Witchcraft in Nigeria - And why it has such a hold on people's minds

Due to the immense poverty and apparent hopeless situation of ordinary working people in Nigeria many of the old superstitions still survive today. Comrade CD in Lagos, of the Nigerian Marxist journal, Workers' Alternative explains why.

She lay curled up by the roadside; a pathetic little figure in rags-dead, scattered pieces of rocks nearby indicated she was stoned to death. Her crime, she confessed being a witch.

Reasons for belief in Witchcraft

Some years ago, 1995 to be precise, the nation woke to the horrifying story of two children whose fingers were burnt by the Prophetess of a church in alliance with their father to get them confess to an alleged "witchcraft powers". Which they have been using to 'bewitch' their father, causing him misfortune and preventing him from progressing, etc. Shocking as this might seem, many people actually believe the charge of witchcraft levied against the children. However, the public outcry against this practice was so great that the Prophetess and the children's father were tried and sentenced to various prison terms.

But what kind of society causes such permanent disability to its children for, of all things, possessing 'witchcraft powers'? What is the social basis for belief in witchcraft?

Concerning the story above the father at the time was a poor factory worker paid 1200 Naira monthly. With this money he was expected to feed and cloth himself and his family, pay his children's fee, transport himself to and from work, etc. How on earth can any reasonable person expect or be expected to do all these on the starvation wage of 1200 Naira? Witchcraft, although an imaginary world, when used to explain away poverty, illnesses, accidents, natural disasters, etc, becomes a horrifying "reality", with the weakest segments of society-women and children-as its victims.

Socio-economic problems and tensions reflected in the collective consciousness as acts of witchcraft. Everyday problems arising from the dislocation and disintegration of society were blamed on witches and therefore protection must be sought from a "witch doctor". The fear of witchcraft is not peripheral; it touches virtually all segments of society. It is deeply rooted in the collective consciousness.

Fly-By-Night

Underlying this belief is the idea that Human soul could exist independent of the material body. At night this soul quits the body and assumes the form of a creature to carry out evil acts against others. At stake is the question: spirit or matter, which is primary? The spirit or consciousness is merely a product of the brain, itself a product of matter. There is no soul as an independent entity that survives outside the body.

Witches were said to possess super human powers that they use to perpetrate evil. According to certain belief a witch could harm anybody including her family members. This especially makes her highly hated. They are said to kill their own children, drink human blood and bring ruin and ill health on their friends and families. That is to say, in contrast to normal human beings witches conceive and cause the most horrible misfortune on their families and communities. They were viewed as the embodiment of everything that is evil. Witches, it was said, could practice their wicked art only in the dead of night. Deaths, natural disasters, and epidemics; everything were blamed on witches. In most beliefs a witch was said to confess her "crimes" before she died or went mad. Homeless, possibly childless old women driven from their matrimonial homes are especially the victims of these alleged "confessions". Old women driven into the streets and losing their mind, in their madness utters nonsense to the effect of being a witch, killing her husband and children, causing accidents, and bringing ruin on their families were immediately set upon and stoned to death by passers-by. Voluntary claims of witchcraft reveals only a state of madness. A person cannot be in possession of something that does not exist. Witchcraft merely reflects the real world. Yet, the fact remains that even intellectuals still believe in the existence of people who "fly-by-night".

Historical Perspective

Witchcraft is rooted in primitive society. Fear and ignorance played powerful roles in its growth and development. Subsequently, it played strategic roles. Not only was it used to explain away bad harvests, illnesses, deaths and deterioration of farmlands; it acted as a socio-psychological and moral constraint.

Since a witch was said to cause harm to members of her family or community, in a closely-knit commune she was viewed as especially dangerous. But why were mostly women and children witches? In a Patriarchal society being called a witch was no easy matter. It spells certain death for the accused-usually being burnt alive, stoned to death, or in rare instances banishment. This accusation was strategic. The fear of being thus branded kept young people from criticizing the 'elders'; the poor from showing open resentment to the 'well to do'; rank and file tribesmen from challenging the status quo, and women from challenging male domination because those who threatened the existing order of things in any form were branded as witches. That is to say, it was used to strengthen Patriarchy.

In these societies women's labour was ruthlessly exploited and she was viewed as having reasons to resort to witchcraft. Even childless old women seemingly living apart from the farming community were branded as witches.

As feudal society entered into conflict with nascent capitalism, with production shifting from the home to the factory important changes began to occur in the society. Women and children went to work at the factories. The coming together of women at the factory and the common struggle for higher wages and women's rights further undermined Patriarchy. In addition, the abandoning of farming for factory jobs by village youths further undermined the system, although not eliminating it.

In the primitive communities, witchcraft became all-pervasive that nothing happens naturally. Every adverse situation is the wicked act of a witch, who was invariably a woman or a child.

In current day society, these primitive superstitious beliefs were still preserved as they still serve the same functions. These beliefs, despite the advancements in science and technology, combined with the explanation of many natural phenomena, is still being consciously promoted by the ruling class, both nationally and internationally.

Today, on TV, radio and newspapers, there are so many programmes geared towards promoting, not explaining, these views and the targets again remains primarily old women and children. For instance they never say that Abacha is a witch or that the person who steal public money is a witch or that their system is responsible for poverty, unemployment, etc. However they can easily promote the idea that one woman or one of your father's wives is responsible for a person's lack of progress. Even in the advanced capitalist countries views like these are still being promoted.

How can a person be killed or cause permanent disability merely for claiming possession of a non-existent power? Because the truth of the matter is that a "witch" or "wizard" possesses no power at all and therefore poses no threat to anyone. Why kill an old woman and inflict such injuries on charges of witchcraft?

Belief in witchcraft is deeply rooted in the collective consciousness and will take much time and effort for them to be supplanted with new, scientific concepts. Only a radial transformation of the society with adequate provisions made for all segments-materially, culturally and intellectually can uproot these archaic beliefs by uprooting the conditions that gave rise to them.

Witchcraft does not exist. Only when man masters the productive forces and subjects them to his will through conscious planning can man successfully master these fears and rise above these primitive beliefs. Only a socialist society offers this condition.

October 1998