Witchcraft in Tanzanian law

The Citizen, 24/8/14

The Citizen, 24/8/14

Witchcraft is a huge issue in Tanzania at the moment. Levels of belief are extremely high, with horrific consequences for two groups in particular: older women (and others) who are accused of being witches and in many cases murdered as a result, and people with albinism who are attacked or murdered for their body parts, which are said to possess supernatural powers. With a general election coming up next year, there are fears that the situation for people with albinism could get even worse. And though it is less obvious, the manipulative actions of people calling themselves witchdoctors – tricking people out of their money through big promises and/or blackmail and fear (as alleged in this case) – are also highly damaging.

I will explore this issue in more depth at a later date, but for the moment, I just want to bring one thing to wider attention: did you know that Tanzania has a Witchcraft Act on the statute books?

It dates from colonial times, 1928 in fact, but was amended as recently as 2009.

I will come to what the law says in a moment, but first, how exactly does it define witchcraft?

It is somewhat vague, as follows:

“‘witchcraft’ includes sorcery, enchantment, bewitching, the use of instrument of witchcraft, the purported exercise of any occult power and the purported possession of any occult knowledge.”

Unless you have a clear understanding of the terms “sorcery”, “enchantment”, “bewitching” and “occult”, that’s not a definition that helps very much.

“Instrument of witchcraft” is also defined:

“anything which is used or intended to be used or is commonly used, or which is represented or generally believed to possess the power, to prevent or delay any person from doing any act which he may lawfully do, or to compel any person to do any act which he may lawfully refrain from doing, or to discover the person guilty of any alleged crime or other act of which complaint is made, or to cause death, injury or disease to any person or damage to any property, or to put any person in fear, or by supernatural means to produce any natural phenomena, and includes charms and medicines commonly used for any of the purposes aforesaid.”

So that’s clear then.

Now, what does the law say? I’ve found three key points.

First, the law makes it a criminal offence to do any of the following things:

  • to claim to have the power of witchcraft
  • to make, use, possess or claim to possess any instruments of witchcraft
  • to supply instruments of witchcraft to others
  • to advice others on the use of witchcraft
  • to threaten to use witchcraft against people or property
  • to employ someone to use witchcraft
  • to accuse someone of using witchcraft, or of being a witch or wizard (except when reporting to official bodies such as the police)

(Sections 3, 4, 7)

Second, the law puts limits on the sentences for anyone found guilty of the criminal offences listed above (Section 5). Unusually, it sets lower limits (minimum sentences) rather than upper limits, and it differentiates between offences committed “with intent to cause death, disease, injury, or misfortune” and those committed without any such intent.

Offences committed “with intent” are subject to a minimum imprisonment term of seven years. Offences without intent are subject to potentially much lesser sentences: a fine of not less than Tshs 100,000/- or a minimum of five years’ imprisonment.

Third, the act gives unusual powers to District Commissioners (which are probably unconstitutional) to order someone who is suspected of practising witchcraft “to reside in any specified locality within his district until such order is varied or revoked.” (Section 8)

Concentration camps for suspected witches?

And finally, some brief thoughts:

1. The law is a blunt instrument with which to try to tackle such a sensitive and multi-faceted problem. Should it prioritise protection of older women against accusations, protection of people with albinism against abuse, or protection of everyone against charlatans and con-artists? In some ways, focussing on any one of these prioritise makes addressing the others more difficult. A law that criminalises accusations could make it easier for abusers to continue, for example. But if the law focusses on the abuses, it could encourage accusations.

2. The powers given in the law to District Commissioners seem like a clear abuse of rights – there’s no due process here. This has made the law unpopular with bodies such as the Nyalali Commission and the UN Human Rights Committee. It would also seem to encourage people to make baseless accusations of witchcraft.

3. Can the law ever be an effective means of addressing an issue that’s so deep-rooted?

4. If you’re going to have a law on witchcraft, shouldn’t you find a way of defining witchcraft that actually means something?

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Further reading:

Simeon Mesaki, 2009: Witchcraft and the law in Tanzania

HelpAge International, 2011: Using the law to tackle accusations of witchcraft: HelpAge International’s position

Alexander Alum, Michael Gomez and Edilsa Ruiz (Northwestern University School of Law), 2009: Hocus Pocus, Witchcraft, and Murder: The Plight of Tanzanian Albinos

4 thoughts on “Witchcraft in Tanzanian law

  1. Pingback: Looking closer at Tanzania’s witchcraft ban | mtega

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