Nigeria: Consequences for a person refusing a chief priest or a shaman [also called fetish priest] title for which they have been selected in south and central Nigeria; state protection (2019–October 2021)
1. Overview of the Role of Chief Priest and/or Shaman
In correspondence with the Research Directorate, an emeritus professor specializing in African cultural anthropology at the University of Birmingham, who has been conducting archival research for over 20 years, explained that "the term ''fetish priests' is outdated and offensive, and should not be used" (Emeritus Professor 14 Oct. 2021). In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, a researcher at the University of Toronto who has conducted research on education and migration also explained that the words "fetish objects" and "fetish priest" are used by Western researchers in a pejorative way and that African researchers and the Nigerian people prefer the terms "'charms' and 'shamans' or 'traditional doctors' or even 'shrine priests'" (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a senior researcher who specializes in traditional religious groups at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka similarly stated that
the concept of fetish priest does not have a place in contemporary African spirituality and religious culture. It was a Western colonial concept derogatorily concocted and imposed on African spiritual image to demean the efficacy and potent character of African spiritual personality. (Senior Researcher 30 Oct. 2021)
The researcher affiliated with a Canadian university stated that there is only one chief priest in each community, while there may be several shamans within the same community (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a researcher who specializes in Indigenous studies at James Cook University (Australia), stated that "the position of a chief priest is a crucial one" and that he serves as a mediator between the people and the deities (Researcher affiliated with an Australian university 1 Nov. 2021). In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, an associate professor who specializes in African history at Brock University in Canada stated that all chief priests are shamans, but not all shaman are chief priests (Associate Professor 20 Oct. 2021). According to the same source, a chief priest leads a sanctuary in which he uses [charms] in most of the rituals he performs and hires a [shaman] gradually as his shrine expands, in the same way he will hire a witch priestess with the increasing in the sanctuary activities (Associate Professor 20 Oct. 2021). The Senior Researcher explained that "[t]he role of a traditional or chief priest revolves round the spiritual guardianship of a given community" and that his position is generally "tied to a given deity" as well as to the particular geographical territory where that deity reigns or exercises "its influence and powers" (Senior Researcher 30 Oct. 2021).
According to the researcher affiliated with a Canadian university, it is popular belief throughout southern Nigeria that the chief priest profession is not acquired, taught, passed on or inherited, as a person most often automatically becomes chief priest as the result of an oracle's prophecy, whereas the shaman can be chosen by a chief priest or by his community, and his profession can be passed on from father to son or even within the extended family of the ancestor who was a shaman (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021). In contrast, the Associate Professor stated that one can become a chief priest or a [shaman] in a hereditary way, as the role is most often passed down from generation to generation between males members of a family, while witchcraft activities are mostly passed down between female members (Associate Professor 20 Oct. 2021). The Senior Researcher also stated the following regarding the way in which chief priests are chosen:
On the appointment of Chief Priests, it is instructive to point out that as a spiritual office, such appoints are devoid of secular procedures. The first condition is that such a candidate must be associated historically and ancestrally with the given deity. In some instances the choice is determined by the given deity either through divination or direct personal inspiration ... . In other instances the candidate is chosen through a defined succession framework within the given priestly kindred or membership in a village or clan. (Senior Researcher 30 Oct. 2021)
The researcher based in Australia stated that "there are some strategic traditional titles/positions that have been exclusively assigned to some families such as chief priest, warlord etc." and that "this is a common practice across all regions in Nigeria" (Researcher affiliated with an Australian university 1 Nov. 2021).
Sources stated that the number of traditional shrines and priests is declining in south-central Nigeria as Christianity becomes more prevalent there (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021; Associate Professor 20 Oct. 2021). The same sources also stated that chief priests sometimes serve as judges in the context of informal traditional courts and that their influence in that respect is growing with the dysfunctions of the official judicial system, particularly when it comes to criminal justice (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021; Associate Professor 20 Oct. 2021). The Senior Researcher similarly stated that a number of people tend to turn to divine justice rendered through chief priests, believing that that is the only means of obtaining unbiased and effective judgment instead of using the "habitually corrupt modern judicial system" (Senior Researcher 30 Oct. 2021).
