Helen Ukpabio’s London visit renews focus on African child abuse

Heather Greene —  April 20, 2014 — 24 Comments

Last week notorious “witch-hunter” Helen Ukpabio, known as Lady Apostle, arrived in London to hold a 3 day revival meeting called a ”Season for Disconnections From All Spiritual Attack.” Ukpabio’s message is made very clear in a widely circulated poster that asks “Are you under Witchcraft attack? Mermaid Attack? Ancestral Spirit Attack?” It adds: “Come and be disconnected” a service that is “free of charge.”

Helen-Ukpabio-in-London2

Ukpabio is the founder of Nigeria’s Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries which claims to have more than 150 churches in that country alone. Allegedly Ukpabio is looking to open one in the UK to serve its large African-born population. More specifically she is targeting its large Nigerian-born population which has grown over 110% since 2001.

Unfortunately for Ukpabio, the UK did not welcome her with open arms. When the event was announced, there was immediate backlash. The planned venue, Albany World Music Theater, canceled her booking due to its content. In a statement, the Albany said:

We only cancel bookings in very exceptional circumstances. In this instance we were not given full information about the nature of the booking by the booker, which is at odds with our terms and conditions and ethical policies as an organisation. As soon as we became aware of the full details of the booking, it was canceled and the booker was issued with a full refund.

The Witchcraft Human Rights and Information Network (WHRIN), The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) all reportedly contacted Home Secretary Theresa May and requested that Ukpabio be deported and permanently banned from the UK. Why? Gary Foxcroft, Executive Director of WHRIN explains:

We believe that her presence in the UK is pursuant to section 3(5) of the Immigration Act 1971 on the basis that her presence here is not conducive to the public good and request that she is immediately deported and has her UK visa revoked. There have been numerous cases of children in the UK being tortured and sometimes killed due to the beliefs that Helen Ukpabio espouses … We cannot afford to wait for another such case before the Government takes action to put a stop to such preachers.

For many Ukpabio is the one performing the “spiritual attacks” rather than saving anyone from them. In March, WHRIN released its “2013 Global Report” to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council on faith-based, witchcraft-related violence. During that year Ukpabio’s home country of Nigeria along with South Africa had the highest number of reported acts on the African continent. Unfortunately the statistics are flawed because there is “considerable under reporting, particularly when children are accused.” WHRIN explains:

These figures are inconsistent with the experience of organisations providing support to child victims in these settings. It may be that such accusations have become so common they cease to attract attention. It is also possible that previous unwelcome international media coverage discourages local or national reporting.

This past week’s events in London certainly did stir the international media. Despite all that attention and outrage, Ukpabio successfully held her meeting in an small, undisclosed venue. A group from IHEU discovered that location and managed to stage a small protest. In an interview with Channel 4 London, IHEU’s Bob Churchill called Ukpabio’s work a crime because it “incites people to abuse.” The TV station sponsored a short but comprehensive report on the subject:

Ukpabio has since left the UK. However many are hoping that the government will permanently ban her from the country. Foxcroft says:

The issue of children being abused due witchcraft accusations in the UK has been recognised by the Government who established a National Working group to tackle the problem. However, as yet, there have been no successful convictions of pastors whose preachings are known to lead to child abuse and there is no law in place to stop such harmful practices.

London’s Metro Police operates a special task force called Project Violet to interface with local communities and organizations specifically working to prevent abuse. Additionally the national government has created an “action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief.” It states:

This action plan is intended to help raise awareness of the issue of child abuse linked to faith or belief and to encourage practical steps to be taken to prevent such abuse … The beliefs which are the focus of this action plan are not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community. Examples have been recorded worldwide among Europeans, Africans, Asians and elsewhere as well as in Christian, Muslim, Hindu and pagan faiths among others. Not all those who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession harm children.

Within the UK there are also a number of charitable organizations, like Afruca, who work to raise awareness within African immigrant communities as well as in Nigeria itself. Afruca has offices in both London and Lagos, where it operates the Foundation for the Protection of the Rights of the Vulnerable Children. When Ukpabio left the country, Afruca tweeted:

It is the right direction for the UK and does send a message to the  international community. However the problem in Nigeria persists. Within the borders of her home country, Ukpabio is not only a respected minister but also a celebrity, a musician and a filmmaker. Her film production company, Liberty Films, is a household-name and a force in Nigeria’s film community Nollywood. Like her books and broadcast sermons, Ukpabio’s films are a delivery method for the anti-witchcraft message.

