Uzokwe's Searchlight

The reader may pass off belief in voodoo as something prevalent only amongst people in the lower rung of the social and economic ladder or the less educated. The truth is that this belief permeates every facet of the society. Even many of the so-called educated elite hold very strongly to this belief.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe


igerians, including this writer, always complain about the ills that have made it difficult for the nation to reach her maximum potentials. We talk about corruption and greed in government circles. We talk about the absence of patriotism and the entrenchment of ethnicity and tribal jingoism. We lament the upsurge of armed robbery, poverty, joblessness and the likes. Granted, all of the above set Nigeria backwards but there is a particular issue or belief that continues to stunt Nigeria's socio-political and economic progress. It looks every citizen in the face every day but no one has made bold to call it what it is. I am talking about the belief some Nigerians have in the power and potency of voodoo. Let me first say that this is not just a Nigerian thing, it is also prevalent in most African nation as well as the Caribbean but for the sake of this commentary, I will concentrate on Nigeria.

I decided to address this issue because of a story I recently read. It was about trafficking of young Nigerian girls, across our borders, to far away places like Italy to work as sex slaves. The story is bad enough but what really caught my attention was the part that read,
"Another major factor oiling the wheel of trafficking in the country is voodoo. Insiders in the trafficking business say that once arrangements for victims' trips abroad are completed, traffickers seal the deal by taking the victims to shrines of voodoo priests for oath taking. There, victims are made to swear that they would never reveal the identities of their traffickers to anyone if arrested whether in the course of the journey or in the destination countries."
The paper further reports,
"When traffickers are arrested in Nigeria, victims have often failed to show up in court to testify against them for fear that they would die if they violate the oaths they took. In administering the oaths, traffickers usually collect the finger nails, menstrual blood and pubic hairs of the girls in preparing concoctions. NAPTIP's Deputy Director of Prosecution and Legal Services, Mr. Abdulrahim Shaibu, said his agency had had difficulty prosecuting traffickers because victims are afraid of juju and are hardly forthcoming." [Punch Online, Oct 24, 2008]

The above is indicative of the extent to which a segment of Nigerians allow their belief in voodoo to dictate what they do in life. Clearly, human trafficking is despicable. It endangers the lives of young Nigerian women, exposes them to deadly ailments like AIDS and embarrasses their families as well as the Nigerian nation. With all these negatives, it is mind boggling that the women, who are the victims, believe so much in the retaliatory powers of voodoo that they are unwilling to cooperate with prosecutors to put away the men who orchestrate their plight in far away countries. Their refusal to cooperate has made it difficult for the crime to be curbed. As a corollary, Nigeria's image continues to be tarnished internationally because we are seen as sending sex slaves to foreign nations.

The reader may pass off belief in voodoo as something prevalent only amongst people in the lower rung of the social and economic ladder or the less educated. The truth is that this belief permeates every facet of the society. Even many of the so-called educated elite hold very strongly to this belief. A friend of mine that works in one of the ministries in Lagos once told me about his harrowing experience in the work place. The position he was occupying was highly sought after in the ministry. To make matters worse, his colleagues felt that they were bypassed for the job and so wanted to see him removed. He told gory tales of how he would come to work some mornings and find charms and amulets placed in strategic locations in his office. Sometimes, "they would sprinkle ash-like powdered substance on my table", he said. His secretary even started telling him stories of how office politics culminated in the use of voodoo to end the life of a man she knew. This went on for a period of time without effect but after a while, the man started experiencing panic attacks periodically. The sight of the charms and amulets began to basically paralyze his mind to the point that he could no longer concentrate on his work. He became less productive, always thinking of what to do. Whenever he felt sick, which became a more frequent occurrence, he would wonder if the end was near for him because of the voodoo. This story attests to the fact that voodoo, in the workplace, actually reduces productivity. The victims of voodoo shenanigans become paralyzed with fear, become afflicted with ailments that go with unsettled minds like hypertension and in the long run, become less productive. The perpetrators, on the other hand, spend the time they should be using for work in plotting the next move. It is sickening! I have since talked to other people who note that this happens in more office settings than one would ever care to know.

