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November 12, 2012

Sierra Leone Ritual Murder Fears Rise Ahead of Elections

by Nina de Vries

So-called ritual murders have been a part of African society for centuries. In Sierra Leone, some believe ritual murders increase during election time because some politicians think they will gain political power from another human's body parts.

This Saturday, people will vote for a president and members of parliament. But one man is only thinking about the loss of his sister in what he said appears to be a ritual murder.

Osman Bangura sits outside his home at Six Mile village, a remote community about 40 kilometers from Freetown, the country's capital. He is remembering his elder sister, Zainab, who was killed last July.

"She was so tall and so nice, and a beautiful lady," said Bangura.

A beautiful lady whose life was taken too soon, he added. She was just 35 years old. Her body was found in the bush outside the village. Her private parts were missing, as well as her tongue, Bangura said. He worried that Zainab was a victim of a ritual murder because when body parts are missing that indicates they were sacrificed.

"This happens anytime elections take place in Sierra Leone, and this is the first time it happened in this village," explained Bangura.

Ritual murders in Sierra Leone's culture date back before colonial times, said Joe Alie, a professor who teaches history and African studies at Fourah Bay College in Freetown.
 
He says the British colonial government tried to stamp out the practice, but to this day, he said, some believe body parts will give them power and political gains. He said allegations of these murders tend to increase during an election year.

"There is this belief for instance that if they remove fat from a human being and some diviner makes some concoction from it, and you rub [it] on your face - wherever you appear in public you'll be the guy that everyone looks up to, you become very powerful, very famous," explained Alie.

Implementing specific laws

So-called ritual murders happen across the continent. In recent years, authorities in Tanzania have tried to stop a wave of albino killings, driven by a demand for their body parts.

But these beliefs are something Alpha Jalloh wants stopped. He is a correspondent in Freetown for the Patriotic Vanguard, an online newspaper based in Canada. Although he has been following Zainab's case, it is also something that hits close to home for him.

"My dad was killed. Today as I talk to you, I have never known the killers, and his [body] parts were taken off," explained Jalloh. "There was no trial, we've never known the suspects, so whenever these things happen I become very emotional. I grew up as an orphan."

Jalloh wants to see specific laws and punishment for ritual murders put in place in Sierra Leone and internationally. According to the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone, there are no laws that strictly deal with ritual murders - a person can only be charged with murder.

Unreported

Jalloh recalled a story he covered in the 1980's. Alhaji Tokowa, who murdered a baby and used the skin for ritual purposes, was convicted in the High Court of Sierra Leone. Since then there have been several other murders believed to be connected with rituals, but in some instances suspects escape the law, he said.

He added that it is hard to know how many people in the country were victims of alleged ritual murders because many cases go unreported.

"These are issues mainly happening in remote areas, where it is difficult to even see police. Like Six Mile village, you have to walk two miles [3.2 kilometers] to come to [a] police post where you have no more than a few policemen," said Jalloh. "Each village is far away from the other, so when something happens it takes time for other villages to know what has happened, and that is what happened with Zainab."

Regarding Zainab's case, two men have been arrested and are currently in prison, according to Inspector Henry Sesay with the Waterloo Police Department. The case is currently before the magistrate in Waterloo, which is the town closest to Six Mile village. Sesay could not comment further on whether or not police suspect it to be a ritual murder, but the matter is under investigation.