The international child rights NGO, Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN), has condemned in the strongest terms the ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation directed at one of its Nigerian partners, the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), which is based in Eket, Akwa Ibom state, in the Niger Delta. Since the work of SSN and CRARN was featured in the multi-award winning documentary – Saving Africa’s Witch Children – in 2008 both NGOs have been on the receiving end of a fierce and relentless campaign of intimidation. This has included two court cases being launched against them by the child witch-hunting pastor – Helen Ukpabio - who also sent her supporters to raid a child rights conference organised by the NGOs and beat up the organisers. Her lawyer also escorted some police officers from Lagos to the CRARN centre in July 2009 where they falsely arrested staff and beat up a number of the 200+ children.
Recent developments have seen the Akwa Ibom State Government launch a widespread media campaign stating that SSN and CRARN are fraudulent organisations who have used the children under their care to extort millions of pounds from the international community and demanding that the President of CRARN – Sam Itauma – and the Programme Director of Stepping Stones Nigeria – Gary Foxcroft – should both be arrested. These allegations have been entirely refuted by both agencies who have stated that their accounts are publicly available for all to see.
On Wednesday 10th November, 15 years to the day since the human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Abache Regime, the CRARN centre in Eket was once again raided; this time by the EFCC,iii who said that a petition had been filed against CRARN and that they were seeking to arrest Mr Itauma. When informed that he was not on the premises, they initially arrested another staff member, Mr Bassey, but he was released following protests from the children at CRARN.
Sam Itauma of CRARN stated ‘I am genuinely living in fear for my life. I know there are people who would like to see me dead because I have stood up and told them that it is wrong to torture and murder innocent children who have been accused of being witches. I have had to leave my home and family and go into hiding. How can this be right?”
He continued: “The only reason that certain people are making accusations against me is because their interests are threatened by our fight against child witchcraft-related abuse. I am happy to face any charges that are brought against me or CRARN, including those from the EFCC, as long as this is done through a publicly monitored and fully accountable process, rather than at the whim of some official who disagrees with the work that we do”.
Gary Foxcroft, Programme Director of SSN, said “It is absolutely disgraceful that passionate, committed human rights defenders are being threatened in this way, when all they are trying to do is protect the rights of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in Nigeria. We call upon the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Akwa Ibom State Government to guarantee the security of the staff and children at CRARN and to ensure that any charges brought against them by agencies such as the EFCC are conducted in a fully transparent manner.”
Foxcroft added “It appears that the Governor of Akwa Ibom state, Chief (Dr) Godswill Akpabio is being given false information by those who seek to profit financially from the exploitation of helpless, innocent children. We will continue to seek dialogue with the Governor at the earliest opportunity so that we can reassure him that we are genuine NGOs and wish to work together with the Government in order to overcome the problem of child witchcraft accusations and repair the damage done to the image of Akwa Ibom State due to this ongoing campaign of intimidation”.