Pastors; Beware of the Anti-witchcraft Law

I heard the news a while ago that the Parliament of Ghana has passed a law which prohibits a person from accusing another person of being a witch. I was excited, given the frequency at which some persons within our communities have taken it upon themselves to create enmity for others they barely know. It is without debate that most persons who call themselves pastors in Ghana have made it their specialty to pronounce the mothers of members of their congregation as witch(es) even without knowing the said mothers. It is common in Ghana to turn on the television or radio and tune into a ‘prophetic programme’ to hear the preacher accuse someone of witchcraft.

This issue is pathetic because, immediately a person is accused of being a witch, she suffers stigmatization and is often shunned by the community. This phenomenon is worse in most communities in the northern part of Ghana. The infamous Gambaga Witch Camp is a community found within the Gambaga township of the North East Region and it is well known to house persons who have been ostracized after they had been labelled as witches. It can be recalled that three years ago, a 90-year-old woman by name Madam Akua Denteh was lynched in the Savanah Region after she was accused of being a witch.

With the passage of the Criminal Offences Amendment Bill 2022 which has amended portions of the Criminal Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29), the practice by any person as a witch doctor or a witchfinder is now prohibited. Also, it is now a criminal offence to declare, accuse, name or label another person as a witch.

In the past, a person who was accused of being a witch or wizard had a remedy to sue under tort. The person could institute an action for defamation and end up being awarded monetary compensation. However, with the passage of the bill which proscribes the declaration, accusation, naming or labelling of another person as a witch, an accused faces a jail term of up to 5 years or a penalty of up to GH¢ 30,000.00 or both if found guilty.

The practice whereby religious leaders, especially pastors, openly declare women as witches is prevalent in Ghana. All one needs to do to hear such an accusation is to turn on the television or radio and voila, a ‘prophet’ will be heard calling someone a witch. Not only do ‘prophets’ or ‘pastors’ openly declare people as witches, but they also go a step further to assert that the said persons are the cause of ‘calamities or challenges’ which a church member may be going through. The law prescribes a sanction of between one to five years imprisonment for any person found guilty of accusing, threatening to accuse, or declaring a person as a witch.

The highlight of the law, to me, is the fact that provision has been made to provide psychiatric assistance for any person who professes to be a witch. The law in Section 316A(2) posits that a person who professes to be a witch shall be considered to have severe mental disorder. Obviously, a person deemed to have a severe mental disorder requires psychiatric assistance. In my opinion, the legislature should be commended for viewing a person who claims to be witch as one who needs help.

The rather sad part of the law is that judicial discretion has been taken away from the judiciary with regard to the sanction to be handed down to a person who accuses, threatens, or declares another as a witch. Such an accused when found guilty faces imprisonment as the judge does not have an option to sentence such an offender to pay a fine.

A word of caution to our revered pastors! It will not be a defence for a pastor to hide behind his interpreter or a junior pastor to accuse or declare a person as a witch. The law, as it is now, posits that a community leader who directly or indirectly permits, promotes, encourages, or facilitates the accusation and/or declaration of a person as a witch will also suffer punishment. Even the church members who are present or participate in the accusation are not left out. It is important to mention that the law specifically defines ‘community leader’ to include a religious leader and it goes without saying that a pastor is a religious leader.

The next time you are in church, and your pastor decides to accuse someone of witchcraft, you better advise your pastor or advise yourself.

GOD bless our homeland Ghana and make us great and strong!

The writer is a Legal Practitioner.

Email: peprah.berko@yahoo.com; twitter: @BerkoPeprah

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