In a 2010 New York Times interview she defended her films saying, “It is only because I am African that people who understand that J. K. Rowling writes fiction would take literally Ms. Ukpabio’s filmic depictions of possessed children, gathering by moonlight to devour human flesh.” In another 2012 interview with Nigerian Yes! International Magazine, Ukpabio blames atheists for the continued backlash saying, “I marvel at the way people can easily use their demonic wisdom to kill, murder and slander another person.” When asked why she has so many enemies she says:

 I think [they fight me] because I preach the truth. Because I don’t compromise … So, people want to see me fall, people want to see me compromise … and I’ve refused.

Yes! International Magazine and other similar Nigerian pop media give Ukpabio a positive public voice in a country where she has millions of followers. However they do not speak for the entire country. The recent buzz on social media, blogs and in the Nigerian general media demonstrates that Ukpabio faces strong opposition among her own people. Here is a tweet from a mother and business woman residing in Lagos,

In addition there is a growing Nigerian child rights movement supported in part by international organizations such as UNICEF and Stepping Stones Nigeria. Ukpabio’s followers were caught on tape disrupting a meeting held by one these organizations.

As the fight for Africa’s children continues, the global community appears to be closely monitoring Ukpabio and other Pentecostal ministers like her. In 2008 Mags Gavan and Joost van der Valk released the documentary Saving Africa’s Witch Children which focuses on the dangers in Ukpabio’s ministry. The film was broadcast internationally over several years. In the U.S. it appeared on HBO in 2010 while Ukpabio happen to be in the States. When she tried to return in 2012 the U.S. refused to grant her a VISA.

UNICEF Nigeria has posted a series called Radio by children accused of being witches which catalogs the experiences of the child victims in their own words. As we reported Wednesday, South Africa Pagan Rights Alliance is now holding its yearly 30 Days of Advocacy campaign to raise awareness in its own country  – another hard hit by these witch accusations. The list goes on.

While the world grapples with this wide-spread problem, it raises many questions concerning religious freedom and more. Where does religious practice end and child abuse begin? Who gets to draw that line? Even if Ukpabio and others like her are stopped, there are still millions who have been raised with this very real cultural fear of witchcraft as defined by those teachings. Where and how does the process of effective education start in order to prevent future abuse by new ministers who could easily step into Ukpabio shoes?

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She is currently the National Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and has worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. Heather's work has been published in Circle Magazine and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Those mermaid attacks can be deadly.

  • Stacey Lawless

    The “mermaids” are water spirits. Think Mami Wata and Oshun as goddess versions of the same. The water spirits will come after people they want as servants or companions. Ukpabio’ s speaking to a common Nigerian cultural element.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    Where does religious practice end and child abuse begin?

    That is incredibly easy to answer – in exactly the same place as child abuse begins in every other context.

    • Crystal Hope Kendrick

      Agreed.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        I would be honestly concerned if someone didn’t. Abuse is abuse, regardless of motive. (One of the most prevalent forms of child abuse is benign neglect, after all.)

        • Crystal Hope Kendrick

          I agree but unfortunately not everyone does. We have child abuse that occurs here in the States that gets a pass due to the parents’ religious beliefs, especially if they are some strain of Christianity. Here’s an example of abuse advocated by “good Christian” parents, scroll down to the reviews: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/675331.To_Train_Up_a_Child
          And don’t forget the Quiverfull movement, which has more in common with the Taliban than most people like to admit.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I’m aware of abuse being given a “pass” since it has religious context (female genital mutilation is on the increase over here, amongst certain demographics, whilst others turn a blind eye to the practice of male genital mutilation.)

  • kenofken

    Countries in the West like the UK and U.S. should take steps to cut off funding. Designate groups like this as terror groups or human rights violators and thus ban donations from within our borders. Additionally, the law should allow victims to sue the missionary groups and churches in Europe and America where it can be shown that such groups contributed to inciting or financing movements like Ukpabio.

  • Deborah Bender

    I am heartened to read that some organized opposition to these notions and their behavioral consequences is coming out of Nigeria and other African countries. If a bad idea is rooted or partially rooted in a culture, opposition from within the culture works better and more thoroughly than criticism from the outside (although criticism from the outside is also needed).

    It’s interesting to note that witch hunting is a job description and a career opportunity in Nigeria just as it was in Western Europe for a few centuries.

    Belief in malevolent witches has the same effect within a society with a lot of social tensions that an overactive immune system has on a human body. By misidentifying healthy cells as unhealthy, it tears the body of society down. These beliefs might regain popularity in the West as economic prosperity declines.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Ukpabio’s ideas about spiritual warfare are not “rooted or partially rooted” in African culture. These ideas are taken straight out of Christian teachings that have been imported to Africa from Europe and America.