During the administration of Dr Chris Ngige in Anambra state, the issue of voodoo reared its ugly head. The governor was forced to sign a resignation letter by godfathers who helped finance his campaign. The quagmire generated by this issue stalled governance in the state for a long time. As the issue played out, the godfathers of the governor began to reveal alarming details of how he was allegedly taken to Okija shrine to swear an oath in front of a deity. He, according to them, had pledged to pay them their due if he became the governor. Trouble started when Ngige ascended power but refused to allow his godfathers the type of access they wanted. They went after him, reminding him of his pledge at the Okija shrine. Ngige later denied swearing at Okija but as far as this writer is concerned, tales of voodoo should not even be coming from the seat of power of a state government. Ngige is a well-read man, a medical doctor and many of the people that constituted his godfathers are also up there in education. Yet they have this belief in inanimate objects to the point that they allowed issues pertaining to it to paralyze government activities for a long time in Anambra State. What Nigerians learned from that saga was that belief in voodoo was having a profoundly negative effect in many government circles not just in Anambra state. We hear how highly placed government officials, in the western states, go to juju priests to get "fortified" so their "enemies" would not get them. Some even go to consult the juju priests to get some direction on how to run the affairs of government, setting the states and the nation backwards with their primitive beliefs.

And then there is the belief, by some people, that ailments could be sent by "evil people" via voodoo. The belief is that if an ailment is sent via voodoo, then trying to treat it with western medicine actually exacerbates it. As a result, people with all manners of ailments choose to go to the native doctors or juju priests instead of seeking western intervention. I once narrated the story of a childhood classmate of mine. The last time I saw this guy was in the early 80s before I left for the United States. About 15 years later, I was told by a mutual friend that he died. Obviously shocked, I asked what happened. The story was that he ventured into business and began to do well. As a result, his neighbor at the store became jealous of him and did something to him that made him sick. His problem started with constant stomach pains; then he developed what felt like a solid lump in his stomach. This continued over many months and was diagnosed as "mbe afo" or "turtle in the stomach". It got its name because of the hardness of the lump and the ringing sound it made when someone tapped the guy's stomach with the back of the hand. They likened it to the sound that tapping the shell of a turtle makes.

Because of the belief that the ailment was planted via voodoo, when the stomach pains first started, my classmate was taken to a native doctor who gave him some concoctions to ingest. Instead of improving, his condition continued to worsen. It was only after he died that it was discovered that he actually had stomach cancer - some type of squamous cell carcinoma!

This type of story is not only peculiar to my former classmate. In Nigeria today, for some reason, there is diabetes everywhere. Of course, if not properly managed, diabetes comes with opportunistic ailments like eye problems and most notably, sore and gangrene. In a conversation with a medical doctor, back in Nigeria, he complained bitterly about how some diabetics at different stages of diabetic gangrene or sores, attribute it to the handiwork of "evil people". Instead of doing what doctors normally advice diabetics to do, which is control diet, exercise and take certain medications, patients go to native doctors or juju priests that tell them that the sickness is "enyi ule" or decay of the leg caused by "evil people". They then start ingesting massive doses of concoctions from native doctors that end up taking their lives.

A while ago, a contemporary told me the story of a conversation he once had with a lady friend of his. That was after he came back from Nigeria where he had gone to attend the funeral ceremony of his father. The friend called him up to commiserate with him on the loss of his father. They had a long conversation but just before the lady hung up, she asked one last question, "so have you guys determined who killed your father?". My contemporary was stunned by the question because no one told the lady or anyone that his father was killed by anyone and yet this lady was asking the question so self assuredly. "He died of natural causes", my contemporary responded to the lady. She was not convinced. She went on to tell him how her own father died and it was determined that one of their very close relatives had sent the sickness that killed him via diabolism.

This type of silly belief is rampant all over Nigeria and Africa and is taking a devastating toll on many families where allegations and counter allegations of diabolism abound. In such discordant families, people are always suspicious of one another and when someone dies, the death must be attributed to someone somewhere. I once had to counsel someone by saying that if human beings truly possessed the power to send sickness to others through the air, then everyone would be dead because they would be exerting that power with alacrity. God was cognizant of the propensity of human beings to abuse power and so decided not to grant mortals with that type of extraordinary power.

It is a pity that these pathetic beliefs are partly responsible for the proliferation of false prophets and false churches in Nigeria. The "prophets" keep their churches afloat and maintain their congregation by giving false prophecies to vulnerable congregants against innocent people. They use such prophecies to hold on to their prey mindless of how much animosity and friction they create amongst families and friends.

