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Malleus Maleficarum: Scrutinizing Sorcery in Cameroon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 January 2018

Julie Ynes Ada Tchoukou*
McGill University, Faculty of Law


Drawing on ethnographic research, this article reflects critically on the current involvement of the Cameroonian state in witchcraft accusations. Unlike other African states where witchcraft is connected to religion and culture and as such is far detached from economics and politics, post-colonial Cameroon associates witchcraft and other occult practices with being a major factor in its slow economic development. The state resorted to criminal law in its attempts to eradicate the practice. Its penal code subjects persons accused of witchcraft to imprisonment for up to ten years. This provision has been subject to great criticism, as its application has led to a high conviction rate of indigenous Cameroonians. The aim of this article is not to determine the appropriateness of this approach, but to raise questions and shed light on the various inconsistencies with criminalizing a practice that arguably constitutes an underlying basis of indigenous Cameroonian cultural heritage.

Research Article
Copyright © SOAS, University of London 2018 

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LLB (Nelson Mandela University, South Africa); LLM (University of Cape Town, South Africa); LLM (McGill University, Canada); PhD candidate and research assistant, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada.


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18 The expansive nature of these powers resulted in parallels being drawn between the witchdoctor and the witch. Indigenous Cameroonians believe that only a stronger witch can have the power to heal another witch. As such, there is a logical validity in placing the witchdoctor as a wielder of power in the same continuum as the witch. This is so because the rationale underlying the belief in the powers of the witchdoctor is the same as that behind the fear of witchcraft. See Mesaki “The evolution and essence”, above at note 2 at 172.

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30 Politically it had also become an unwritten requirement that eligibility to run for political office was largely dependent on the fact that such elite owned at least a house in his or her area of origin. This was part of the background check carried out before the validation of candidates. See id at 145.

31 The 1985 study also equated witchcraft practice to alcoholism and stressed the need to fight these abuses. It stated that failure to do so would inevitably result in a weakening of moral behaviour, which would slow down provincial development. It also highlighted that indigenous Cameroonians used witchcraft as a weapon to dispel civil servants posted to communities other than their own. See id at 146.

32 Ibid.

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38 Ibid.

39 An overview of case law reflects that courts are willing to convict witches if one or more of the following circumstances are present: witchcraft accusations are initiated and supported by the village, especially when evidence of the witchdoctor is tendered in support; witchcraft accusations are followed by a confession of the accused; or witchcraft accusations are supported by overwhelming circumstantial evidence, including hearsay. See Fisiy “Containing occult practices” above at note 25 at 160.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 See for example The People v Betta Samuel and Akama Epong KM/193c/86; Ministere Public & Mvondo c/N Jacqueline [1984] 355/COR.

43 In one case, for example, one of the accused confessed to being a witch but insisted that his sorcellerie was only used for hunting purposes and not for killing humans. Within the indigenous society, it is widely believed that the best hunters possess some form of supernatural powers. However, the court in this instance failed to take this factor into account and convicted the accused.

44 Fisiy “Containing occult practices” above at note 25 at 160.

45 Ibid.

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59 Ibid.

60 This is unlike other religious institutions that fail to recognize and deal with the problems of evil as defined in the African context.

61 Walker “Witchcraft and healing”, above at note 50 at 128.

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69 Ashforth “Witchcraft, justice and human rights”, above at note 67 at 5.

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91 Ibid.

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93 Ibid.

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