UN expert questions 'witchcraft' as cause of rising albino violence

Geneva (AFP)- Witchcraft and mysterious occult beliefs have been blamed for the surge in attacks targeting albinos in Africa over the last decade, but a UN expert said those theories leave a lot unexplained.

Ikponwosa Ero, a Nigerian who has the genetic condition that causes people to be born with very pale skin, is the first expert named by the United Nations to focus on the rights of people with albinism, including why they have been brutally maimed and murdered across Africa.

"The attacks are a consequence of a root cause, so going after the root cause is one of my priorities," Ero told AFP.

There were isolated attacks targeting albinos in Africa before 2006, but for Ero, the dramatic rise in such incidents across the continent over the last 10 years marks a clear phenomenon that requires further investigation.

"People get it when you say 'witchcraft'", Ero told AFP. "It may not be correct." Much of the violence against albinos occurred in Tanzania, where dozens have been slaughtered or severely wounded since 2006.

Albino body parts have reportedly been used in ceremonies aimed at making diamonds appear in the soil in the East African nation. Their white hair has also been weaved into fishing lines to help fisherman make a big catch.

But attacks have also spiked in south and west African countries thousands of kilometres away from Tanzania, including Sierre Leone, where there at least 60 albinos have been murdered since 2007.

Ero said a key question was how a bizarre, mystical belief that possession of albino body parts could bring riches found adherents across a vast continent in a relatively short period of time.

The sharing of ideas among so-called witchdoctors from Tanzania to Sierra Leone to Malawi - where albino violence spiked last year - seems hard to believe, Ero said.

There is also no known evidence of a pan-African, pre-colonial belief in the magical power of dismembered albino bodies.

As the International Committee of the Red Cross noted in a 2009 report that sought to understand rising attacks in Tanzania and Burundi, "the use of the body parts of murdered albinos as good-luck charms suddenly came from nowhere".

Ero said one of her jobs is to look for other answers.

"There are a lot of theories," she told AFP, highlighting one - rising wealth on the continent - that may be "viable". This theory suggests that economic growth in Africa created new individual wealth that fuelled resentment and suspicion in some communities.

In isolated cases "capitalism (was viewed) as a magical phenomenon and people can't understand why you are so rich and I am are so poor," Ero explained.

Claims by so-called witchdoctors that albino body parts brought prosperity may have been persuasive to a handful of misguided people and the notion somehow spread.

This theory was previously argued in 2013 research from the Free University of Berlin which blamed the surging attacks on albinos in Tanzania on resentments caused by boom-and-bust economic cycles in the northwest Mwanza district, where the attacks were concentrated.

Ero said the ultimate goal was to move past vague references to African witchcraft - which suit media headlines - but which do not fully explain the gruesome trend.

"You can't stop something from happening without looking at the reason why it's happening," she said.