Slaughter of the elderly accused of witchcraft calls for swift response

A relative of an elderly woman who was killed on suspicion of witchcraft asses the loss incurred after angry villagers lynched and torched her house in Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

The Shakahola massacre has brought infamy to Kilifi that the neglected and impoverished county could well do without.

The weighty government response to the killings has so far recovered over 400 bodies. As the excavation continues that figure is expected to increase before any real closure.

Kenyans and concerned folk the world over, are asking how this massacre was allowed to happen and not a single person of influence raised the alarm. The slaughter revealed a massive failure and neglect on the part of government institutions and the whole of society at large.

Yet, as the soul searching and blame games continue, there is another silent and equally satanic slaughter going on in the same area and it too goes ignored and unaddressed.

I am referring to the killing of older people suspected of being witches. This horrific crime continues on an almost daily basis and yet both the political and administrative wings of government never treat this evil practice with the seriousness it deserves.

Haki Yetu has recorded the deaths of 138 senior citizens of Kilifi in the past two and a half years who have met their fate as a result of false claims of being witches. This and much more was revealed in its recently launched report, “The Aged on Edge”. These cases are just the tip of the iceberg as they only account for the killings the human rights body directly engaged in. Statistics from the National Crime Reporting Centre (NCRC) reveal more disturbing data. In 2020, 58.2 per cent of all crime reported in Kilifi County concerned incidents of murder as opposed to a national average of 24.8 per cent. In comparative terms, the figures for reported murder cases in Kisumu were 2.2 per cent and Mombasa 16 per cent.

The other two counties that reported significantly high incidences of murder were Kwale and Kisii with 31.9 per cent and 29.2 per cent respectively. These two counties as well as Kilifi are the most notorious for killing of older people on grounds of witchcraft. We are looking here at a national crisis.

Haki Yetu has invested huge resources in addressing this ghastly cultural and immoral trend in Kilifi and Kwale for the last nine years. As a result of training in alternative justice and dispute resolutions at grassroots level, significant reductions in killings have been noted.

Yet, the killings continue in other areas, in Ganze sub county, nine such killings have been recorded this year. In Lunga Lunga, Kwale County another seven elders were murdered in 2023. 

The release of the report was part of a two-day national stakeholders’ conference on the killing of older people recently held in Kilifi town. For the first time, the national government and county administration were present alongside significant actors like UTU, KHRC, German government, the county government and the Judiciary.

With the Shakahola massacre as a powerful backdrop to the conference, there was considerable energy and commitment to address the conflict.

Social Protection and Senior Citizens PS Joseph Motari has committed the national government to build a rescue centre in Kilifi for the aged under threat. The underlying causes for the killings are primarily land issues and in particular family conflicts related to inheritance closely related to the scourge of unemployment and poverty among the youth. Mixed with this are cultural and religious beliefs that give credibility to the bizarre witchcraft claims.

However, administrative inaction at the local level means the perpetrators and their accomplices go unpunished. The report gives anecdotal and statistical evidence of many cases never reported or investigated.

There is reluctance to report since there is little or no witness protection services in these remote areas. Furthermore, Kilifi literacy rate is a mere 68 per cent as opposed to a national average of 82 per cent.

The conference was a wake-up call to every sector of society. Article 57 of the Constitution states that older people have a right to live in dignity and peace, free from abuse and receive reasonable care from their families and the state. Surely this is the time to address this crisis and prevent another Shakahola in the affected counties.