Humanist Voices
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Humanist Voices

Utu and Witch-hunting in Southern Nigeria

By Dr. Leo Igwe

While overwhelming attention on witch-hunting in Nigeria has been on the activities of pastors and other ‘powerful’ godmen and women in Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, little attention has been paid to the operations of witch-finders in other parts of the country. There is limited information about the exploits of witch identifying individuals in contemporary southeastern Nigeria. This article briefly highlights the witch-hunting operation of Utu, a self-acclaimed former secretary of witches in Ngwa in Southern Nigeria. Utu is short for ụtụ agbaghi igwe, which means a beetle cannot eat into iron, in the Igbo language. The name signifies a person with impregnable magical and spiritual power. According to my informant, this powerful witchfinder emerged and operated in Ngwa in between 2006 and 2007.

Ngwa is in Abia state in South-east Nigeria. It comprises so many local governments including Obingwa, Osisioma, Isiala Ngwa North, Isiala Ngwa South, Ugwunagbo, etc. Ngwa is located at the boundary with Imo state.

As a child, I visited Ngwa. That was during my secondary school years at a local seminary, St Peter Claver Seminary in Okpala. Okpala, a village under Ngor Okpala in Imo state, is one of the communities that share a common boundary with Ngwa. While studying at the seminary. I visited Owerrinta, which is in Isiala Ngwa South, that was in the 80s. Except for some parts of the Ngwa community that are close to Aba, a main commercial center, other sections of Ngwa are rural communities. The people are mainly farmers and traders on farm products. The Aba-Owerri, Aba-Port Harcourt and Aba-Umuahia roads are major highways that pass through Ngwa communities.

The creation of Abia state in 1991 and Nigeria’s return to civilian rule in 1999 expedited development in Ngwa communities. Apart from the creation of more local government provinces, some development projects including the construction of roads and installation of electricity have slowly turned some sections of the Ngwa community to semi-urban areas.

Like other parts of Southeast Nigeria, Ngwa is dominantly Christian. Centuries of Christian missionary activities have occasioned a religious switch from indigenous faiths to Christianity. Many Christian missionary groups have branches in Ngwa and have used their schools, hospitals, and charity works to get the people of Ngwa to officially abandon the traditional religion. Various church buildings exist in the communities and attest to the ubiquity of Christianity in Ngwaland. They include Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches. These Christian organizations compete for membership and influence. They leverage on the problems, uncertainties, and challenges in the communities to grow their churches and power base. Incidentally the people of Ngwa never completely abandoned their traditional religion and practices. Ngwa people practice a mélange of Christian and traditional beliefs. Thus below the veneer of Christian faith lurks intense belief in pre-Christian, traditional cosmologies.

One such belief is that human beings could harm or kill others through spiritual means. These evil humans live in the communities and execute their destructive schemes through hideous means including thwarting the progress of young people and causing death and other misfortunes.

This is what western anthropologists have designated as witchcraft or sorcery. Over the years, Nigerians who have attended the missionary colonial/western model of schools adopted this terminology. They commonly use the term witchcraft (which means amusu in the Igbo language) to describe possessing or exerting powers to kill or harm others through magical or spiritual means.

Periodically, communities witness the emergence of ‘powerful persons’ who try to help get rid of these evil people. They incite violence, coldblooded murder and horrific killings. These persons sometimes self describe as ex-witches like Helen Ukpabio in Calabar. In 2006, one such individual, Utu, a self-styled secretary of witches, went around calling out all the witches in Ngwaland.

Utu’s real name is Uchenna Amanze Orji. Very little is known about his family and educational background. One informant said, “Many people do not know him that well. He was an elusive person”. Utu claimed to be the secretary of witches in Ngwa until 2006 when he repented and gave his life to Christ. Utu became a pastor and then embarked on a mission of exposing other members of the witches’ association in Ngwa.