The Emeritus Professor also stated that "religious or ritual titles are often unwelcome, which is not surprising in a country where more than 90% of the population are declared Muslims or Christians" and "nowadays traditional religion has hardly any power left" (Emeritus Professor 14 Oct. 2021). The researcher affiliated with a Canadian university went on to state that the respective roles of chief priest and shaman are part of practices relating to various traditional religions that have existed in Nigeria, the main ones being Juju, Ayelala, Voodoo and Yoruba, from which almost all others descend (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021).
1.1 Juju Priest
According to the researcher affiliated with a Canadian university, Juju is a religious practice that originated from the Yoruba religion and that is especially practiced throughout south-central Nigeria, whereas the term juju spelled in lower case refers to the charms used in related rituals (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021). The EU's European Asylum Support Office (EASO) defines juju as [EU English version] "the Nigerian popular term for 'traditional' medicine and charms" (EU Nov. 2018, 55). The New Yorker also defines juju as a "set of parallel beliefs" consisting of traditional rituals and involving local gods and whose name spread across West Africa, which persisted as Christian missionaries converted much of southern Nigeria (The New Yorker 3 Apr. 2017). Le Monde diplomatique, a French monthly magazine, describes juju in the context of the sex trafficking of Nigerian women as [translation] "a small object" made and used in a ritual contract ceremony, in particular consisting of "hair, nail clippings and sometimes even menstrual blood taken from the girl" (Le Monde diplomatique Nov. 2018).
According to an article in the New Yorker, juju priests are also used to traffic young girls to European countries:
In Benin City [Edo State, southern Nigeria], important agreements are often sealed with an oath, administered by a juju priest. The legal system can be dodged or corrupted, the thinking goes, but there is no escaping the consequences of violating a promise made before the old gods. Many sex traffickers have used this tradition to guarantee the obedience of their victims. Madams in Italy have their surrogates in Nigeria take the girls to a local shrine, where the juju priest performs a bonding ritual, typically involving the girl's fingernails, pubic hair, or blood, which the priest retains until she has repaid her debt to her trafficker. (The New Yorker 3 Apr. 2017)
According to the same source, most of the people involved believe in juju's efficacy, including the traffickers and young girls, as well as the people to whom the young girls are sent and who exploit them in Europe (The New Yorker 3 Apr. 2017). Le Monde diplomatique also states that young women, mostly from Edo State (especially Benin City), [translation] "have to interpret illnesses, somatic pain, insomnia and anxiety as being caused by juju" once they arrive in Europe (Le Monde diplomatique Nov. 2018). However, in a 2015 report, EASO cites a 2007 report on Nigerian sex workers in Norway published by FAFO, "an independent social science research foundation" (FAFO n.d.), and states that "many" women who participate in these juju rituals "consider it a mere contract ritual with no magic powers and perceive the oath as a sealing of agreements" (EU Oct. 2015, 28).
1.2 Voodoo Priest
According to the researcher affiliated with a Canadian university, "Voodoo meanwhile can be considered one of the oldest religions in south-central Nigeria alongside Yoruba from which it originated. Although Voodoo is declining in central-south Nigeria as a result of other religious practices of which it constitutes the originating religion and much more because of the rise of Christianity" (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021). In a December 2015 article published in an academic journal, Peter Ademu Anyebe, a Senior Research Fellow at the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS), explains that voodoo is a traditional practice that originated in Africa, especially among the Efon, Ewe and Yoruba ethnic groups found in Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria (Anyebe Dec. 2015, 45). According to the author, voodoo priests are involved in the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women:
In Nigeria, voodoo priests are often used to seal financial transactions often with a threat of a deadly curse for the wrong doer. Therefore, traffickers in persons, especially in women and girls or prostitution gangs parlay this fear to their advantage. Therefore, thousands of women and girls seeking transport to Europe sometimes with false promise of legal work undergo voodoo rituals that can involve drinking blood from cuts and taking nail and hair clipping as totems. (Anyebe Dec. 2015, 34)
Information on the shaman title in Nigeria was scarce among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.
