Rt. Rev. Professor J.O.Y. Mante, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana
For decades now, the Ghana government, churches, civil society organizations and many others have grappled with the menace of witchcraft-related violence. Unfortunately, just a few weeks ago, the learned and distinguished Rt. Rev. Professor J.O.Y. Mante, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, lent credence to witchcraft belief by accusing critics of a government building project of witchcraft. He quipped, as reported in Dailyguidenetwork that if "someone [that is government] says he wants to construct 111 hospitals and you are angry out there, it means you are indeed a witch or wizard incarnate. If you are a pastor looking for witchcraft to exorcise please look for this kind of witchcraft.” These words would seem to endorse the unfortunate practice of calling your adversaries, opponents or people you disagree with evil or borne of witchcraft. Indeed, the furor that greeted the moderator's words showed just how deeply felt the topic is.
Saying that one’s critics, rivals, and opponents are beholden to witchcraft takes the challenge away from rational debate and places it in the realm of the ethereal and the spiritual—a realm from which no argument can emanate except condemnation and punishment. Unfortunately, accusations of witchcraft permit neither presumption of innocence nor redemption. Once the accusation has been made, you become a ‘convicted’ witch. And even if you're not punished, you carry the scourge of accusation over your head for ever.
The idea of witchcraft in western countries today can sound quaint, harmless, or even charming. Think of Sabrina the teenage witch, think of the wizards in Harry Potter. These witches and wizards titillate and fire our imagination. And while the experience of watching movies or films may be hair-raising, encounters with these imaginary figures remain firmly in the imagination. There are no real real-life encounters with these magical figures; popular discourses of consumption in the west rarely register them. In many African countries by contrast, witchcraft remains salient in real-life consumption. These figures can and actually do physical harm to people.
In Ghana, many people believe that witchcraft is the cause of any number of ailments—death, illness, childlessness, failed exams, and joblessness. Some are quick to blame their financial, social, and psychological problems on the spiritual plotting of witches. People accused of witchcraft are assaulted for reasons that include revenge, punishment, confession, or exorcism. It is not a phenomenon to be trifled with, no less by the highest-placed representative of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. In some places, especially in the Northern Region, people accused of practicing witchcraft or being witches face physical brutalization and or death.
The publicized lynching of 90-year-old Madam Akua Denteh in Kafaba village square last year drew collective anger, shame, sympathy and condemnation across the country. The government, churches (including the Presbyterian Church under the current moderator), civil society groups and many others roundly condemned Madam Denteh's murder, promising to bring the perpetrators to book, close the very witch camps that women run to for safety, and work to purge the scourge of witchcraft. The very next month, another senior citizen, 60-year-old Meri Ibrahim, was subjected to similar violence. Fortunately, she survived, but the practice continues.
My own connection to the witchcraft accusation problem comes from my social justice driven enterprise, Homemade Shea. I work with women who have escaped to the haven of the Gnani witch camp, Northern Region, one of seven such camps in Ghana. I take fair employment in shea butter processing to them so that they can earn a livelihood, improve their social independence and hopefully dignity. In 2016, the Tindana or traditional priest and leader of the Gnani witch camp, told me that accused women whom he deems innocent by divination are free to leave the camp. But as mentioned earlier, accusation is as good as a guilty verdict, so for reasons of safety, the accused but declared-innocent individuals feel safer in the camp than returning to their homes to announce their innocence. Nobody wants them back.
Besides last year’s condemnation of Akua Denteh’s murder, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana itself, through its Go Home Project, started in 1994, reports that it has returned many accused people in the Gambaga witch camp to their homes. Other entities have worked to ameliorate the situation of accused persons. They include ActionAid Ghana, Social Development Centre, Federation of Women Lawyers, Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, Anti-Witchcraft Coalition Campaign, Songtaba, Management Aid, and the National Committee on Disbandment of Witch Camps in Northern Ghana. There continues to be vigorous debate about what to do with witch camps, the prevalence of witchcraft accusations, and witchcraft-driven violence. For some, congregating people in a camp as witches and denying them freedom to move about freely or the right to earn their livelihood wherever they'd like amounts to a gross abuse of human rights.
It is against this backdrop of abuse that we must understand the words of Rev. Professor Mante. Given his high standing and influence, it is most unfortunate that he chose to accuse those with whom he disagrees of witchcraft. One hopes that the moderator’s accusation was merely careless talk, though I note that no apology has been rendered. His words may be indicative of the scope and entrenchment of witchcraft belief
in the cultural and religious fabric of the country. If well-educated, higher-status individuals say such things, then it is perhaps not surprising that others not accustomed to rigorous intellectualizing readily assign spiritual blame for personal misfortunes on witchcraft. They in fact cast those stones that kill victims of accusation. Ill-uttered words of influential people can lend cultural relevance or religious gravitas to those who promote witchcraft-related violence.