Intersection Between Witchcraft, Human Trafficking and Human Rights in Uganda

This article illustrates the tripartite intersection between witchcraft, human trafficking and human rights.

By Mugonero Ivan Mutebe

The practice of witchcraft triggers an interesting yet quite perplexing discussion that leaves human rights activists in the discomforting position of unpacking the paradox that lies in the discourse surrounding culture, witchcraft and human rights. This article illustrates the tripartite intersection between witchcraft, human trafficking and human rights.

Article 37 of the constitution of Uganda sets the ground for the paradox in providing that: Every person has a right as applicable to belong to, enjoy, practice, profess and maintain any culture, cultural institution, language, tradition, creed or religion in community with others. Well, witchcraft like has been argued in the definitions that fall short of scholarly consensus, is a cultural practice and Garcia, (2013) affirms this position in noting that the belief in witchcraft, widespread across many traditional faiths, is covered by the right of freedom of religion and belief, and recognized by a variety of international and national legal texts as the case is in Article 29, Article 32 (2) and Article 37 of the constitution.

However, like Garcia further notes some restrictions are allowed if limitations are prescribed by law, pursue a legitimate aim and justifiably necessary in a free and democratic society as the case is under Article 43 of the constitution of Uganda.  

It is important then to distinguish between normal witchcraft-related activities and abuses linked to witchcraft belief as the latter may violate human rights standards and do not enter within the scope of the freedom of religion (Garcia, 2013). Human trafficking often comes as an associated partner of witch craft especially in providing victims for sacrifice and rituals in the July 2012 case of Kampala-based businessman Godfrey Kato Kajubi. Police reports do not directly refer to cases like Kato-Kajubi as directly involving trafficking partly because of the language used. These are referred to as abductions, kidnaps among others.

However, these fall in Garcia’s latter category of abuses related to witchcraft that violate human rights standards and do not enter in the scope of freedom of religion. Though, such reports do not explicitly define the act as involving trafficking, the evidence may-but only perhaps betrayed by the language. It is upon this that the current article sought to understand the intersection between the two phenomena (witchcraft and human trafficking) especially through understanding the knowledge of the those interviewed by paying attention to their knowledge on how the language used often presents the link between witchcraft and human trafficking.

October 2009 saw Uganda enact the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act (PTIP Act), which provides for legal guidance for prosecution and punishment of offenders, prevention of TIP and protection of victims of TIP (National Action Plan for Prevention of Trafficking in Persons in Uganda, 2015). The law was passed in response to the need to operationalize international, regional as well as domestic laws from a human rights corridor that seek to protect citizens from the vice of trafficking.

In a bid to implement the law, an institutional mechanism was put in place called the Anti-human sacrifice and Anti-trafficking taskforce (Fox news, 2017). Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA) is the lead agency for prevention of trafficking in persons, in collaboration with other stakeholders including Internal Security Organization (ISO), External security Organisation (ESO), Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP), and the Judiciary (National Action Plan for Prevention of Trafficking in Persons in Uganda, 2015).

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With a law and corresponding institution in place, it would be expected that there would be significant reductions in the cases of human trafficking in the country. However, this has not been the case as the country continuously witnesses a surge in the cases of both internal and cross-border trafficking in persons and its corresponding human rights implications (ibid). Between the periods of 2010 to the end of 2013, 243 Criminal Cases were investigated by the Police, involving 391 suspects. Over 65 suspects were taken to court and 4 convictions were achieved (ibid). In the 2019 crime report, a total number of 120 incidents related to trafficking in persons were registered during the year 2019. Incidents of internal trafficking were 30 while incidents of transnational trafficking were 90 (Police crime report, 2019).

A number of reports including the 2013 Annual TIP Report by the COCTIP, Annual crime reports by Police, INTERPOL and MoIA advance a number of reasons for the increase in cases of trafficking in persons and among them include the high number of orphaned children, belief in witchcraft and archaic traditional practices (National Action Plan for Prevention of Trafficking in Persons in Uganda, 2015). In a number of African countries, trafficking for ritual killing has been argued to be commonplace because witchcraft bestows magical properties on human body parts (Harrop, 2012). 

According to the 1957 witchcraft Act of Uganda, witchcraft is defined as; “witchcraft” does not include bona fide spirit worship or the bona fide manufacture, supply or sale of native medicines. It’s important to note that this Act has since been challenged on the basis of being vague and overtaken by events. This was attested to by an interviewee who noted that defining witchcraft is quite tricky since the Act was outlawed. However, he pointed to its purpose which could be for either sacrifice or ritual performances.

Some have defined it as “harmful actions carried out by persons presumed to have access to supernatural powers.” I would like to say I agree with him but not to the fullest extent. This is because not all witchcraft practices are harmful. Take the example of the Acholi culture, there are practices that have been deemed as practices of witchcraft but they are indeed traditional practices instead. An interviewee made a dichotomy of witchdoctors into the good and bad. The good kind are the ones that have their supernatural powers passed down to them in the family while the bad kind are the ones that buy the powers from nearby Congo and Tanzania and they mostly carry out the practice as a business without caring about its harmful results. There are practices like mato put loosely translated as drinking the bitter juice. This is a kind of alternative dispute resolution that includes reconciliation and justice.

Here the perpetrator admits to committing the offence and is forgiven by the victim or the victim’s family after which sacrifices and offerings are made to the gods. However, there is no denying that there are witchcraft practices that are dangerous and harmful leading to violations of human rights. People practice witchcraft for various reasons and to achieve various goals.

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In Uganda practicing witchcraft has been believed to be largely practiced by the rich as the witchdoctors are expensive to pay and maintain as the case was for Kato Kajubi Godfrey. He was however arrested and convicted though many such cases do not get to conviction as they are difficult to prove in the courts of law. There are popular beliefs that the rich also use heads of humans as foundation for their buildings as a form of sacrifice to the gods-a belief that is almost impossible to prove and so unfounded.

Other reasons for practicing witchcraft in Uganda include; health, good luck, childbearing among others. Different witch doctors demand different “gifts” ranging from chicken to human beings depending on the magnitude of the problem and this is where the question of human rights violations comes about since the victims for sacrifice are often sourced through domestic human trafficking. 

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Ivan Mugonero Mutebe is a Human Rights Advocate and M&E Specialist


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