The Associate Professor stated that a shaman is a person who uses [charms] to notably perform money rituals and oath rituals in the shrine which, in most cases, belongs to the chief priest but, on rare occasions, could also belong to him (Associate Professor 20 Oct. 2021). The researcher affiliated with a Canadian university indicated that the responsibilities of shamans or shrine priests are miscellaneous and vary according to their areas of specialization, including being advisers of chiefs, wisemen, specialists in love and relationships, hunters of evil spirits, seers, or therapists and healers (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021). According to the same source, many of those who consider themselves "herbalists" and who use herbs for medicinal or ritual practices are also shamans or shrine priests (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021). The same source further stated that these shamans are instead called "bad shamans" or "evil shamans" when they perform money rituals or ritual killings on behalf of their ritualist clients or when they associate themselves with organized crime by administering oaths related to ritual contracts, especially for human trafficking (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021).
2. Prevalence and Consequences of Refusing the Title
Information on the prevalence of refusals and the consequences for a person refusing a chief priest or a shaman title for which they have been selected in southern and central Nigeria was scarce among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.
According to the researcher affiliated with a Canadian university, the question of whether the chief priest title can be refused is not applicable, given that according to local beliefs, this title is not offered by humans but is rather accepted automatically by the person benefiting from it, since it is granted by the gods long before birth in most cases (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021). The same source also confirmed that it is entirely possible, however, to refuse the title of shaman or shrine priest and that there are generally no consequences beyond the fear of angering the upper spirits for those who believe in this (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021). The Associate Professor stated:
There are no official statistics on how often people refuse chief priest or [shaman] title, but there are bound to be some, and their numbers must be increasing gradually as Christianity is replacing traditional beliefs in central and south of Nigeria. Most of persons who refuse to hold the title are doing so because they are Christians, and the Christian religion is not compatible with chief priest / fetish priest [shaman] responsibilities. One of the rare consequences due to this refusal may be the permanent loss of this title in the family line or the forced eviction from the community in the most serious cases. (Associate Professor 20 Oct. 2021)
The Senior Researcher also stated the following regarding the refusal of a chief priest title:
Where the position is hereditary and a candidate is chosen by that right to assume the position, it becomes incumbent for such an individual to accept the offer. But if for whatever reason such a person declines the offer, as it has been the case with some Christian converts, the community will have no other alternative than to search for an alternative candidate. In such an instance, the community will leave the verdict over the rejection to the given deity to determine, although there had been instances where such individuals were systematically excluded from the events of the community. But in general, there has never been any case or reason for physical compulsion since nobody is entitled to decide for the deity who should serve her. (Senior Researcher 30 Oct. 2021)
Nonetheless, according to the researcher affiliated with an Australian university, refusing the chief priest title could be dangerous:
[I]t is very risky to refuse such a powerful and sensitive position because the consequence for the refusal may be severe and deadly. However, a few Christians and Muslims may want to refuse the positions because of their faith but they need to be ready for the consequences. (Researcher affiliated with an Australian university 1 Nov. 2021)
According to the same source, "[e]xcept the gods say otherwise, the family that this title has been exclusively given to, needs to choose a successor, should in case the chief priest dies" (Researcher affiliated with an Australian university 1 Nov. 2021).
3. State Protection
The Associate Professor stated that even though it remains "tolerated," the profession of chief priest is illegal in facts, given that some of their responsibilities, such as witchcraft, trials by ordeal and practices related to juju, are prohibited by Nigerian law (Associate Professor 20 Oct. 2021). The 1990 Criminal Code Act states the following in this regard:
Ordeal, Witchcraft, Juju and Criminal Charms
207. Unlawful trial by ordeal: prohibited juju
- The trial by the ordeal of sasswood, esere-bean, or the poison, boiling oil, fire, immersion in water or exposure to the attacks of crocodiles or other wild animals, or by any ordeal which is likely to result in the death of or bodily injury to any party to the proceeding, is unlawful.
- The President or, as the case may be, the Governor of a State may by order prohibit the worship or invocation of any juju which may appear to him to involve or tend towards the commission of any crime or breach of peace, or to the spread of any infectious or contagious disease.
208. Directing, etc., unlawful trial by ordeal
Any person who directs or controls or presides at any trial by ordeal which is unlawful, is guilty of a felony and is liable, when the trial which such person directs, controls or presides at results in the death of any party to the proceeding, to the punishment of death and m every other case, to imprisonment for ten years.
