Studies have noted that the police in Africa cannot tackle witchcraft accusations; the police refuse to protect the accused because police officers believe in witchcraft and allow their personal witchcraft fears, and anxieties to determine their work and profession. Scholars have put forth this argument not only to explain the manifestation of witchcraft accusations in contemporary Africa, but also to justify the inability of modernity to diminish and neutralize allegations of witchcraft. However, some cases from Nigeria, Ghana, and Malawi indicate otherwise and show an imbalance in this argument and explanation.
These cases clearly illustrate that this understanding of the manifestations of witchcraft beliefs is one-sided and does not reflect the situation of policing and how modernity relates to the phenomenon of witchcraft accusations in post-colonial Africa. Let us take a recent case from Malawi. An online news media, Zodiak reported it. It states: “Police in Neno has been keeping an 89-year-old man at Zalewa roadblock for three weeks after an angry mob descended on the granny at Kasamba village in the area of Senior Chief Symon on allegations that he bewitched his grandson”. A police public relations officer, Austin Kamwendo, told this news media “that the man, Binwell Chabwera, was staying with his grandson since his childhood but on the 26th of August the grandson died after a short illness”. The officer further explained that “soon after the death of the grandson, an angry mob wanted to kill Chabwera accusing him of having a hand in the death of his grandson”. The police are appealing to the institutions that take care of the elderly to come to their rescue because they can no longer afford to feed the man due to financial constraints, and his home village is still hostile.
As this case shows, the police protect the accused and try to address cases of witchcraft accusation. The police take measures to ensure that accusers do not harm alleged witches. But, as this case from Malawi has illustrated, the police are limited in their powers and abilities. Police powers vary from rural to urban areas. The police have and exercise more powers in the capital Lilongwe or in the city of Blantyre than in other places. There is more police presence in urban than in rural communities. In urban centers, the police posts have more resources, officers, and equipment to do their work. But in rural communities, they are constrained. Police officers are few and far apart. The police are in a better position to protect and defend the accused in the city centers than in villages. The police respond to witchcraft accusations based on their ability and capacity. The police use their facilities to ensure that accused persons are not attacked or killed. In this case, the police provided the accused some refuge at a checkpoint. They shield him from attack and harm. However, after three weeks, the police are appealing for help because they could no longer cater for him. The police in the area were getting overstretched. Hence, the police asked those institutions that take care of the elderly to come to their help.
The Advocacy for Alleged Witches commends the police in Malawi for protecting the accused. Such an instance indicates that the police fulfill some role in protecting the accused. Alleged witches are innocent and need police protection. The laws of Malawi guarantee their rights, safety and protection. However, the AfAW has noted the importance of institutional synergy in the flight against witch persecution in the region. Institutional energy is necessary because no one institution can do it alone. African governments and people need to pull resources together, fill in existing gaps and maximize existing facilities to end witch persecutions in the region. As the case from Malawi has demonstrated, the police need to work with homes for the elderly, orphanage centers, and other agencies to address the problem. The police, courts, other governmental and nongovernmental institutions should collaborate in combating and ending witchcraft accusations and witch persecutions in the region.
Leo Igwe directs the Advocacy for Alleged Witches which aims to end witch persecution in Africa by 2030