Authorities in the Ivory Coast have arrested 1,000 people and deployed troops on the streets amid a nationwide panic over a wave of child kidnappings and killings feared to be linked to black magic.
At least 25 children have been kidnapped in Ivory Coast since December, the government said last week. According to Ivory Coast's Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko, authorities have recovered "five mutilated children and 20 dead bodies."
Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi announced that authorities had made 1,000 arrests over the past week, "mostly individuals who use internet cafés and loiter around schools."
The recent spate of killings has raised fears that children are being abducted by online scammers known as "grazers" — because they "graze" on their prey and take their money — to be sacrificed in rituals to bring them luck.
The head of the national police Brindou M'Bia told press the previous week that children's bodies had been found "mutilated, with their genital parts missing, or decapitated," fueling speculation that the murders were committed in black magic rituals.
A source close to the case told French daily Le Monde that human sacrifices are more common in December, with people wanting to maximize their good luck for the new year. Others fear the killings may be linked to upcoming elections.
César Djedjemel, a journalist for local news site L'Infodrome, has been reporting on the kidnappings that have plagued Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, and the rest of the country. Speaking to VICE News on Tuesday, Djedjemel explained that marabouts — the local name for a witch doctor — sometimes "recommend human sacrifices for good luck. Adults are also sacrificed, but unfortunately, children are an easy prey."
Curfews and vigilance
Interior minister Bakayoko announced last week the deployment of "1,500 men, including 1,000 police officers, 300 gendarmes (soldiers employed on police duties) and 200 soldiers, endowed with substantial resources, to reinforce units patrolling known crime zones, bodies of water, school areas and internet cafés."
Djedjemel explained that, "despite widened mobile and home internet access in Ivory Coast, internet cafés are still overrun by young people, including 'grazers.'
"They're criminals, scammers, they get into their victims' bank accounts and 'graze' on their money," he added.
In response to the widespread rumor that internet scammers are involved in the recent rash of killings, the government has imposed a 9pm curfew on internet cafés, and closed down 550 establishments that were operating without a license.
Speaking to VICE News on Tuesday, Fidèle, who runs an internet café in Abidjan with his brother, said he was more than happy to cooperate with the police. "Everyone is scared, here," he told VICE News, "I'm scared, I have two young daughters. Our internet café will close at 9pm tonight… so that the police can do their job."
The abductions have also left schools feeling particularly vulnerable. Désirée, a principal at a middle school in Abidjan, complained about the lack of a police presence outside schools. "I don't think the police are doing enough," she told VICE News. "They need to make their presence known, to intimidate (the kidnappers)."
Désirée explained that schools are taking new precautions in light of the recent kidnappings, including asking parents to pick their kids up from inside the school, encouraging school bus drivers to drop children off closer to home, and telling unaccompanied children to walk home in small groups. "The best thing we can do is to raise awareness among the children," she said, "and to remind them to be vigilant."
Meanwhile, the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI) — a peacekeeping mission launched in 2004 to help implement the peace agreement that ended the 2002 civil war — has also pledged resources to support the country's security forces. ONUCI spokesperson Kadidia Ledron told VICE News that "whenever the authorities ask for our help, we support them. Our mission is to restore peace to the country."
Ledron explained that the UN would be supporting the police with "increased resources and tighter monitoring throughout the territory, and particularly in Abidjan. There will be more UNOCI peacekeepers, and they will be more visible."
Fingers pointed at "grazers"
Many believe that grazers are to blame for the kidnappings. According to Djedjemel, grazers often engage in black magic, including human sacrifices, to increase their chances of "luring wealthy prey, which they can then fleece."
Djedjemel explained that the grazers phenomenon came to Ivory Coast by way of Nigeria some 15 years ago, and soon became widespread. Young people, he added, "see it as a way to get rich fast".
Grazers, Désirée told VICE News, "claim to hear mystical voices asking them for human blood." According to the principal, a suspect arrested by the police last week told officials that a voice had ordered him to "get some heads." Parents, said Désirée, rushed to school "in the middle of the day to collect their kids".
On Monday, defense minister Koffi Koffi tried to quell the collective hysteria, and denounced the spreading of "false rumors". Three days earlier, the police had also called for calm, urging people not to "lynch" suspected kidnappers.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray
Image via Zenman/Wikimedia Commons.