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Prof. John Azumah: Lack of political will and witchcraft accusations in Ghana

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In the wake of the lynching of Madam Akua Denteh and other attempted killings in the former Northern Regions, The Sanneh Institute undertook research and data gathering into witch-hunting and the “witch camps” in the area.  

The research established the existence of six “witch camps” at Gambaga, Gushegu, Kpatinga, Gbintiri, Gnani and Kokuo, all in the Northern and Northeastern Regions. At the time of the data gathering in May 2021 there was a total of 570 directly accused persons in the six camps made of 41 males and 529 females.

These figures constantly fluctuate as victims move out of the camps, some die, and new ones move in and does not include dependents. Most victims in the camps are from the Konkomba ethnic group (60%), followed by Dagomba (37%), Mamprusi (1%) Bimoba (1%) and others (1%). Most of the women in the camps have severe physical scars and lost limbs from attacks not to mention the hidden mental and emotional scars.

In all the camps, except Gushegu, traditional priests (known as Tendanas) perform rituals to detect who is a witch and to exorcise the spirit of witchcraft.

These rituals constitute witch-hunting, the Tendanas the principal witch-hunters, and the camps witch-hunting grounds. Some of the priests openly admit that most of the accusations are fabrications out of malice, jealousy, and hatred by family and community members.

Accusers and witch-finders are mostly men while only women are subjected to brutal physical attacks. As such, witchcraft accusation and witch-hunting are an integral part of gender-based violence. Accusers range from biological children, other family relations, chiefs and religious figures.

Once an accusation is made, the burden is on the accused to proof themselves innocent, with virtually no chance of success. Even in many cases where the ritual at a shrine declares an accused person innocent, accusers reject such outcomes and continue to threaten harm to the accused if they return home.

The Tendanas also act as overseers and gatekeepers of the camps. All of them claim that accused persons at the camps are free to return home. But there are caveats. In one camp, we were told that victims who leave the camp do not survive more than a year because the shrine forbids them from leaving.

In other words, there is a death sentence hanging on the necks of those who choose to leave the camp! In all the camps except Gushegu, the victims cannot leave unless a “discharge” ritual is performed by the Tendana, and these come at costs that most victims cannot afford. Even though the victims can simply leave, they will not do so for fear of the spiritual consequences of not performing the discharge rituals.

Those who have been “exorcised” and can afford the discharge rituals are afraid to return home because their accusers and communities don’t trust them.

Under these circumstances, accused persons prefer to remain in the camps for fear of returning to potential re-accusation and attacks. Others refuse to return home out of bitterness at the lack of justice and a sense of betrayal by their families. Some are happy to relocate to different communities if afforded the necessary support. The main wall keeping victims in these camps, therefore, is perceived and real fear.

Meanwhile, conditions in the camps range from deplorable to desperate. When incidents of witch-hunting are reported in the media, churches, NGOs and politicians troop to the camps with relief aid. When the news moves on, the relief aid ceases! In Gushegu, victims feed themselves by gathering spilled grain from the ground in local markets. It is that dehumanizing! These are women who have been deprived of their farmlands and network of family support back in their villages.

Virtually no regular services are provided by government agencies, and where these exist, accused persons cannot afford, and social stigma will not allow them and their dependents to access. Abuses at the camps include rape, multiple exploitation’s (forced labor and diversion of relief aid), as well as verbal and emotional abuse. Child marriage in the host communities of young minders and dependents from the camps is common.

What has, and is being done?

The Presbyterian Church of Ghana has a project known as the “Go Home Project”, which has been working at Gambaga, the oldest camp, for many years. The actual name of the project is “Gambaga Outcast Home” which was abbreviated to “Go Home” because international donors did not like the “outcast”, which is rather the true designation of the victims.

The victims are rejected by society and abandoned in the camps as human garbage. The Go Home project works at reintegrating victims into their communities. But the results are very poor. It takes months, sometimes years, to negotiate and resettle a victim or two. And within the same period, many more new victims will join the camp! A National Conference was organized by the Ministry of Gender in 2014 attended by 310 participants from government institutions, Agencies of the United Nations, human rights organizations, the religious community, and activists from various civil society organizations.

Prof. Kenneth Attafuah was the keynote speaker and eloquently addressed pertinent issues around witchcraft accusations and the witch camps. Including the fact that relevant existing laws are flouted with impunity and that the witch camps are a national embarrassment and indictment to Ghana’s reputation and commitment to several international human rights instruments.

In December 2014 the Ministry of Gender, in collaboration with ActionAid Ghana successfully closed the Boyase camp while Nabuli camp was later closed in Dec 2019. These closures turned out to be dispersals as most of the inmates from the disbanded camps simply moved into other camps. In the wake of the lynching of Madam Akua Denteh in July 2020, the Ministry of Gender convened a National Conference at Kempinsky Hotel the following month where statement after statement was read by various actors, including traditional rulers and their representatives.

