NSUKKA, Nigeria – An international academic witchcraft conference in Nigeria discovered the complicated challenge of discussing the topic. The conference University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), Enugu, South-East Nigeria took place on November 26, 2019, but not before experiencing significant controversy and opposition from local, predominantly Christian groups but staff and students also protested.
The two-day conference originally titled, “Witchcraft: Meaning, Factors and Practices” was held at the B.I.C Ijomah Centre for Policy Studies and Research of UNN was hosted at UNN by Professor Egodi Uchendu. Dr. Uchendu is a member of the Faculty of Arts at UNN and is a professor of History. Her research focuses on Nigerian History, women and conflict, African masculinities, religious Conversions and Historiography on Islam. She was responsible for introducing the female-centered course at the University of Nigeria in 2003, called “Introduction of African Women in History.”
Dr. Uchendu explains that the objective of the conference was to “determine amongst other things the intelligibility of witchcraft, the principles that underpin it and the impact it has on human life, society and progress.” Her plan was to have Nigerians, specifically, but everyone to critically understand and evaluate their belief in witchcraft and determine how those beliefs may affect their daily lives.
She added, “Apart from rumors about witchcraft, can we intelligently discuss the phenomenon of witchcraft? Can we delineate its evolving dynamics, especially in regard to human and societal development? What does belief in witchcraft symbolize for civilians, the military, politicians, scholars and others.”
The original call for abstracts stated, “Metaphorically, “witchcraft” (“amusu” or “igbansi”, in Igbo Language, “Aje” in Yoruba. Ohe in Idoma, “Ifot” in Ibibio, “Pou”, in Ijaw and “Opochi” or “enebe” in Igbira) has come to be associated with strange activities bearing on the supernatural, which affects the human world. Definitions of witchcraft differ from country to country and from community to community. Likewise, all cultures do not share a consistent pattern of witchcraft practice and beliefs.”
Witchcraft is both a common accusation and a common belief throughout sub-Saharan Africa and elicits strong reactions It is often used as a means of controlling and suppressing women.
The accusations can be so severe that they can result in physical harm or death of the accused. Children have also been targeted and must often endure brutal exorcisms and beatings.
The Nigerian legal code still criminalizes Witchcraft of any sort and punishable with incarceration. Though rare, individuals have been successfully prosecuted under these codes.
Rights groups, including the United Nations, have condemned all these practices against witchcraft.
The conference intended to explore these issues and reports suggest that more than 500 individuals attended – many drawn to the spectacle of the conflict — but only in the context of what seems to be reported concessions to the protests.
The protest was led primarily by the influential Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), an “umbrella Body which coordinates the activities of Pentecostal, Evangelical and Charismatic Ministries, Churches and Associations.” They called on Christian clergy and laity to join in prayer against the event. “Enugu State would be in serious danger if the proposed conference was allowed to hold,” and that they “cannot fold their arms and watch our future dragged into what will not give God glory.”
Chairman of PFN in the state, Bishop Godwin Madu said, “We have had enough of ungodly activities in this country. We will not hand [the state] over to witches.”
Other protestors brought their own messages both online and on-campus with signs that read, “Witches and Wizards, No Vacancy,” and “Don’t Pollute Our Environment.”
Though the conference was ultimately held, the remonstrations did have an impact. The conference changed its theme, adding “Dimensions of Human Behaviour,” though the topics and presentations remained the same. They also removed the word “witchcraft” from all materials at the direction of the University’s vice-chancellor, Professor Dr. Charles Igwe.
Professor Uchendu commented forcefully on the purpose and need for free academic discourse. She said:
“Church pastors discuss witchcraft regularly and preach against it all the time, drawing from their experiences during their training and in their ministries.” She added, “surprisingly, some people erroneously concluded that only witches can discuss witchcraft. We are not witches. We are professors and scholars who are intrigued by this phenomenon of witchcraft. Our conference is a mere academic discussion where we shall review journals, information gathered over the years on the subject matter. That is what scholars do and this should not cause alarm.”
All-Africa reporter Patrick Egwu said, “Christ Church choir of the university sang the opening hymn at the conference. It was more like a normal church event, people calling Jesus and praying that the aim of the event should be achieved.” He added, “[the] word ‘witchcraft’ was removed from the conference banner in order to lessen the controversy around it, but that every discussion at the conference centered on witchcraft.”
Egwu told the Premium Times, “Some people who called themselves Christians wake up at night, burning candles and praying for their enemies to die by Holy Ghost fire. Is it not an act of witchcraft?… When white people do magic, we hail them. When they do their Halloween, which to me is more like devilish, we hail it, but we condemn our own local masquerades.”