Nov 06, 2023 I Brent Swancer

Sorcery, Black Magic, and Warfare in Africa

There was a time when monsters, magic, and demons were very real to us. In many societies there was once a time when these were normal features of the landscape, powers beyond our control or understanding that kept us cowering in darkeness in our homes. With the advent of science and enlightenment, much of civilization was able to chase away these shadows, to dispel the monsters that had plagued us for so long. Yet, in some societies on this planet such beliefs stubbornly persist to this day, and many would seek to harness them to their own ends. Among these are many places in Africa, where black magic, witches, spirits, and demons are still considered to be very real, and where there are many who look to weaponize these forces to give them an edge in warfare.

Many areas of Africa have a long tradition of using black magic, spiritual powers, and witchcraft in times of war. After all, this is a continent in which the belief in such paranormal powers is deeply embedded into the various cultures of numerous areas, especially among more rural, uneducated societies. One rather spectacular account of this occurred in early August 1964 in Stanleyville, which is present-day Kisangani, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the time the town was under siege by drug-addled, bloodthirsty communist Simba rebels marauding around with impunity, delighting in wanton brutal killing, torture, rape, and executions of the Congolese for their European sympathies, all while rounding up American and Belgian diplomats, missionaries, nuns, businessmen and their families as hostages for leverage against those who would oppose them. The overwhelmed American military forces and soldiers of the Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC) that had been stationed there had largely abandoned the town to its fate and it was mostly a bloodbath, and an orgy of rape, torture, flaying, burning, impalement, dismemberment, disembowelment, ritual cannibalism, and other horrific atrocities. All of this would later be attributed to the rebels’ supposed use of black magic.   

At the time, the Simba rebels managed to keep resistance to a minimum by claiming to have great magical powers, such as the ability to turn bullets to water, fly, become invisible, or to shape shift into animals, all of which kept the superstitious locals in a constant state of cowering fear. It was for this reason that the rebels were able to take Stanleyville in the first place. Indeed, allegedly they not only managed to take control of the city, but they did it with a mere 300 men armed with little more than spears, bows, machetes, and ferocity in the face of the much larger government forces that were stationed there, mostly due to terror in the face of their perceived sorcery. Indeed, according to reports, a lone bare-chested rebel witch doctor had almost single handedly cleared out the opposing troops simply by wandering the streets chanting and waving around a ritual magic stick. According to foreign forces at the time, the Congolese government forces were absolutely terrified, fleeing their posts in great haste and leading to them having to retreat as well.   

A similar case takes us to the African country of Rwanda during the horrific genocide that swept the nation between the years of 7 April and 15 July 1994 during the Rwandan Civil War. During this period of around 100 days, members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as some moderate Hutu and Twa, were brutally tortured and killed by ruthless armed Hutu militias in one of the worst atrocities of modern times, an orgy of killings and rampant rape. It was a time of armed Hutu gangs prowling the countryside burning, pillaging, killing, torturing, and raping innocent victims with impunity on a massive scale. The most widely accepted scholarly estimates are around 500,000 to 662,000 Tutsi deaths, possibly many more and none of them pleasant. At no point did any advanced nation forcefully intervene to stop the carnage, leaving them to their fates with little more than news stories and empty wishes for peace from the modern world around them. 

During this horrific time there emerged a savior of sorts, in the form of a Rwandan woman by the name of Zura Karuhimbi, who was widely known in her village as a traditional healer and a witch. She was well known for having various magical powers, and she played this up to the hilt when the genocide came inexorably marching towards her door. At the time of the genocide Zura was an unassuming frail, elderly old widow living in a simple, two-room hovel, but as the violence spread around her she began to deter the Hutu militias by cultivating a reputation for being possessed by evil spirits and imbued with powerful magical powers. To this end she would boldly announce that her house was inhabited by ghosts and threaten that those who tried to enter would unleash evil spirits and even the wrath of God upon themselves. To drive this all home she would hang up arcane talismans and amulets, adorn her home with symbols of black magic, and wear magical jewelry, all of which scared the bejeezus out of the roving militias. 

During this time, Zura took many refugees into her home, into which no militiaman dared to enter, even hiding them under beds and in her roof, and she would shout out curses and give the evil eye to all enemies who would approach, sending these otherwise hardened killers scurrying away in fear. There are even reports that she dug a hole in her fields for people to hide in, and she would use various poisons to underscore her power. One survivor would say of it:

Zura’s only weapon was to scare the killers that she would unleash spirits on to them and their families. She would also anoint herself with a local skin-irritating herb and could touch the killers to try to keep them away. Zura told Interahamwe militia if they entered the shrine, they would incur the wrath of Nyabingi [a Kinyarwanda word for God]. They all ran back telling everyone there were ghosts inside the house. Everyone believed her ghosts were dangerous and would kill them. They were frightened and our lives were saved for another day.