The Minister followed up with a visit to some of the camps along with a Parliamentary Select Committee on Gender, Children and Social Protection. She promised to submit a report that will end the practice for good! Despite all these efforts by government institutions, the huge sums of monies spent, as well as the best efforts of several NGOs, civil society and religious organizations, not much has been achieved in curbing witch-hunting or addressing issues around the witch camps. On the contrary, accusations are on the rise as is the population of the camps! Clearly, something radical must be done.

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What can be done?

Part of the reasons for the lack of progress is the uncritical acceptance of some prevailing attitudes. Some of these include: We don’t need a new law specifically addressing witchcraft accusations. There are enough laws already on the books. The problem has to do with enforcing existing laws.

The witch camps are safe-havens and should not be disbanded. The women do not want to leave the camps. The real problem is the accusations, not the witch camps. You don’t close the refugee camp before you stop the war.

The camps “should be rebranded.” With regards to existing laws, it is indeed true that there are enough laws on the books which, if strictly enforced, will curb witch-hunting. Relevant laws and Articles exist in Ghana’s 1992 Constitution that we shall point out shortly. All the victims of witch-hunting know their accusers and attackers who continue to roam freely in the communities. So, what will it take to enforce the laws?

Criminalize Witch-Hunting

The police say victims are reluctant to file charges of witchcraft accusations and attacks. And when they do, they are pressured to drop the charges. The pressure comes from traditional rulers, politicians, religious leaders etc. In July 2020, The Sanneh Institute campaigned and got a young witchdoctor, his father and three accomplices arrested for witch-hunting and physical abuse of women at Widana in the Upper East Region.

The witchdoctor pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit crime and assault. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment with serious charges pending. Political bigwigs got involved, the judge withdrew from the case, and the culprits were released! In August 2020 Meri Ibrahim was brutally attacked by young men with machetes at Sumpini in the Savana Region.

The culprits were arrested, local politicians piled pressure and got them released. The high-profile case of the public lynching of Madam Akua Denteh in July 2020 is still in court at Tamale. For more than a year, children of the victim commute between Salaga and Tamale where they have been subjected to humiliating interrogation by defense attorneys. The accused are yet to be put in the dock and interrogated!

In fact, in the above cases, we know the leading figures who interfered with the system. The accusers and attackers are well known, caught on camera. Yet, no one has been held to account. Is there any wonder therefore that most victims are not prepared to press charges? Our criminal justice system seems to be set up for those who are connected to the right people, not those who do the right thing and certainly not the poor and vulnerable.

An important marker for a civilized society is the way the poor and vulnerable are protected and cared for. Otherwise, we return to the stone age and ethic of survival of the fittest. A law specifically proscribing witch-hunting will restore confidence and a sense of justice to victims of witchcraft accusations. Such a law will vindicate the victims and take the burden of proof away from the accused onto the accusers. The law will also send a powerful message to the world about Ghana’s stance on witch-hunting. Politicians will also be mindful of brazenly interfering in clear cases of criminality. In short, the law will be a powerful weapon in ending the ongoing war of witch-hunting against vulnerable women.

The Witch Camps

How about the camps? Are the camps safe havens? Are the tendanas “benefactors”? First of all, the witch camps are a double-edged sword. The camps are bases for with-hunting and the tendanas are the principal witch-hunters. It is like someone helping to set your house on fire and turning around to offer you a place to stay for them to treat your burns! But most of the women don’t want to leave the camps, goes the common refrain. This is true. But we need to weigh such resistance in the light of critical factors. Often, the question is posed to the women in the open, always in the presence of the gatekeepers of the camps, i.e. the tendanas, their representatives or some NGO and Church workers at the camp. All of these people have vested interest in the perpetual existence of the camps.

Some NGO and church workers at the camps believe that some of the women are actually witches while others are there for their “projects” and their jobs. Some of the women have been schooled and/or scared into staying in the camps. Some choose to stay in the camps because of the relief aid. Others are genuinely afraid to return home because their accusers and attackers remain a threat to their lives.

During our research, I asked the women how many of them wish for their children or grandchildren to end up in the camps. All responded in unison, “never, may God forbid. We don’t even wish this on our worst enemies!” This is the nearest to the strongest indictment the women pass on life in the camps. The question therefore is how to break the circle and end the practice for the sake of future generations. Rebranding the camps will only make witch-hunting more lucrative.

The circle can be broken by responsibly disbanding the camps. With some counselling, small financial support and measures aimed at creating a safe environment back home, the vast majority will leave the camps and return their communities. This is where a law will help towards the creation of a safe environment for the women to leave the camps. And by the way, laws are meant to punish crime, not to stop crime.

