigns such as Ukpabio's Freedom from Witchcraft Attacks must be stopped. Ukpabio and her so-called Liberty Gospel church must be held to account. They must be brought to justice.

Witchcraft persists because the government and the public have refused to tackle the disease.

One cannot claim to be combatting a disease and, at the same, allow people to openly and publicly spread the disease and reinfect society. Witch-hunting and belief in witchcraft is a social disease, which persists because the government and the public have refused to tackle those spreading the disease. People have largely ignored and condoned witchcraft-reinforcing and witch-hunting events.

In particular, Ukpabio's program spread the disease in Cross River. This disease has taken a heavy toll, destroying many family and community relationships. Thousands of children and adults suspected to be witches in the state have been abandoned or lynched. Witch-hunting persists because the government and the public in Cross River have turned a blind eye to the witchcraft hunting programs of Ukpabio and her church.

As a matter of urgency, multi-level actions and responses are needed to rein in Nigeria's most notorious witch-hunter and her ministry.

The government should disallow church events, billboards, and other campaign materials that spread witchcraft-related panic and incite hatred and violence against alleged witches. They should penalize organizers of such events and dismantle media that promote “witchcraft attacks” and witch-hunting. The government should not be misled to think that Ukpabio's event is within the bounds of freedom of religion or belief. It is not. It is rather a violation of freedom of religion or belief. Ukpabio is not a Wiccan or a practitioner of nature worship whose members identify as “witches”.

More importantly, witchcraft accusation is against the law in Cross River and in Nigeria. It is an offense against the state to impute witchcraft or witchcraft attacks. Ukpabio's event is an exercise in criminality. It provokes people to commit crimes, to accuse, banish, and persecute alleged witches. The state should not permit this criminal event to occur. The people of Cross State should take action, because they are the sufferers of the awful consequences of Ukpabio's witch-hunting ministry. They should send a clear message to Ukpabio and her church, that their message of fear, hatred, and violence has no place in Cross River. Cross Riverians should use all lawful means to protest and oppose the witch-hunting activities of Ukpabio and her church. Human rights groups, civil society organizations, schools, and community leaders should take action against Ukpabio, the Liberty Gospel church, and other witch-hunting pastors and churches in the state.

Leo Igwe directs the Advocacy for Alleged Witches, which campaigns to end witch hunting in Africa by 2030.