It is said that the enemies' belief in her powers caused many of them to sincerely believe that they were being chased by ghosts sent after them by Zura and that some even committed suicide because they were convinced that they were irrevocably cursed by her dark, arcane magic. In the end, Zura would use her “witchcraft” to save over 100 lives during the genocide, and In 2006 she was awarded the ‘Campaign Against Genocide’ medal by the Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose life she is rumored to have saved all the way back in 1959 when he was a boy. She would say of it all, “ There are many witch people in the world. When you want to kill them you can't. They move around everywhere. If everyone was a witch doctor like me, genocide could not have happened.” She would also report on her deeds as follows:

I put them here in the compound and covered them with dry leaves of beans and baskets. I hid so many people that I don't know some of their names. I hid little babies I found on the backs of their dead mothers, and I brought them here. When the militia encircled the enclosure, I covered my hands in herbs that would cause skin irritation. I touched the killers—who became fearful because they believed I was cursing them—and then retreated. I grabbed whatever I could find and shook it, claiming that it was the sound of the spirits becoming angry. I hid those people seriously. I'd prepare some magic, and when the killers came, I'd tell them I would kill them. I told them no Tutsis had come to my house—that no one comes in my house—while all the time they were all inside.

Despite her good deeds, Zura would die in poverty and relative obscurity at her home on 17 December 2018, at the age of between 90 and 100, no one really knows for sure. In 2014 there was another potential genocide brewing in Africa that threatened to rival that of what had occurred in Rwanda in 1994. During this time there was ongoing nationwide violence in the Central African Republic as clashes raged between groups from the Christian Anti-Balaka and the largely Muslim Séléka—both of them umbrella militia organizations, leaving thousands dead and more than a million displaced. During all of the bloodshed, the the local Anti-Balaka militias began to turn to black magic to help them in their fight against the enemy, employing the use of talismans called gri gri to protect themselves from harm in the face of battle. They believed that these gri gri could protect them from bullets, rockets, and even make them invisible or able to shape shift into various animals. 

These militias insisted that the amulets and talismans had been hugely effective and instrumental in winning many battles. Whether it really worked or not, it certainly had a psychological effect. Christianity is the majority religion in the Central African Republic, with Islam and animism making up the two largest minority faith groups, and regardless of religion they all deeply believe in the power of magic just as much as they do in anything written in the Bible or Qur’an. 

An intriguing case of using magic in battle comes from the battlefields of the First Civil War of Liberia, in Africa, which would claim hundreds of thousands of lives and spawn one of the greatest monsters humanity has ever produced. He was called General Butt Naked, due to his propensity for charging into battle naked, but despite the ridiculous nickname his is a terrifying and rather tragic story of innocence lost, the toll of war, and of malevolent supernatural demonic powers.

Born September 30, 1971 among the the Sarpo tribe of Liberia, Joshua Milton Blahyi was brought into the world as just another baby, his whole life ahead of him and surrounded by the innocence of youth. As he grew he was just another boy like so many in the world, somewhat rebellious yes, but there was no clue as to the darkness and atrocities that lay ahead along his path into the future. His childhood would diverge from the norm when at the tender age of 11 he was made a tribal priest after an initiation ceremony in the forest. Blahyi would claim that during his initiation ritual he had had a strange and terrifying vision, in which he says the Devil came to him and proclaimed him to be a great warrior who could gain vast supernatural power if only he were to practice cannibalism and perform human sacrifices, and his life would change dramatically after this.

After his initiation, Blahyi would go on to become a spiritual advisor to Liberian President Samuel Doe, and he would get involved as a high priest of a secret cult that practiced black magic, human sacrifice, and worshipped a god called Nyanbe-a-weh, who he believed was actually the Devil. During this time he claims that he regularly talked to the Devil, as well as allegedly displaying many supernatural powers, such as invisibility, flight, and immunity to bullets, and he was already accustomed to the sight of blood due to the monthly human sacrifices he helped carry out, but it would not be until civil war came to Liberia that he would truly carve out his legacy as a ruthless, frightening force to be reckoned with, and truly earn his moniker “the most evil man in the world.”

