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Witch or witch-hunt?

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witch-or-witch-hunt?

Editorial

GIVEN existential realities in the country, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) evaluation of the percentage of Nigerians requiring psychiatric evaluation, which it put at 30 per cent of the population, could be an understatement. Indeed, some experts have suggested that the figures might be in the region of 40-45 per cent. To worsen matters, despite the huge pointers to the preponderance of mentally ill Nigerians, we have less than 300 qualified mental health workers to attend to their needs, in a country of about 200 million people.

On a daily basis, evidence of several actions of the mentally ill are reported in the media, and those are just the ones that are easily accessible to both the media and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). Many others remain unreported in a country without viable statistics of citizens and their health concerns.

The story of one Gladys, a mother of eight, in Orerokpe area of Delta State, that was locked up by her husband, 41 years old Ame Edjeket, on the allegation of witchcraft, for four years, within which she bore him three more children in addition to the five she had earlier, has the imprint of an unbalanced mental health state on both sides. She is reported to have been in such a dehumanised situation that she was left to stew literally in her urine and faeces for the four years, until she was rescued a few days ago by an NGO headed by one Harrison Gwamnishu of the Behind Bars Defenders Foundation, after being alerted by the community.

It is instructive that the alleged ‘crime’ of the poor woman is witchcraft, a metaphor-tool that some communities and even some pastors have used to harass and often lynch both young and adult members of the society. Like an untreated sore, the negligence of the Nigerian state in criminalising, arresting, conclusively prosecuting and punishing perpetrators of such evil and unverifiable allegations has continued to make some unfortunate Nigerians scapegoats of some mentally challenged people who take laws into their hands, by alleging crimes they have no medical or social proof of.

This woman has been mentally damaged, perhaps for life. For Gladys, what is the fate of the eight child1ren that came from such a union? How could she play her mothering roles from the cage where she had been locked up for years? Given that she was poorly fed with only bread, how could she have had the nutrients needed to incubate three babies?

To further buttress the poor psychiatric state of the husband, he alleged that the wife was responsible for his poor financial status; yet, he was allegedly co-habiting with his mistress, while still having sex with his caged wife.

We condemn the societal hypocrisy of accommodating bullish behaviour in different forms. He was merely acting out what he had seen done to alleged ‘witches’. People take laws into their hands in ways that either physical or spiritual might is seen as right. Sometimes, either herbalists or pastors tag innocent people witches in their bid to point fingers to claim a spiritual power they lack.

In recent times, several ‘Alfas’ and fake rehabilitation centres have been uncovered in the country, with hundreds of inmates with horrendous tales. Gladys might be lucky to be alive, but many other victims of such senseless allegations have not been lucky. There are several cases of wives and other women locked up for one reason or the other by husbands, boyfriends, fathers or brothers, in a show of crass patriarchy, killing and maiming most.

This is clear evidence of failure of government to care for the overall health of citizens. While we condemn the perpetrators, we equally acknowledge that they themselves are victims because their mental health is questionable. In a country of fatalistic people, mental health is not given the needed attention because most manifestations of psychiatric cases are quickly given a spiritual interpretation. In the case of Gladys, more than 10 humans are directly affected by the mental state of the man who even alleged that he took the woman to her family and they rejected her, and he equally took her to herbalists and spiritualists, without help.

Governments in Nigeria must begin to take mental health more seriously; they must put in place a system to address social welfare issues, as well as educate and assist citizens with mental health challenges, to avoid the usual recourse to fatalism.

We hope justice would be done in this case to serve as a deterrent to the crime.

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