The government’s decision to withhold results of the census and secret ballot conducted as part of the measures to protect people with albinism from attackers together with failure to implement the revocation of witchdoctors’ licenses showed that commitment was still lacking in protecting people with albinism.
In wide-ranging interviews, activists and lawmakers said authorities should arrest and prosecute those orchestrating and paying for the crimes and accused the government of announcing sensational measures, which are never followed on just to impress the public that it was not sleeping on the job.
They say little has been done to bring to justice hundreds of people accused of masterminding assaults against people with albinism amid fears that instigators who are not in custody may collude with witchdoctors to mount fresh attacks.
The government is moving at a very slow pace to provide judgement on the suspected killers who have been behind bars without trial, according to Alfred Kapole, an activist working with Tanzania Albino Society.
Kapole is worried the pace at which the government is moving to provide justice to the families of victims who have been waiting for justice for almost five years after the first case was reported is a characteristic example of how the government says one thing but acts differently.
“Most of the promises are made to gratify people at political rallies but nothing is done in actual sense. People with albinism live in fear of being attacked but the government shows no concern,” says Kapole.
The number of attacks on persons with albinism so alarmed the government, particularly due to the negative image the country got in the international media, that on 23 January 2009 it revoked witchdoctors’ licenses countrywide. The measure led to a slight lull in the attacks, but not for long.
However, the ban was never enforced and witchdoctors continued to practice with impunity before the revocation order was rescinded by the government on 30 September, 2010 shortly before a general election was to be held the following month for what media reports suggested was because more than 60 per cent of Tanzanians consulted witchdoctors.
The government initiated a census of persons with albinism, possibly with the aim of providing them with some kind of protection. However, 10 people with albinism working with Under the Same Sun, an NGO established to advocate for the rights of persons with albinism, and more than 20 others who were counted by the NGO said they were not counted. In any case, the results of the census are yet to be announced to date.
In 2007, the government kicked off with fanfare secret ballots to identify suspects engaged in albino killings, but, as in the case of the albino census, the results are still under wraps.
Al-shaymaa Kwegyir, a special seat MP who has albinism says the census of people with albinism was suspended before completion due to lack of funds and failure to reach all people with albinism in different parts of the country.
“It was not successful but we are trying to push for the national census to be conducted later in the year to have a provision which will count people with albinism,” she said.
Before the revocation of the licenses, the government had taken three measures with a view to stemming the attacks.
First, it formed two task forces charged with investigating the killings. However, in a span of three years neither of the task forces had made its findings public, causing fear in the over 200,000-member albino community that the government did not care much about their security.
Attacks have resulted in 78 deaths, hundreds permanently maimed and others physiologically devastated countrywide, particularly in the Lake Region comprising Kagera, Mwanza, Shinyanga, Mara and Tabora regions.
Despite many arrests, there have curiously been only 10 trials culminating in a mere 8 convictions, with most suspects left languishing in remand prison instead of being arraigned in court.
However, most murders have occurred in Kahama district in Shinyanga region. Activists who have been monitoring the incidents report that the attacks and subsequent deaths are fuelled by booming mining and fishing activities in the region.
Witchdoctors in the area convince their clients that mixing albino body parts with magic potions would help them succeed in both business and politics.
“Witchdoctors give the killers powerful potions, train them for two weeks and tell them that if they can kill ghosts then they are more powerful than everyone else,” an activist said.
Attacks on people with albinism have been on the rise because the suspected ringleaders and witchdoctors are often not arrested and therefore don’t fear. Even more perplexing is the fact that people who pay for such horrors to be committed have never been identified in all the reported cases.
The Court of Appeal of Tanzania, led by then Chief Justice Augustino Ramadhani said, in July 2010 after it had sentenced three accused albino killers to death, that wealthy people were likely to be behind the wave of the albino killings and tasked the police force to investigate clues on people behind the killings.
In his remarks at a seminar entitled ‘Understanding albinism’ last November, president of the Judges and Magistrates Association of Tanzania (JMATS) and High Court Judge, John Utamwa said the concern shown by the Chief Justice may have meant that the efforts to bring the killers to justice may have missed the target because the powers behind the horrors had not been touched.
