This newspaper’s attention is drawn to a story carried in its March 20 edition headlined “2 ‘Witchcraft’ Suspects Mobbed to Death in Ganta”. This newspaper also notes that this is the second of such reports making headlines in the media in recent times. It can be recalled that this newspaper carried a similar story in its January 15, 2019 edition headlined “Mob Violence Leaves One Dead in Sinoe”.
Recurring incidents of such nature involving accusations of witchcraft and the attending mob violence that leaves people dead or wounded has claimed the urgent concern of this newspaper and it urges the Government of Liberia to take urgent measures to address what appears to be a growing problem.
Some experts attribute the problem to systemic failure of the country’s criminal justice system while others attribute it to the culture of impunity which has and continues to provide room for the perpetration of such crimes. In many instances such practices can be linked to long held cultural practices involving Trial by Ordeal (TBO). TBO is the often the chosen approach adopted by local communities to address issues involving witchcraft.
However TBO, especially “Sassywood”, is outlawed under the Liberian Constitution and was declared unlawful since 1916 in a famous Supreme Court opinion JEDAH V. HORACE (1916) cited in the case POSUM V. PARDEE 4 L.L.R 299, 304-305 (1935).
The Supreme Court opined that: “With regard to the administration of sassy-wood which is in some cases an ordeal dangerous to life, we are of the opinion that while it is provided that the native and district courts shall administer the native customary law, we cannot admit the legality of a proceeding which is evidently intended to extort a confession from the accused, and which is in conflict with the organic law of the state, which declares that no one shall be compelled to give evidence against himself. Mr. Bouvier defines an ordeal to be an ancient superstitious mode of trial. 3 B.L.D., ‘Ordeal.’ Any custom which panders to the superstition of the natives of the country is, in our opinion, contrary to the genius of our institutions and should therefore be discouraged.’’ ‘’On the whole we are of the opinion that the Traveling Commissioner had no jurisdiction over the persons of appellant or the crime with which they were charged; that the administration of sassy-wood in any case is illegal and that the judgment of the court below should be reversed and the injunction perpetuated; and it is so ordered.’’
And the Supreme Court has gone further by making Trial by Ordeal a criminal offense punishable by law. In the case WION v. REPUBLIC OF LIBERIA 29 L.L.R 71, 89 (1982) the Supreme Court decided that: “Trials by native ordeal in which the bark sassywood is administered internally is forbidden. Any person who administers, authorizes, permits, orders, aids, promotes or otherwise participates in the administration of such an ordeal shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be fined an amount not exceeding $200.00, and if death occurs as a result of the ordeal, all such persons shall be prosecuted under the appropriate provisions of the Penal Law. The doing of an act forbidden by Law is in itself criminal and so if death ensues by the doing of such act, even though there was no intent to kill, the doer of such act will be guilty of murder.”
But according to social scientists, the belief in witchcraft and occult forces is widespread not only in Africa but also in communities around the world. In Cameroon for instance, witchcraft, black magic and divination have been institutionalized as crimes. Observers however note that this approach has been fraught with evidential problems of proof.
In some instances vigorous pursuit of witches have created a situation wherein witch doctors and wizards have become expert witnesses thus, in effect, creating blurred lines between the accused and accuser. In such cases the standard of proof is at best subjective and bereft of evidentiary standards of proof.
In Liberia, weak rule of law and the dichotomy created by the existence of a dual system of laws, traditional and statutory has often led to situations wherein local communities find themselves left to their own devices to address problems especially those involving perceived violence against persons or threats against the community through witchcraft or other occult means.
Most often, elderly people, especially women, are the usual suspects accused of witchcraft. In some cases even children and individuals suffering from Alzheimers Disease are accused of being witches. One fact which stands out in all this is the gender dimension evidenced by empirical findings which show that the majority of accused witches are women.
While Human Rights practitioners often deny the validity of witchcraft accusations arguing that witches do not exist, yet after more than several centuries past, according to social scientists, there is no evidence showing that local communities have abandoned their beliefs in and narratives about witchcraft simply by being told that witches do not exist.
Accusations of witchcraft are occurring today in communities around the globe. Startling accounts of torture, starvation, abandonment and death have been documented. Accused witches have been executed by hanging, burying alive, drowning and burning, with paraffin or petrol thrown at them to ignite the fire. Victims are often from vulnerable groups: the elderly, the disabled and increasingly over the past two decades, children. (UNHCR & Fahamu Trust 2012 ).
From all the above, this newspaper shares the view of Taussig-Rubbo (2011) who argue that there is very little difference between vigilante violence and that perpetrated against suspected or perceived witches which is strongly suggestive of a breakdown in “social institutions that should protect communities both from the harms perpetrated by witches and the violence of the attackers”.
This kind of mindless violence has to stop; local communities and especially the Government of Liberia have the duty to ensure that it does. We Must All Play Our Part To Stop Mob Violence!