Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan speaks to some of the Chibok schoolgirls who escaped Islamist captors and relatives of the hostages during a meeting at the presidency in Abuja on July 22, 2014. Wole Emmanuel/AFP/Getty Images
Back in July, Nigeria got some strange new allies in its war against Boko Haram: witches and wizards. At the height of the pitch and fury of the summer news cycle, an organized union of traditional healers, juju practitioners, and other varied mystics and mediums calling itself the Association of Nigerian Witches and Wizards (or WIZTAN) caught local headlines by boldly predicting that, before the year’s end, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, would be captured and paraded through the region. They offered their self-avowedly substantial powers to help make that a reality. (However, in a perhaps hedging note of pessimism, they predicted that not every kidnapped girl would return.) When the Nigerian government announced a ceasefire and the impending release of the schoolgirls earlier this month, it seemed for a moment that WIZTAN might have been onto something. But after yesterday’s news that 30 more children were abducted in a town in Borno state, it seems they’ve still got their work cut out for them.
At first blush WIZTAN seems like a one-off what the fuck story: a mysterious alliance of witches and wizards pops up out of nowhere to do some voodoo on the terrible evils of the day. Crazy meets crazy in a clash of oddities. But while the organization might be news to us in the States, the Association of Nigerian Witches and Wizards isn’t a flash-in-the-pan group. They’ve been around for several years now, weighing in on the politics of the nation from time to time. Nor are they the first group of witches and wizards to organize politically. Although they are unique in the world of organized wizarding insomuch as they promote the rehabilitation of the magical arts’ image by channeling their powers to aid the state and its citizens.
And it’s definitely an image that needs rehabilitating, especially in Nigeria, where traditional practices known as juju are (often wrongly) equated with cannibalistic rituals meant to extract the power from a sacrifice. The stereotype is a pervasive indictment of the profession in much of Africa—think the scenes with the Nigerian gangsters in District 9. Belief in the dark and vindictive powers and purposes of magicians in Africa has led, even within the last decade, to the murder-by-burning and lynching of hundreds to thousands of witches in Tanzania alone—usually members of poor and marginalized communities—to say nothing of the stigma and knee-jerk reactions across the continent. In truth, while the Association acknowledges the existence of some harmful wizards, most work in herbal healing, predictions, or the removal of curses. These more innocuous fields too face sharp criticism from modern educators and doctors, though.
It’s this sort of more benign encroachment that has inspired limited collective action amongst other witches and wizards in the world. Take for instance the case of southern Romania’s witches, who in 2011 faced the prospect of legal recognition of their trade, and with it taxation (at a 16 percent self-employment rate) for the first time ever. Later that year, another law threatened to impose fines or prison sentences on witches who gave false predictions. According to Tataran Alexandra, a young academic specializing in Romanian traditional beliefs and practices, although she’s never met a southern witch she understands that they usually like to operate alone, left to their own devices. But faced with this creeping imposition on their professions, says Alexandra, “the ‘witches’ themselves went to the Parliament building to protest.” Accounts of that protest refer to their chucking cat shit and mandrake roots about, and cursing Romanian President Traian Basescu before the Parliament eventually balked at the logistics and effort required by the bills and rejected them. Their concerns satisfied, the organization of Romanian witches, if it ever even was that, disbanded.
Although it’s all a bit hazy, Nigeria’s union appears to be a longer-lasting and higher-minded body, formed sometime around 2010 under the leadership of one Dr. Okhue Iboi, a man in his mid 50s who maintains he’s a wizard by birth. In interviews he’s described his own magical background as such: “I was born a witch. I inherited witchcraft from my mother when I was in her womb, from the age of seven I started seeing unborn babies in my mother’s womb, and I could predict with precision of sex an unborn child … and starting at the age of five, I started healing people like a grown-up herbalist.” Four years into what he indicates is a seven-year spokesman position for the organization, he is the liaison communicating the predictions and resolutions of the witches and wizards at their bi-annual and occasional extra emergency meetings. One of those emergency meetings was held in the north in July at the behest of members from regions where Boko Haram are most active. Speaking about that meeting to the Nigerian website Today's Gist, Iboi said "Witches and Wizards in Nigeria are deeply worried by what is going on in the country especially Boko Haram insurgency. As stakeholders in the Nigerian project, we can no longer afford to fold our hands while the nation burns. Enough is enough”
Iboi claims that in addition to making predictions about Boko Haram, WIZTAN is committed to retooling the image of juju to show that it can work with the people and for the best interest of the elected government. “Some people look at us as if we are evil minded people,” Iboi has mused in interviews. “Not all witches are bad. Our own type of witchcraft is progressive. We are willing to intervene in the affairs of the country anytime the government decides to seek our counsel. We have the solutions to bring lasting peace to the country. Witches and wizards in the country are ready to help restore Nigeria’s lost glory.”
To those ends, the association regularly comments on state politics, giving their own version of endorsements to candidates in the form of predictions as to who will win a race. More than just spew political opinion in spiritual garb, they’ve also put boots on the ground to keep the peace, for instance deploying 500 members to the capital of Abuja during the contentious 2011 elections to help mediate and head off any electoral violence through whatever authority they could muster. They also claim to be working with witches and wizards in India and Tanzania to invoke magical powers to prevent the breakup of the nation and keep it strong through future tense political ordeals. They’re making every public indication that they want to be on board with the modern state and that they’re willing to prove they have a place in it.
Given the image of juju, this assertion of a prominent role in the modern state understandably makes quite a few people nervous. Upon hearing of the wizards’ predictions on Boko Haram, one Christian minister issued his own prediction that these sinister magicians would themselves disappear before the end of the year. But it shouldn’t raise such hackles. Whether one believes juju is real or not, traditionalists still carry some weight in the world. And their power, whether magical or social, can influence the world they inhabit. So when an organization comes along offering to use that power to harmonize itself with the ever-changing world, rather than oppose all change and promote its own self-interests, that’s nothing to balk at. Hell, that’s probably as close to the beneficent wizards of Hogwarts as we’ll ever come, and we can only hope we’ll be so lucky as to see more such unions in the future.