Saturday, August 30, 2014

Who will come to the rescue of albinos?

Threatened: Campaigners against albino attacks

Threatened: Campaigners against albino attacks and those affected believe politicians and the wealthy are the main culprits. PHOTO | FILE 

By Bernard James,The Citizen Reporter

Dar es Salaam. Assaults on albinos have been in the media spotlight for the past seven years, yet the only thing we know for sure is this:  They are attacked, mutilated and killed for their body parts--presumably for use in witchcraft concoctions. The people behind these inhuman and callous acts remain unknown even though investigators have arrested, interrogated and prosecuted many people reportedly hired to attack albinos.

So who are contracting people to mutilate, kill and--as a consequence--create widespread fear and insecurity among people with albinism? Campaigners against albino attacks and those affected believe politicians and the wealthy are the main culprits. “I have recorded witchdoctors telling me that politicians are the main clients of those who sell albino body parts,” says Ms Vicky Ntetema, the executive director of Under The Same Sun, an NGO fighting discrimination against people with albinism in Tanzania. It is widely believed that people seeking quick wealth and political power spend huge amounts of money contracting killers to supply albino body parts, which are ultimately used as charms.

People with albinism are living in great fear as the country braces for civic elections in October and the general election next year, according to Ms Ntetema. Statistics show a sudden surge in such killings--from eight 2007 to 28 in 2008--just a year before civic elections were held. There were 12 killings in 2009, a year before the general election.

Campaigners against the killings see this pattern as the link between the attacks and political elections. Already, three brutal attacks and one attempted assault have taken place in the 12 days since August 5, two months before a local election and a year ahead of general elections.

The director of information and public relations at the Tanzania Albino Society (TAS), Mr Josephat Tona, says it has always been their stand that politicians are at the centre of the killings. He adds: “They cannot escape blame. We have said before, and we are saying it again, that the fact that the killings tend to rise when elections near is a clear indication that politicians are behind  them.”

The albino community has its own doubts about the political will to save their lives, arguing that it has always taken too long for politicians to declare a stand against the killings and it is always too late when they decide. “We cannot freely do anything to support our lives because we live in great fear and frustration,” he told The Citizen on Saturday.

According to Ms Ntetema, the rise in attacks on albinos when elections approach in some neighbouring countries does not come as a surprise. She argues that the killings are a cross-border business and cites the case of five-month-old Noela Neema, who was abducted in December 2010 in Ruyigi in Burundi and taken across the border to Tanzania--where she was subsequently hacked to death for her body parts.

In November 2008, a man was caught trying to enter the Democratic Republic of Congo with the head of an albino child in his luggage. He told police he was taking it to a businessman in Congo, who would pay him according to the weight of the head.

When neighbouring Kenya held elections in February, there were reports of “traditional healers” from Tanzania camping there.

They said they had been invited to that country by politicians, who apparently hoped they could influence the results. A witchdoctor who was interviewed by The Daily Nation in Nairobi in June 2012 said their clients included renowned Kenyan and Tanzanian politicians.

Between January 31 and February 15, as the elections neared, there were four attacks on albinos in Tanzania. “There is no doubt there is a link between political elections in Tanzania and some neighbouring countries with increasing attacks on albinos,” says Ms Ntetema. “With the civic and general elections approaching in Tanzania, we can expect more attacks and kidnappings.”

TAS is accusing the government of failing to provide security to its members and shaming those behind the attacks. “The one to blame is the government,” says TAS Secretary Ziada Nsembo. “It has all the instruments to deal with witchdoctors, attackers and buyers of our body parts but it seems there is no political will to do so.”

Director of Criminal Investigation (DCI) Isaya Mngulu told The Citizen on Saturday that the  police force has no proof linking politicians and businessmen with attacks on albinos and challenged those making the allegations to come to the assistance of the police. Said the DCI: “We have no proof that prominent politicians and wealthy individuals are behind the attacks. If they know the real culprits, why don’t they give us their names so we can take action?”

But even as the DCI says he has yet to establish a link between politicians and the attacks, United Nations human rights official Alicia Loudono said on her recent trip to Tanzania that virtually everyone linked the recent attacks to the presidential election set for October 2015.

She added: “There is this common knowledge that attacks on people with albinism rise when there is [an] election.  One of the reasons they say is that there are some politicians that use witchcraft for gaining power.  This is part of their belief…for winning elections, for being more rich.”

Since 2006, there have been 151 murders and attacks on people with albinism in Tanzania. But Under The Same Sun believes that most attacks go unreported.

Only five per cent (about eight) of the 151 cases have gone to prosecution stage in the courts so far. “Law enforcement and the judiciary have been impotent in addressing this human rights crisis,” says Mr Peter Ash, the founder and chief executive officer of Under the Same Sun. Tanzania has  the ratio of 1:1,400 albinos.

The case of Swaziland

In May last year, Swaziland’s albinos appealed to their government for protection ahead of elections later in the year, fearing their body parts would be harvested by candidates seeking success. “I can warn both adults and parents of albino children to take extra care during these election days,” said Skhumbuzo  Mndvoti, an albino community leader living in the southern town of Nhlangano. As in other parts of Africa, ritual killings are common in Swaziland--with witchdoctors using limbs or body parts as amulets.

Mndvoti accuses witchdoctors of misleading people into believing that using human body parts will make them win seats in parliament or prosper in business. Aspiring Nhlangano MP Mthokozisi Kunene admits that aspiring politicians are prime suspects in ritual attacks and killings.

The Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRGG) and the European Union (EU) have issued statements condemning a recent wave of attacks.

Said EU Ambassador to Tanzania Filiberto Sebregondi: “The occurrence of the attacks represents a disturbing trend. I am respectfully looking at Tanzania’s leadership to address these issues and show people living with albinism they are neither ignored, nor abused for their condition.”

CGGHR has called on the government to conduct in-depth investigations to identify those sponsoring and executing the barbaric acts.