The ramifications of rampant belief in voodoo can be found in every facet of life in Nigeria. In 1986, a notorious armed robber called Lawrence Aninih and his cohort, Monday Osunbor, took control of Benin City and environs. They terrorized citizens in every sense of the word. Their operations paralyzed commercial activities for a period of time as they waylaid and snatched trailer-loads of goods and summarily shot those who dared to stand in their way. Even the police was not spared by the bandits. At checkpoints, they shot at the police and in the end, took the lives of nine policemen. Most easterners that lived in Lagos, at that time, dreaded traveling back to the east for fear of running into Aninih and his group of bandits. You always planned your trip in such a way that you bypassed Benin City before 3:00PM.

It was during the Babangida regime and as far as one could tell, he was embarrassed by the development. That was evident in his action during one of the armed forces ruling council meeting. As the Inspector General of Police was about to enter the meeting room, Babangida quipped, "My friend, where is Aninih?" That line was carried on the front page of every newspaper in Nigeria the next day. It was an embarrassment to the IG, who promptly replied that he was working on catching Aninih.

After months of sustained man hunt, it took the courage of a police constable to bring Aninih down. Aninih was in the house of one of his female friends when the police got a tip and the constable followed him there. The constable emptied a magazine of bullets into his legs, demobilizing and taking the elusive Aninih alive.

The most intriguing thing, about the whole saga, was that while the whole nation huddled in fear of Aninih and began to alter their life styles to avoid falling into his net, the man operated openly in Benin City, sometimes acting as a modern day Robin Hood by distributing his stolen booties to the "poor" in the market place. He did not seem to be bothered by the fact that he was a wanted man neither did he seem to be worried about being caught. It was reported that when the police finally caught up with him, he had assorted charms and amulets around his neck. Some were littered all over the room where he was staying with his female companions. Inotherwords, his belief in voodoo provided him with the Dutch courage with which he operated. The charms prepared for him by some native doctor made him feel invincible. He believed that with the charms, he could never be caught and even if shot at by the police, the bullets were not going to hurt him.

His female friends also believed in his charms so much that they were not afraid to hang around a man that was on the news every night as being hunted by the police. It has become the norm that every time armed robbers are caught, proper search reveals charms on and around them. This is a clear indication that belief in voodoo is fueling armed robbery.

For the reader that may doubt how much these robbers and the native doctors believe in the efficacy of the charms, the following story should provide some answers. Sometime in the year 2000, one of the Nigerian dailies reported that in Northern Nigeria, an armed robber approached a native doctor to prepare charms for him that would prevent bullets from penetrating his body. After preparing the charm, the native doctor was so sure of what he had done and its potency that he invited the armed robber to put it to test. Wearing the charm around his neck, the native doctor positioned himself in front of the robber and asked him to fire his gun at him. The robber, who was sure that the native doctor knew what he was doing, obliged. The first and only shot shattered the native doctor's skull to smithereens. In alarm, the robber fled but the deed was already done and a man was dead! This incident is a sober reminder of how much voodoo beliefs are helping to fuel the issue of robbery which is on the rise in Nigeria.

In Nigeria today, security of life and property is one of the greatest concerns that citizens have. No day passes that incidents of armed robbery and death of innocent people are not reported. People build perimeter walls around their houses so high and with security barbed wires that residential buildings look more like jails. Citizens alter their live styles to avoid becoming targets. For so many, going to the bank to withdraw money is now a hypertension-inducing thought because they wonder if they are being followed by men of the underworld. Clearly, living in an environment where one has to be in constant fear of being mugged or shot at is very nerve-racking but incidents of armed robbery is causing more damage to the nation than just making people nervous. Armed robbery dampens the enthusiasm of foreign investors from coming to Nigeria and discourages some Diaspora Nigerians from traveling back home even on visits. I know Nigerian families here in the USA that keep postponing visits to the country on account of security. The reader might say if they do not want to come, nobody cares. The truth, though, is that Nigerians who visit the country from western nations do inject substantial amounts of foreign exchange into the system and help sustain local economies during their stay.

No matter how we dice it, any attempt at holistic development of Nigeria must include a deliberate campaign to debunk certain myths and primitive beliefs that make people do the wrong things or go in the wrong direction. As the police make efforts to bring armed robbery under control, they must not discount the idea of mass anti-voodoo education. That would help extricate, from the life of crime, young men and women that get into crime believing that charms would protect them. If the efficacy and potency of the charms are disputed and discounted, we may start seeing less and less incidents of armed robbery. It may seem laughable to start telling people not to believe in juju and voodoo, but if a plague as serious as armed robbery must be curbed, a multi-pronged counter measure needs to be instituted.

The concluding part will be out next week