What about the Constitution?

In my view, questions related to the camps should not be about whether they are safe-havens or not, or whether the victims want to leave the camps or not. Most of the women are too victimized to even know what is best for themselves just as they are traumatized into “confessing” that they are witches. The question should rather be whether the camps are in breach of Ghana’s constitutions or not. Article 14 of the 1992 Constitution talks about protection of personal liberty and states in Clause 1: “every person shall be entitled to his personal liberty and no person shall be deprived of his personal liberty” except by court order, infectious or contagious disease. Clearly the women in the camps have been deprived of their personal liberties of living in their communities.

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Article 15 outlines respect for human dignity, stating inter alia, “the dignity of all persons shall be inviolable,” and “no person shall, whether or not he is arrested, restricted or detained, be subjected to – a) torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; b) any other condition that detracts or is likely to detract from his dignity and worth as a human being.” No one will dispute that the dignity of the women in the camps is being violated.

Article 17 talks about equality and freedom from discrimination. “All persons shall be equal before the law” (Clause 1); “A person shall not be discriminated against on grounds of gender, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status,” (Clause 2). Obviously, the women in the camps know for a fact that their accusers are above the law, and they all say they are targeted and discriminated because of their gender and low social status. This too, no one can dispute.

Article 18. Addresses protection of privacy of home and property. In Clause 1 “every person has the right to own property either alone or in association with others.” Clause 2: “No person shall be subjected to interference with the privacy of his home, property, correspondence or communication” except in accordance with law, public safety and health, the prevention of disorder or crime. The women have been deprived of their farms and other property in their villages and driven out of their homes, separated from their families.

Finally, the 1992 Constitution stipulates as follows: Article 26(2) “All customary practices which dehumanise or are injurious to the physical and mental well-being of a person are prohibited.” Article 39(2) “The State shall ensure that appropriate customary and cultural values are adapted and developed as an integral part of the growing needs of the society as a whole; and in particular, that traditional practices which are injurious to the health and well-being of the person are abolished.”

Witchcraft accusations and the camps are deeply rooted in culture and tradition. Some even defend the practice as freedom of religion and culture. Yet, no one can dispute the fact that life in the camps is dehumanizes, stigmatizes and traumatizes the inmates for life. The Constitution requires the State to abolish all such harmful traditional practices. In fact, Article 37(2b) demands that the State shall enact appropriate laws for “the protection and promotion of all other basic human rights and freedoms, including the rights of the disabled, the aged, children and other vulnerable groups.”

The constitution couldn’t be clearer on the illegality of life in the camps. On all counts, the State has clearly failed thousands of victims, many of whom suffered and perished in the camps. Enacting a law that criminalizes witch-hunting and disbands the witch camps will protect the rights and lives of the disabled, the aged, women, children and other vulnerable groups.

So, what is the real problem?

The belief in witchcraft is by no means unique to Ghana. The belief remains deep rooted and widespread in many parts of Africa and Asia. Yet, Ghana is the only country in the whole world with “witch camps”. In Ghana witchcraft accusations are common in all the regions and among all ethnic groups. Yet, it is only in the former Northern Region that we have “witch camps.” Witchcraft accusations is widespread among nearly all ethnic groups in northern Ghana. Yet, over 95% of all the victims at the camp are from only two ethnic groups. What is so complicated about this that the state is unable to address?

In our research which included visiting all the camps, talking to victims, tendanas and traditional rulers, I have come to the conclusion that the real problem in dealing with witch-hunting in Ghana and the witch camps in the north is the lack of political will. For about three centuries (15th to 17th centuries), Europe burned and impaled women for witchcraft. This was addressed mainly through legislation. Britain passed such a law back in 1735. Ghana is three-hundred years behind, but better late than never!

With political will, parliament can pass a law criminalizing witch-hunting and disbanding the witch camps. With political will, the State can ensure the safe reintegration of the victims currently languishing in the camps. The law is critically important for a safe environment to facilitate disbanding the camps. To disband the witch camps, first, government should engage traditional rulers, local government agencies and opinion leaders in the most susceptible communities. Task them to see to the safe return of the women back home.

If the Yaa Naa and NaYiri make declarations that the women are free to return home and no one should attack any of them, the safety of the victims will be greatly ensured, and many will leave the camps. Second, engage with the victims, offer counseling and other health care to those who need these, provide each with a modest reintegration fund to return home. The few, who for various reasons may be unable to return to their homes can be offered the option and support to re-settle in different communities of their choice. What is so hard about the state taking these steps? Where there is a will, there is always a way!

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Prof. John Azumah is the Executive Director of the Sanneh Institute, Legon – Accra

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