On Wednesday night, I’m about to sit down for another dinner of beans when I hear the mob approaching. Parades of people through Kagoro aren’t uncommon; usually, people are marching to celebrate their religion or a major holiday. But these voices aren’t praising God or singing Christmas carols. I don’t need to speak Hausa to recognize the wave of anger that’s coming toward my house. I assume that it must be a demonstration against NEPA, since the community has been without electricity for the past four days. Similar angry outbursts have erupted in other communities after prolonged outages, so it makes sense that my neighbours have taken to the streets to show their displeasure. The district chief lives across the road from me, literally a stone’s throw, so the crowd comes to a stop right in front of my house. The number of people begins to swell, as those trailing behind finally catch up to the others who have taken their position on the road. Angry shouts come from all directions, and a few of the people push their way into the chief’s house. Having confirmed that the mob isn’t here to get me, I decide to stop peeking from behind my living room curtain and find out what’s going on.
My front door makes more noise than a medieval drawbridge, so my entry into the front yard doesn’t go unnoticed. As is usually the case, a spotlight shines on me, though people are less interested in me than they normally are. I approach a couple of teenagers sitting on the wall next to the road and scare the hell out of one of them by tapping him on the shoulder. He and his friend have no idea what’s going on and just joined the crowd because it was there. As we talk, more villagers stream into the chief’s yard, until it’s clogged with people yelling at his house. NEPA still seems the most likely culprit, but no one is giving me any answers. Finally, one of the security guards for my house shows up and I ask him what’s going on. As it turns out, NEPA is the furthest thing from people’s minds.
Yashen explains that the mob has formed to demand some answers about a four-year-old girl who disappeared three days ago. She and her mother were returning from a trip into the Kagoro mountains when her mother, carrying food and other items, decided she couldn’t manage both her load and her daughter. Spotting a stranger headed in the same direction, she asked him to go ahead with the girl while she continued behind them. She asked the man to drop her daughter by a bridge that spans the river north of the village. After losing sight of the two of them, the woman met up with a friend and lost some time in conversation. Arriving at the bridge, she found no one there, and her daughter has been missing ever since.
Eventually, the man was located and he pled his innocence, saying he left the girl at the bridge as instructed and moved on. No trace of the girl has been found by the bridge or elsewhere. Word soon spread through Kagoro of the girl’s disappearance, but rather than contacting the police, who are widely regarded as both ineffective and corrupt, a native doctor was brought in the next day to find the girl. Native doctors, also called witch doctors by some, have considerable power and influence in communities like Kagoro. Described as having two pairs of eyes, one for the material world and one for the realm of the spirits, native doctors are often consulted when unexplained occurrences strike a community. In this case, the local native doctor was seen as the best chance to locate the missing girl. Blaming the disappearance on witchcraft, the doctor promised he would contact those responsible and bring the girl back, dead or alive - after receiving his fee, of course. He set a deadline of two days to produce the girl, assuring the community that she would be returned by Wednesday night. When the deadline passed without any sign of the girl, the villagers became furious and organized the rally leading to the present scene unfolding in front of me.
Where whispers of witchcraft begin circulating, people soon lose the capacity for reason and rumours become gospel. At various points in the evening, all of those involved with the girl on that day are identified as suspects in her disappearance. A secret cabal involving everyone she met is even constructed and blamed. Vigilante justice is as fierce in this community as it is elsewhere in Nigeria, so anyone suspected of a crime is immediately at risk of a beating or worse. Stories of people being beaten to death or buried alive in retaliation for a death are repeated throughout the country. As the rumours swirl through the evening, the mother of the girl is taken into the chief’s home for her own protection. The native doctor is also called in to explain what he has accomplished so far. At some point, the police are also summoned, because two members of the force show up and enter the chief’s house. Though seething at this point, the mob continues to be well-behaved and holds off on carrying out its threat to start burning buildings, an outrageous plan that few believe anyway.
Finally, after consulting all of those involved, the chief appears outside his home and addresses the crowd. He explains that the native doctor has been assigned the responsibility of finding those involved and reporting back to the chief by the next evening. Those whom he has identified will then be summoned to the chief’s house and ordered to produce the girl or they will be turned over to the police. In a community as small as Kagoro, keeping the suspects’ identities a secret will be next to impossible, so the greater danger faced by those involved will come not from the law but from their fellow villagers.
The next night, as instructed, the native doctor comes to the chief’s house and identifies the suspects. He points the finger at the mother and explains that she and a group of others are involved in the girl’s disappearance. I somehow doubt that he reached this conclusion through CSI-approved methods, but his word was good enough for the police, who take the mother into custody. Under interrogation, the mother confesses that she is responsible for the sacrifice of her daughter, but upon release, she recants, saying she was intimidated into giving her confession. She has yet to be formally charged with anything. No one else has been brought into custody. Somewhat surprisingly, the community’s reaction to all of this has been muted, and it appears that if the mother is indeed responsible, she will suffer no retribution from the villagers, as it is her own child that she has killed, and such matters are left to be dealt with inside the family and by the law, if it proceeds that far.
In the meantime, the little girl is still gone and is unlikely to ever be found, dead or alive. This is the tragedy. Forget about who’s to blame and whether witchcraft or the belief in it played a role. A child has disappeared as a result of neglect or malice and that’s a terrible, horrible shame.
By coincidence, I completed a proposal this week that requests funding from the Canadian International Development Agency to establish an Advocacy Centre for Children within the Fantsuam Foundation, the organization where I've been working for the past five months. The focus of the Advocacy Centre will be to raise awareness within the local communities of the rights of children and to lobby the state government to adopt measures already in place in other parts of the country, including the Child’s Rights Act that the National Assembly passed into law five years ago. Here’s hoping that the funding comes through. As this story amply demonstrates, children here need all of the help they can get.