Last week, Nigeria’s House of Representatives urged the Nigerian federal government to declare a state of emergency on the rising incidence of ritual killings in the country. Following a motion by its Deputy Minority Leader Toby Okechukwu, the country’s lower legislative chamber also called on the inspector general of police, Usman Alkali Baba, to “take urgent steps to increase surveillance and intelligence gathering with a view to apprehend and prosecute (sic) all perpetrators of ritual killings in Nigeria.” Finally, House members ordered the National Orientation Agency (NOA) to “initiate a campaign towards changing the situation in the country.”
There is nothing unusual about the House of Representatives’ demand. In recent times, various actors within political and civil society have called on the government at the center to declare a national emergency regarding one problem or the other, including rising banditry across northern towns and villages, attacks by suspected herders on farming towns across the Middle Belt, a countrywide spike in kidnapping, the state of the education sector, and growing insecurity across the country, among others.
Inured to such calls, most Nigerians see them as nothing but mere tokenism, and tend not to be surprised when no concrete action follows.
Nevertheless, the latest call by the House of Representatives resonated because of the immediate backdrop. Last month, police in Ogun State in the western part of the country arrested four teenagers in connection with the killing of twenty-year-old Sofiat Kehinde. The suspects, one of whom used to be romantically involved with Kehinde, had reportedly decapitated her with a machete and proceeded to burn the head, ostensibly to use the ashes and other body parts in a money-making ritual. The suspects have been arraigned before a local magistrate, and the case has sparked debate in a country where, judging by media reports, such incidents have increased exponentially in recent years.
Whether indeed there has been a surge—or whether, as many believe, the unsparing searchlight of social media has made them less invisible—is a moot point. What is clear is that Nigerians cannot come to an agreement on why the belief in the efficacy of ritual killings for money persists more than two decades into the twenty-first century.
The minority leader’s motion, titled “Need to curb the rising trend of ritual killings in Nigeria,” invokes some of the prevailing theories. For example, according to him, one reason why “some of our youths seem stuck in the mistaken belief that sacrificing human blood is the surest route to wealth, safety and protection,” is the ostensibly perverse influence of Nollywood, the Nigerian movie industry, whose productions apparently glorify ritual killing.
Okechukwu is only half right.
In the first place, the “mistaken belief” in the efficacy of ritual killings for cash is not the demographic preserve of young people in the country. As matter of fact, part of what makes the belief sociologically intriguing is its cross-generational dispersal and resilience. Most Nigerians do indeed find the idea of ritual killings—whether for money specifically or power in general—genuinely reprehensible and abhorrent; yet, irrespective of their level of education, a large number continue to believe that it works. Members of the political elite regularly visit shrines to swear oaths, ask for a deity’s blessing, or seek “spiritual defense” against political enemies.
In 2004, police discovered dozens of corpses at a shrine in Okija in the southeastern state of Anambra, where many of the state’s senior politicians had also apparently sworn oaths. After police mobilized to neutralize the Badoo Boys, a group which spread terror across Lagos State, the country’s commercial capital in 2017 by crushing the skulls of its victims, at least one suspect confessed that desperate politicians paid as high as $1,000 for a handkerchief soaked with the blood of the murdered person. Many see politics, illicit wealth, and a certain form of spiritual power as a coherent trinity, and a ramp-up in ritual killings—inseparable from their rumors—in the approach to a major election is taken for granted. Nigerians will go to the polls for a high-stakes nationwide election in February next year.
Second, while ritual killings are indeed a Nollywood staple, the portrayal is often less than flattering. Overall, Pentecostal penetration of the industry often means movie directors consciously seek to make the moral point that ritual killings (and by implication “traditional religion”) are bad, while “modern” Christianity, a source of “clean energy” requiring no human sacrifice, is good.
Its telos notwithstanding, Nollywood’s obsession with the world of sacrificial killings confirms the latter’s undying cultural influence. The belief that certain body parts are ritualistically convertible to wealth (also seen with albinos and bald men in other parts of Africa) is of a piece with the conviction that certain nefarious agents can impede one’s path to wealth. In some parts of southeastern Nigeria, children branded as witches by their parents have been known to be either tortured or killed.
Referring to the statement by one of the suspects in the murder of Kehinde, in which he effectively said he had learnt how to kill from watching a video on Facebook, Okechukwu also indicted social media for being a tool used by sundry “merchants of wicked acts” to “advertise their evil behavior.” The Nigerian public—as indeed the public worldwide—continues to be divided on the effect of social media. Condemnation of it as a moral cesspool tends to be counterbalanced by its celebration as a space of creativity. In a forthcoming study, cultural studies scholar James Yékú emphasizes the power of Nigerian social media as a space of political resistance and popular performance.
It is difficult to judge the effect watching a video on Facebook could have had on the suspect. In any event, ritual killings in Nigeria predate social media.
Arguably the sharpest arrow in Okechukwu’s quiver was reserved for those he referred to as “fake clerics, imams, herbalists and native doctors” whom he sees as enabling a society-wide get-rich-or-die- trying culture. The criticism reflects standard discourse around religious authorities who, stepping into the vacuum created by the unraveling of the intelligentsia, have positioned themselves as society’s moral, economic, and political arbiters. That such religious leaders compensate for state negligence is beyond question; what is less clear is the social consequence of their role as purveyors and nourishers of an occultic economy.
Ultimately, increased incidence of ritual killings in Nigeria is best seen in the context of the broader economy of violence in the country, the most salient elements of which are banditry and kidnapping, police incapacity to tackle crime, a rise in vigilantism, circulation of illegal arms, and a succession of unsolved murders—all framed against the backdrop of weakening state control. Young people’s frustration with these problems factored into the virulence of the #EndSARS protests against police impunity in late 2020.
While the government continues to make all the right noises—for instance, the federal government has appropriated $2.3 billion to tackle insecurity in 2022—its irrelevance to most Nigerians could not be more pronounced.
Especially for young people desperate to “belong” and facing tremendous pressure to discharge a range of cultural obligations, ritual killings are just one among a subset of options occupying different nodes on an ambiguous moral spectrum.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.