209. Being present at, or making poison for, unlawful trial by ordeal
Any person who‐
- is present at or takes part in any trial by ordeal which is unlawful; or
- makes, sells or assists or takes part in making or selling, or has in his possession for sale or use any poison or thing which is intended to be used for the purpose of any trial by ordeal which is unlawful,
is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for one year.
210. Offences in relation to witchcraft and juju
Any person who‐
- by his statements or actions represents himself to be a witch or to have the power of witchcraft; or
- accuses or threatens to accuse any person with being a witch or with having the power of witchcraft; or
- makes or sells or uses, or assists or takes part in making or selling or using or has in his possession or represents himself to be in possession of any juju, drug or charm which is intended to be used or reported to possess the power to prevent or delay any person from doing an act which such person has a legal right to do, or to compel any person to do an act which such person has a legal right to refrain from doing, or which is alleged or reported to possess the power of causing any natural phenomenon or any disease or epidemic; or
- directs or controls or presides at or is present at or takes part in the worship or invocation of any juju which is prohibited by an order of the President or the Governor of a State; or
- is in possession of or has control over any human remains which are used or are intended to be used in connection with the worship or invocation of any juju; or
- makes or uses or assists in making or using, or has in his possession anything whatsoever the making, use or possession of which has been prohibited by an order as being or believed to be associated with human sacrifice or other unlawful practice,
is guilty of misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for two years.
211. Chiefs permitting unlawful ordeal and prohibited juju worship
Any chief who directly or indirectly permits, promotes, encourages or facilitates any trial by ordeal which is unlawful, or the worship or invocation of any juju which has been prohibited by an order, or who knowing of such trial, worship or invocation, or intended trial, worship or invocation, does not forthwith report the same to an administrative officer, is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for three years.
The offender cannot be arrested without warrant.
212. Destruction of place where unlawful ordeal or prohibited juju worship is held
Any house, grove or place in which it has been customary to hold any trial by ordeal which is unlawful, or the worship or invocation of any juju which is prohibited by an order, may, together with all articles found therein, be destroyed or erased upon the order of any court by such persons as the court may direct.
213. Criminal charms
Any person who
- makes, sells or keeps for sale or for hire or reward, any fetish or charm which is pretended or reputed to possess power to protect burglars, robbers, thieves or other malefactors, or to aid or assist in any way in the perpetration of any burglary, housebreaking, robbery or theft, or in the perpetration of any offence whatsoever, or to prevent, hinder or delay the detection of or conviction for any offence whatsoever; or
- is found having in his possession without lawful and reasonable excuse (the proof of which excuse shall lie on such person) any such fetish or charm as aforesaid,
is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for five years. (Nigeria 1990, art. 207-213, emphasis in original)
3.2 State Response and Measures
Information on the response of and the measures taken by the state to protect persons who refused a chief priest or a shaman title was scarce among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.
According to the researcher affiliated with a Canadian university, there is no state protection to fight against evil shamans, but such protection would be neither necessary nor useful in the case of chief priests since, according to common opinion and collective beliefs, most of them are harmless and more powerful than governments (Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university 19 Oct. 2021). Nonetheless, the Associate Professor stated that federal and local governments can make efforts to protect potential victims "as much as possible" by enforcing Criminal Code provisions concerning the unlawful practices of traditional chief priests and shamans (Associate Professor 20 Oct. 2021). The Senior Researcher explained the following:
The issue of state protection could only come in when the matter extends to the level of physical compulsion or attempts to infringe on such a person's fundamental rights as a free citizen of the country. Under such a circumstance, the victim could then seek redress in a court of law or the security agencies for protection. (Senior Researcher 30 Oct. 2021)
The researcher affiliated with an Australian university stated the following regarding state protection:
I am not so sure whether state protection would be available in such situation because Nigeria is a multi-plural society that is composed of several cultural traditions, all of which are outlined in the customary laws of each state (customary laws are amalgams of customs and cultural practices that are accepted by members of a particular area of jurisdiction). They are largely unwritten, binding on the people, and are not uniform. Except, there are strong evidences that show that a particular cultural practice poses a threat to life of an individual, it is uncertain whether state protection would be available or not for culturally-inspired phenomena. (Researcher affiliated with an Australian university 1 Nov. 2021)
This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.
