During the last week of September, news broke that a 60-year-old woman had been killed at her home in northern Ghana by a young male relative.
“All that I know is that she is suspected of witchcraft,” Zakari Iddi, the woman’s brother-in-law, told Citi Newsroom.
The murder comes on the heels of recent efforts by Christian leaders and the Ghanian government to protect the lives of those like the victim, often older or elderly women, who have been accused of witchcraft and been subsequently abused, exiled, or killed.
This year, the Parliament of Ghana unanimously passed a bill criminalizing all witchcraft accusations. The legislation threatens accusers with five years in prison and declares that the accuser must also financially compensate the person he or she accused (including for legal fees and counseling).
The bill was introduced by parliamentarian Francis Xavier Sosu, who grew up seeing people—who he often believed were just struggling with mental illness—accused of witchcraft, beaten up, and attacked.
“I recall that it got to a point I was not too sure whether the bill will be passed or not, but I had to call people to go into prayer and raise some prayer altars,” said Sosu. “[Passing this bill is] an incursion into some demonic world using legislation, so it required prayers, intercession.”
‘Lives are at stake’
In 2010, five men, including an evangelical pastor, set an old woman accused of witchcraft on fire. Despite widespread condemnation from those outside the country and the Ghanian government, the country returned to “business as usual,” said John Azumah, founding executive director of The Sanneh Institute, an organization that studies religion in Africa.
In July 2020, a similar death occurred through lynching. In response, the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council (GPCC) called for new laws about how to better take care of the more than 2,000 widows who had been exiled over allegations of working with demons.
These efforts were supported by the Coalition Against Witchcraft Accusations (CAWA), a group that includes The Sanneh Institute, Songtaba, Women International League for Peace and Freedom, ActionAid Ghana, Legal Resources Centre, and Amnesty International. As part of CAWA’s campaign, they petitioned the president and other top government officials to ban witch accusations, close “so-called witch camps” in the northern region, create safe houses, and set up a victim support fund.
While many Christian leaders celebrated Parliament’s passing of the bill, senior pastors who run deliverance ministries have expressed concern to Sosu that it may curb their work, as they have taught their junior pastors that making witchcraft accusations is allowable if the name of the accused person is not said aloud.
After the bill passed in July, some pastors banded together to mount a campaign against it, said Azumah. But he hasn’t see their opposition as threatening.
“We know the president will sign this bill in the blink of an eye because he supports it,” he said. “The speaker of parliament … is passionately against this practice, and he wants the bill to be passed.”
Nevertheless, despite this high-level support, the bill has yet to be signed into law. According to Ghana’s constitution, bills passed by Parliament must be signed by the president within seven days, unless he refers the bill to the citizen advisory board for consideration and comments.
In this instance, Sosu says the majority leader, who did not attend the vote, has delayed the bill because of amendments he is seeking to make—an intervention Azumah called “very unusual.”
Since then, Parliament has since recessed.
CT reached out to majority leader Osei Kyei-Mensah-Bonsu as well as several of those opposed to the bill but did not hear back by press time.
“Any day that it delays in the signing of this bill into law is a day for the torture of these women to continue. Just last week another woman has been killed,” said commissioner Joseph Whittal, of the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, at the end of September. He emphasized how critical it was for the president to pass the bill “as soon as possible, because lives are at stake.”
Deliverance from witches and demons
Long part of African traditional beliefs and superstitions, Christians have often addressed witchcraft through prayer meetings and deliverance sessions. (71 percent of Ghanaians identify as Christian, and nearly a third are Pentecostal.)
Even today, more than 90 percent of Ghanaian Christians believe witchcraft is a problem in the country, and more than half have visited a Pentecostal prayer camp to ask for deliverance from witches and demons, according to a study by former GPCC president Opoku Onyinah.
But when Protestant missionaries arrived in the 19th century, their theology often clashed with these understandings, failing to acknowledge the importance of the supernatural in the African traditional worldview.
“Historic mission Christianity has generally been dismissive of African traditional worldviews on the reality of demons and witchcraft as figments of people’s imagination,” wrote J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, a Ghanian Pentecostal scholar. “Pentecostalism, on the other hand, evokes powerful responses in Africa because it affirms the ‘enchanted’ worldview of indigenous peoples by taking these views seriously, and presenting an interventionist theology through which the fears and insecurities of African Christians are dealt with.”
Prophetic and deliverance ministries seem to have found a point of mediation between African indigenous worldviews and biblical stories of healing, deliverance, and prophetic guidance, according to scholar and church leader Christian Tsekpoe. In this way, “perceived life-threatening fears could be dealt with through prophetic utterances, healing and exorcism,” he wrote.
Today in Africa, “successful Christian ministry (i.e., ministry with significant personal relevance and impact) is impossible unless one takes into account the supernatural evil implied by the word ‘witchcraft,’” Asamoah-Gyadu wrote. He believes the growth of African Independent or Initiated Churches in the early 20th century corresponded to the “inability of Western missions to come to terms with the reality of supernatural evil, especially witchcraft, and to articulate a Christian pastoral response to it.”
Nonetheless, Tsekpoe said that Pentecostal churches face a major challenge: the abuse of prophetic and deliverance ministries. He believes “charlatans” and the “unemployed who have strong personalities” can “easily claim spiritual encounters and exploit innocent people.”
What would Jesus do?
Though witchcraft suggests the cosmic forces of good and evil, accusations can often be invoked over mundane and personal reasons. Azumah says that as women have begun to become more economically independent, men who have felt threatened or slighted have increasingly accused women of witchcraft.
It’s “an age-old conspiracy to keep women in their ‘place,’” he continued. In contrast, he’s observed that when men are accused of witchcraft, it’s often rationalized that they’re using this for “good” purposes. He believes this thinking is a “very troubling, gender-based, misogynistic mindset” that Ghanaians should challenge.
Witchcraft accusations are a widespread issue in Ghana, but they are more likely to affect the northern part of the country, including the Dagomba and Konkomba communities, which suffer from poverty, underdevelopment, and lack of education. The region is also home to many families who practice polygamy, creating situations that can breed jealousy and strife between wives.
“If you have two women, or three women, or four women, and one woman’s children are doing well, and the other woman’s children are not doing well, the other women will [accuse her of using] witchcraft to steal the fortunes and the wisdom of their children and give [them] to her children.”
But even if an accusation starts as a result of a dispute between family or friends, the parties may then end up consulting deliverance ministries, where the violence and dehumanizing treatment can come into play.
“What I am against and am opposed to is going out there to accuse people and malign people and damage their reputations … that can even lead to causing them harm or their murders,” said Azumah. “If you really believe that there are witches who are after you, as a good Christian, you should take it to prayer, and you should deal with it in the context of spiritual warfare.”
The role of the local pastor is to care for individuals who are victims of the devil’s oppression, he adds.
Sosu, who has previously worked with deliverance ministries, similarly says that, rather than accusing someone as a witch, Christians who are afraid a witch is pursuing them should fast and pray. As for Christian leaders, they should follow the example of Jesus, who cast out demons but did so without accusing the individual.
A final important element is the individual’s own relationship with God.
“The power at the believer’s disposal, which makes him or her a child of God, must be the focus, and not witchcraft power,” wrote Ghanian Pentecostal leader Kwasi Atta Agyapong “What emerges clearly from the ministry of those who subscribe to the excesses in the witchcraft beliefs is the ignorance of their identity in Christ.”