Witchcraft Accusation and the Court System in Northern Ghana


Her fate hangs in the balance. She does not know if she will ever return to her community but hopes to go back someday to be with her ageing husband. She is awaiting a court order to that effect, but the court injunction is not forthcoming. She may have to wait a little longer because the court, at the last sitting on March 4, adjourned her case indefinitely. Satu, 82, has been staying at the house of a family member in the suburb of Tamale after she was banished from her community for witchcraft. In Dagomba tradition, witchcraft has a female face- an elderly female face. Another name for a witch, Sounya, is pakurugu, meaning an old woman. Witchcraft accusation is the nightmare of elderly women in the region.

Satu was accused of being responsible for the death of a cousin’s wife. She allegedly used so-tim (witchcraft medicine) to kill her. The daughter of the deceased also claimed she saw Satu in her dream. Appearing in dreams is another characteristic of witches. The lady claimed that Satu was throwing stones on her in the dream.

Satu denies knowing anything about the woman’s death or appearing in anybody’s dream. In Northern Ghana, ‘traditional autopsy’ is linked to witchcraft accusation. When death occurs in families, some members consult soothsayers to know who is responsible. Those divined to be behind the death are openly accused or declared to be witches.

Satu’s main accuser, an elder in the village, reported the matter to the chief. The chief, after consulting the elders banished Satu from the community without subjecting her to any confirmation ritual.

According to Dagomba tradition, witchcraft accusation is subject to confirmation by the gods. To confirm a witch, an accused person is taken to a shrine for a broom or fowl ritual test. Muslims who refuse going to the shrine are made to swear by the Quran and then are allowed to live in the community. But Satu was not taken to any shrine. She was not allowed to swear by the Quran.  Satu’s family members tried persuading the chief to reverse the banishment and allow Satu to go through the ‘traditional due process’ without success. The family reported the matter to the police and the state human rights agency- the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ). The police tried arresting the accusers. They went to the community and in the course of the arrest, one of the accusers raised an alarm. The villagers came out with cutlasses ready to attack the police. The police officers were compelled to let her go.

Satu’s family members were undeterred. They took the matter to the Regent, the head of the traditional chiefs in Dagbon. The Regent invited Satu’s chief and asked him to resolve the matter. But the chief, after consulting his elders, stood his ground. Satu’s family members went back to the Regent. The Regent re-invited the chief and other parties to the accusation but they did not turn up. Then the Regent sent a letter to the Regional Administration, the Police and CHRAJ urging them to intervene on the matter. CHRAJ invited the accusers but they did not honour the invitation. Some CHRAJ officials went to the community to serve them letters but some locals threatened them.

In January, CHRAJ filed a civil suit against Satu’s accusers. In the suit, CHRAJ is seeking the restoration of the woman’s human rights- right to dignity, freedom of movement and association. Unfortunately, a hearing on the matter has not started because the responding parties have not been served. Efforts by court officials to deliver summons to the respondents have failed.

The court adjourned the case several times so that the respondents could be served. On March 4, the judge ordered that the respondents be served indirectly by publishing the summon in a local newspaper. It is after the publication that a hearing date can be fixed. Satu’s case is the only witchcraft related case before the court. The high court in Tamale is the only one in the entire Northern region. Several cases of accusation are to take place in the region but many are not charged to court for any number of reasons including poverty, ignorance, distance, preference of traditional to state justice system, interference and obstruction of justice by local chiefs.

In most cases, those who are accused of witchcraft and exiled from communities are elderly women whose family members cannot afford the costs of court prosecution. Most families accept the banishment, relocate the alleged witch to another village or send her any of the witch camps in the region. It is on few occasions, as in the case of Satu where family members are educated and enlightened, that the banishment of an alleged witch can be challenged in court.

Meanwhile, Satu remains in Tamale until a court injunction is secured. Her plans to return home remain wishful thinking.