      Anyone who actually believes in magic must necessarily believe in the reality of malefic magic, and, therefore, in the need to protect against it in various ways. Such beliefs are no more, and no less, liable to lead to false accusations and the concomitant abuse of innocents than is the belief that rape is something that should be legally proscribed and harshly punished.

      Traditional African societies did not have any conception of “Witch hunting” in the European Christian sense of the term. The early modern “Witch Hunts” of Christian Europe were directed very broadly against any and all magical practitioners whose magic was not not sanctioned by the Church, and this included many accused Witches who were only accused of performing beneficial magic, including healing, divination, weather magic, etc.

      • http://kenazfilan.blogspot.com/ Kenaz Filan

        Mind telling us what part of Christian teachings Mermaid Spirits and Ancestral Spirits come from? And while you’re at it, I’d be interested to hear your sources on “traditional African societies” — whatever that term is supposed to mean, given that Africa is a continent with considerably more linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity than Europe — and what exactly they did with those accused of working malevolent magic or harboring evil spirits.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        If there is nothing culturally African in the phenomenon, why doesn’t it happen everywhere there is poverty, ignorance and aggressive Christianity?

        • Northern_Light_27

          Please define what you mean by “it”. I don’t see witch hunts, specifically, in the US but I do see people being told that they’re possessed by demons or infested with the demonic and are sent to incredibly abusive week-long or weekend retreats dedicated to purging them of their demons. I had a friend whose emerging lesbianism, while she was a teenager, sent her mother and the Pentecostal cult they were part of into a tizzy– she was told that her attraction to other girls was demonic. She was sent to several of these weekend or week-long retreats wherein her “sin” was announced to all and sundry, she was denied sleep and deprived of most food and water and forced to be spun around a room while other Christians chanted and prayed at her. When these demon-purging expeditions didn’t work, her mother had her committed to a psychiatric facility. Last I knew of her, she was about to marry a man she had no attraction to, and she stayed in the church because she was too afraid to leave it. The last time she tried having a relationship with a woman, it ended when my friend had a mental breakdown and started screaming at the other woman that she was a demon and full of sin and trying to pull her away from Christ.

          So child abuse in the form of Christian “spiritual warfare” *does* happen everywhere this particular form of aggressive Christianity springs up. I think this particular form may have a lot of African cultural ideas in it, so I wouldn’t agree that there’s *nothing* culturally African in it, but I do agree with Apuleius that its’ ideas about “spiritual warfare” are rooted in a pernicious form of Christianity that is primarily exported from the US, to the detriment of multiple foreign nations. Existing African fears about malefic magic turned up to eleven and used by predatory preachers who learned their trade from our exports.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            By “it” I mean witchcraft accusations that result in mutilation or death, outcomes absent in your friend’s sad account. Mind you, I am completely sympathetic with your friend but I don’t see her as an example of what we’re talking about. YMMV

  • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

    Mermaid attacks are no joke. I know someone who’s brother’s cousin’s brother’s cousin was watching The Little Mermaid and got possessed. Now she’s obsessed with collecting gadgets and gizmos a-plenty, whozits and whatzits galore, and she’s up to 20 thingamabobs.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      Mermaids are part of the fabric of British folklore. I always loved the tale of Lutey and the Mermaid, as a child.

      The tales are always cautionary – Mermaids are dangerous creatures, and one should be careful when dealing with them.

      • gary p golden jr

        Anyone who saw HP and The Goblet of Fire knows that.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          I prefer the ones in Peter Pan (2003), if we are talking modern cinematic depictions.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Mermaid attacks are pretty easy to deal with. They tend to be allergic to depth charges.

    • gary p golden jr

      I would rather imagine it like the underwater battle in Thunderball.

      • Joseph

        Or the Incredible Mr. Limpett.

  • Bob_Knows

    No need for christian imports. We already have plenty of Witch Hunts going on in our own community.

  • Sage Blackthorn

    Glad she’s been kicked out of the US and the UK. After reading some of the other articles about this incident, I have to say I think Ukpabio was psychologically damaged as a child herself. I think she’s got some Stockholm Syndrome going on there.

  • Bob_Knows

    The video says that the attacks are wrong because “witches don’t exist.” That is NOT the same as saying “Its wrong to attack witches.” Its the same wrong message pushed continually in Salem, MA. The 1692 witch hunts were wrong because “They really weren’t witches.” They won’t say that hanging witches is wrong. Even the UNICEF people here are saying that killing witches is OK.