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Witchcraft in Africa: Political Power and Spiritual Insecurity from the Precolonial Era to the Present  

Sean Redding

Historically, witchcraft in Africa has not comprised a stable or uniform set of beliefs. The idea of witchcraft, which might loosely be defined as the belief that people exist who use supernatural means to harm others, has existed in African societies from the precolonial, through the colonial, and into the postcolonial periods. But ideas about the kinds of powers that witches are alleged to use and the types of people often accused of using witchcraft have shifted in response to the changing political, economic, and social landscape. While witchcraft beliefs can sometimes be understood as metaphors for political forces and social ills, they must also be understood as separate systems of signs and meanings that have their own historical trajectories rooted in local cultures. Beliefs in witchcraft are beliefs in systems of power derived from unseen forces, and for those people who believe in supernatural powers those forces are quite real and are not merely metaphorical allusions to other phenomena. In the precolonial era, the political power that many chiefs and kings had was based in supernatural powers; these occult powers were potentially usable for either positive, socially accepted ends or for evil, selfish, and greedy ends. In the colonial and postcolonial eras, states and politicians have also been seen to have supernatural powers but are believed to have used them largely for self-enrichment or empowerment. Systems of global trade, including the trans-Atlantic slave trade and later colonial production of various commodities, both created wealth for a few and inflicted harm on many people. The perceived immorality of these economic and social networks was often captured in stories of witches ambushing people and selling them or consuming their life forces. The spiritual insecurity represented in these beliefs in witchcraft has continued into the postcolonial era.

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Witchcraft in Liberia  

Henryatta L. Ballah

In Liberian cosmology, the spirit world influences and regulates all aspects of daily life, for good and evil. Liberians of various religious backgrounds—Indigenous faiths, Christianity, and Islam—believe in the supernatural abilities of witches to cause misery to and even kill their victims. Throughout Liberia’s history, most accused witches have been women and people with physical disabilities. Since the 1990s, Liberia has witnessed a surge in violence against women and children, boys and girls, accused of witchcraft. Scholars see this surge as a reaction to mass violence and socio-economic uncertainty—the country’s fourteen-year civil war, massive unemployment, state corruption, lack of adequate health care and educational infrastructure, and more. Many accused witches in this period, like in precolonial Liberia are from low socio-economic backgrounds, and they are often attacked physically and sexually, with impunity. And yet, while Liberian national laws criminalize violence against women and children, efforts to combat witchcraft violence through legal means have been minimal and ineffective. This is partly the result of how laws and policies were conceptualized and implemented in Liberia by international organizations, such as the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and Amnesty International, during post-civil war reconstruction of the country (2003–2010). Lack of funding and Liberians’ persistent belief in the power of witchcraft, including politicians, help to explain why little has been done to eradicate witchcraft violence against women and children.