The activists also question the ability of the police force and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to handle such cases. They particularly point out the tendency by the DPP to always go for murder charges, which result in many suspects going scot free. They urge the DPP to also deal with attempted murder, mutilation of people with albinism and conspiracy to commit murder and possession of human organs cases.
“The police force can’t be trusted because four police officers colluded with witchdoctors to tamper with evidence.
Another police officer failed to arrest his landlord who was accused of having conspired with the killers,” Tanzania Albino Society official Alfred Kapole said.
However, Nuhu Mkumbukwa, a High Court advocate who has closely monitored the attacks, called on the government to build the competence of the police, the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the judiciary to enable the institutions to swiftly deal with such cases for it to be considered serious.
“We should not wait until these barbaric actions occur and then rush into action. No post-injury remedies, however strong they may be, will sufficiently cure the pains and losses suffered by the affected persons,” Mkumbukwa says.
However, Mkumbukwa considers Kapole’s assertion that President Kikwete has let down the community of people with albinism for not signing execution orders for the convicted killers as being a non-issue.
For him, justice doesn’t necessarily mean the death penalty and subsequent execution since in countries without the death penalty such horrors did not exist.
Judge Utamwa said in his remarks that the efforts demonstrated by the government to end attacks on people with albinism were inadequate to end them. He said four men who were sentenced to death by hanging in November 2009 for killing Lyaku Willy and removing his head and legs were local leaders who were expected to protect the victim, but were the first to kill him. Also one of the 90 people arrested for alleged connection with the killings and trading in body parts was a police officer.
Despite the president showing personal interest in the whole issue and government commitment to scale up funding to enable swift decision on the cases by the judiciary, Judge Utamwa said.
“JMAT has also faced challenges in deciding the cases in respect to the victimization of people with albinism. They include public pressure due to the peculiarity of the cases, difficult working conditions and lack of adequate funding for the trials,” said Judge Utamwa.
Judge Utamwa agrees with the views of scholars such as Simeon Mesaki, an anthropologist at the University of Dar es Salaam, that the Witchcraft Act should be repealed altogether since its survival instills the belief that witchcraft exists. Instead, he says, the government should focus on educating the public on the fallacy of witchcraft.
Modestus Njimbali, an activist with Under the Same Sun says they wanted the government to act quickly in addressing the attacks the same way it acted when reports emerged that a police officer had been attacked and a firearm stolen in Shinyanga.
“Officers were dispatched immediately, but such haste is not taken when a person with albinism is attacked,” said Njimbali.
Njimbali, who also has albinism, says the majority of them feel threatened, mostly by people who are known to have been involved in the attacks but are still free. In some instances, the suspected culprits have threatened to harm those who reported them to the authorities.
Those responsible for protecting people with albinism feel the attacks will not stop without taking any further measures in the manner in which previous killings of people with bald heads ceased. Njimbali says such thinking was in line with misguided public perception that people with albinism are demons who don’t die but disappear mysteriously. This shows how irresponsible the government was, according to Njimbali who further argues that the tendency is likely to escalate the attacks thus ruin the reputation of the country abroad.
And, in a cruel twist of fate, the culprits would mount an attack in an area just when members of the task forces were visiting the area.
This was confirmed by then Kahama district commissioner Major Makala, who in November 2011, told a visiting team of Tanzania Albino Society and Under the Same Sun activists that every time a task force committee was in the district people with albinism would be attacked. In one incident, two people with albinism, Kabula and Kulwa, were attacked when a team of activists was in the district.
The apparent dilly-dallying by the government to take stern action against albino killings prompted Peter Ash, a Canadian albino activist, and his colleagues in Tanzania, Josephat Torner and Samwel Mluge, to stage a demonstration at the UN headquarters in 2009 to ask the world body to pressure the government of Tanzania into forming a special commission to probe albino killings.
Ash and his colleagues said although more than 170 suspects had already been arrested in connection with albino killings, none had so far been arraigned in court.
They further demanded that the army be involved in an operation to stop albino killings, charging that they had no confidence in the police force because some of its officers were among the arrested suspects.
Mkumbukwa says the government has largely been patchy in dealing with the attacks. He urges it to amend criminal laws so that a judge presiding over a criminal trial may give a full compensation order similar to those in civil cases, unlike in the existing costly arrangement where a victim is required to file a civil case to claim compensation in a civil trial.