Anyebe, Peter Ademu. December 2015. "Voodoo and Human Trafficking in Nigeria: A Nation's Albatross." Journal of Social Welfare and Human Rights. Vol. 3, No. 2. [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021]
Associate Professor, Brock University, St. Catharines. 20 October 2021. Telephone interview with the Research Directorate.
Emeritus Professor, University of Birmingham. 14 October 2021. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.
European Union (EU). November 2018. European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Rapport d'information sur les pays d'origine. Nigeria : individus pris pour cibles. [Accessed 15 Oct. 2021]
European Union (EU). October 2015. European Asylum Support Office (EASO). EASO Country of Origin Information Report. Nigeria: Sex Trafficking of Women. [Accessed 27 Oct. 2021]
FAFO. N.d. "About FAFO." [Accessed 10 Nov. 2021]
Le Monde diplomatique. November 2018. Mathilde Harel. "Prostituées nigérianes victimes du 'juju'." [Accessed 20 Oct. 2021]
The New Yorker. 3 April 2017. Ben Taub. "The Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl." [Accessed 15 Oct. 2021]
Nigeria. 1990. Criminal Code Act. [Accessed 20 Oct. 2021]
Researcher affiliated with an Australian university, James Cook University. 1 November 2021. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.
Researcher affiliated with a Canadian university, University of Toronto. 19 October 2021. Telephone interview with the Research Directorate.
Senior Researcher, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. 30 October 2021. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.
Additional Sources Consulted
Oral sources: Associate professor at an American university who specializes in African beliefs and religions; associate professor at an American university who specializes in Anthropology and African religious studies; associate professor at an American university who specializes in gender in African religions and Yoruba religious practices, including rituals; associate professor at an American university who specializes in traditional African religious practices; associate professor at an American university who specializes in Yoruba religious practices, oath practices and ethnic issues; Canada – Canadian diplomatic representation in Abuja, Nigeria; Catholic Christian priest who has worked with Yoruba traditional chiefs and chief priests and shamans in south-central Nigeria; executive vice president of a public policy school at a Nigerian university; former traditional chief of the Yoruba and Igbo who has worked with chief priests and shamans; head of the Department of African Studies and Anthropology at an American university; Nigeria – Police forces, High Commission of Nigeria in Ottawa; professor emeritus at an American university who specializes in Yoruba-speaking religions and regions in Nigeria; professor at an American university who specializes in African history and studies; professor at an American university who specializes in cultural and historical interpretations in West Africa; professor at a British university who specializes in ethno-regional and religious conflict in Nigeria; professor at a Nigerian university who specializes in sociology, criminology and security studies; professor at an American university who specializes in Yoruba diaspora studies; researcher and doctoral student in African studies at a Czech university; researcher at an Australian university who specializes in African traditions and religions; researcher with a PhD in Sociology who conducted a study on sects in Nigeria; senior lecturer at a Nigerian university who specializes in African cultural practices and traditional communities; senior lecturer at a Nigerian university who specializes in chieftaincy and ritual practices in Yoruba-speaking regions; senior lecturer at an American university who specializes in Yoruba and African studies; senior researcher at an American university who specializes in African studies; senior researcher at a Nigerian university who specializes in chieftaincy and traditional religions; senior researcher at a Nigerian university who specializes in conflict studies and African ethnic and religious groups; senior researcher at a Nigerian university who specializes in strategic studies, crisis management, sect studies and ritual killings in Nigeria.
Internet sites, including: Al Jazeera; Amnesty International; Australia – Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Austria – Austrian Center for Country of Origin & Asylum Research and Documentation; BBC; Bertelsmann Stiftung; Factiva; France – Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides; Freedom House; Human Rights Watch; Netherlands – Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Nigeria – Ministry of Chieftaincy Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, National Human Rights Commission, Police Forces; Pulse.ng; Switzerland – Swiss Refugee Council; UK – Home Office; UN – Refworld; US – Department of State; Vanguard; Voice of America.