ụtụ’s witch cleansing activity swept through Ngwa communities from 2006 to 2007. Utu went from one community to another naming and pointing out the witches. He claimed to know all the witches in the communities. Or better he made Ngwa people believe that he knew all the witches that were wreaking havoc in the area. ụtụ was going around calling them out. According to my informant, he used a greeting-format to name the witches. He would say: “I greet so and so in so and so village”. On extending a greeting to a person or some persons in a village, young people would go after the person(s) he mentioned, beat them up, kill or ask them to leave the community. Here is a case of what happened in one of the villages

Utu greeted two ‘witches’ from Asamoka in Osisioma Ngwa. One of those that ụtụ greeted managed to escape before a mob of angry youths arrived at his residence but the second person was not as lucky. The youths went and abducted the young man. They took him to the village square, stripped him naked, and dropped hot burning plastic on the body. They tied him with palm leaves (Omu) and flogged him with a local plant (Opete). They beat and tortured him until he eventually collapsed and died.

According to my informant, those who abducted and murdered the young man claimed that he confessed to witchcraft before he died. They claimed that he confessed to killing two of his cousins. That he spiritually nailed the luck and destiny of all the young people in the community to three trees in the village-an Oha tree, an Oil bean tree, and an Achi tree. Following the confessions, the villagers cut down these trees hoping that it would end the calamities in Ngwa communities.

After felling the tree, the villagers then invited all the members for an oath-taking. They were to swear an oath that none of them had prevented ụtụ from visiting their village. ụtụ ‘greeted’ two witches in this village from a neighboring community and some village members wondered why this powerful witch identifier had been unable to visit their village and helped them eliminate evil people in their midst. Some thought that some witch people had been using their occult powers to stop him from visiting and exposing them.

On the day of oath-taking, they brought a white basin, poured water into a white basin, and put a copy of the Bible in the water. The belief was that anybody who took the oath and was preventing ụtụ from visiting the village would die. All the villagers were told to touch the water with a finger and then touch their forehead while stating that they were not preventing ụtụ from visiting the village. All the villagers but two men took the oath. Those who refused to swear said it was against their Christian faith. But other village members could not take any of that. They kept persuading them to no avail

At a point, the patience of the villagers ran out and they bounced on the two persons who refused to take the oath. They used heavy water pipes to beat them. They hit one on the hand and broke his arm. They also hit him on the head and the eye. One of the men sustained serious injuries and was later hospitalized.

According to my informant, the following day, those who took part in this mob action fled the village fearing that those that they had injured would report to the police. However, the matter was not reported to the police. One of those injured said that the pastor advised him not to take the matter to the police, that God would avenge for him. Even though this incident happened over ten years, people in Ngwa communities are still reluctant to discuss this incident. Victims, relatives of victims, were reluctant to speak out because they feared further victimization. This is a common pattern across the region. Witch hunters capitalize on the frustrations, poverty, despair, and desperation in communities and scapegoat some individuals. These persons, designated as evil, or witches are blamed for lack of progress in the communities. They are accused of magically taking away the stars of others, of stealing or ‘nailing’ the destinies of the youths. Those who have suffered witch persecution or survived attacks by lynch mobs largely resign to their fate. Most often. they are disinclined to speak out and usually unwillingly to share their ordeals. This unfortunate trend must change, and change now. Atrocities such as those that ụtụ and his lynch mob committed in Ngwaland between 2006 and 2007 should not go uninvestigated and unpunished. The impunity must end. All perpetrators of witch persecution must be made to answer for their crimes. At least, the victims’ side of the story should be heard. The abuses should not be swept under the carpet. Those who have directly or indirectly suffered violence and persecution must break the wall of silence, and let the world hear their stories and experiences.

Igwe directs Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AFAW) that provides a platform for victims and survivors of witch hunts and demon hunts to tell their stories and share their experiences. You can contact AFAW<> Tel: +2349039908664

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash



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Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen supports science and human rights.