It began when President Doe, who had gained control of the country through a 1980 coup, held an election in 1985 in which he unsurprisingly remained in charge, and which many people considered to be rigged. Doe was not very popular among the people, and it was amid this simmering unrest that a former Liberian government official by the name of Charles Taylor moved in from neighboring Ivory Coast in 1989 with the aim of forcefully seizing control, along with his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). This resulted in a fierce civil war, during which time Doe was captured by Taylor in Monrovia and brutally tortured, mutilated, and executed. This did nothing to stop the constant warfare that had engulfed the region, and by the time a ceasefire was reached in 1996 about 250,000 people had been killed, many of these victims forgotten and left to rot where they lie.

At this time throughout much of the early 1990s Liberia was far from a stable state. The country at the time was controlled by various warlords and rebel commanders who constantly fought over resources and turf, in particular the prized diamond fields and gold mines. It was a bloody time of gun battles in the middle of city streets in broad daylight, when life was cheap, and it was in this habitat of destruction and chaos in which Blayhi operated and thrived. During the war, he was part of a mercenary unit that had become affiliated with the powerful Liberian warlord Roosevelt Johnson, and he wasted no time in earning a reputation as one of the most fearless and terrifying commanders any one had ever seen. Blahyi had accrued a ragtag group of followers willing to die for him, many of them children as young as nine and most of whom believed in their leader's claims that he had supernatural powers. Indeed, Blahyi was still convinced that he had regular meetings with the Devil, and that through the eating of human flesh and regular human sacrifices he had acquired vast magical powers that he constantly fueled with blood. He would years later say of this:

I needed to make human sacrifices to appease the said deities, or the gods. Every town I entered they would give me the chance to do my human sacrifices, which included innocent children. Usually it was a small child, someone whose fresh blood would satisfy the devil. Sometimes I would enter under the water where children were playing. I would dive under the water, grab one, carry him under and break his neck. Sometimes I'd cause accidents. Sometimes I'd just slaughter them.

Child soldier in Liberia

It is quite chilling indeed, a peek into absolute madness and the abyss of human evil. He would perform these sacrifices every time he went into battle, after which he and his forces would feast on the victim’s flesh, cutting the heart up into pieces to pass out among the soldiers. This, they believed, made them fearless and nearly invincible, and Blahyi also would go charging into fights completely naked except for shoes and his gun, as he believed that this protected him from bullets. This would lead to his nickname “General Butt Naked,” and his followers would also either fight naked or in wigs or women’s clothing, rubbing themselves in blood, and they would supplement their “magical powers” with amulets, talismans, and copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. Blayhi would describe a typical pre-battle ritual thusly:

So, before leading my troops into battle, we would get drunk and drugged up, sacrifice a local teenager, drink the blood, then strip down to our shoes and go into battle wearing colorful wigs and carrying the purses we'd looted from civilians. We'd slaughter anyone we saw, chop their heads off and use them as soccer balls. We were nude, fearless, drunk yet strategic. We killed hundreds of people--so many I lost count.

It must have been quite a frightening sight, seeing these naked, blood smeared warriors in their wigs primally screaming out as their guns blazed and not showing an ounce of fear in the face of certain death. Indeed, there were many accounts of the crew’s terrified adversaries claiming that Blayhi’s men, the Butt Naked Brigade, were really impervious to bullets and that they had super powers like super strength, although how much a role the drugs and superstition played in such accounts is not known. It was clear that the psychological effect that all of this had on the enemy was profound, and there are reports of enemy soldiers retreating at them mere sight of General Butt Naked coming roaring in atop a truck with assault rifle in one hand and some macabre trophy such as a head or genitals in the other, surrounded by his legion of maniacs wearing wigs.

By the time the First Liberian Civil War ended in 1996, Blahyi would claim that he had personally been responsible for at least 20,000 deaths during his rampage of utter mayhem and violence, and it was during one of his last bursts of brutality that his life would change once again. He says that in 1996 he had found himself standing on a bridge after ruthlessly murdering an innocent  young girl and pulling her heart out of her still warm body. As he stood there, blood dripping down his hands and the lifeless heart within his grasp, a vision supposedly appeared to him, of which he has said:

When I looked back, I saw a man standing there. He was so bright, brighter than the sun. He said “Repent and live, or refuse and die.” I wanted to continue fighting, but my mind never left this person—how bright he was, how passionate his words.

Joshua Milton Blahyi

This epiphany was enough to make him give up his life of fighting and death altogether, and soon after he left his troops behind and retreated to a refugee camp in Ghana, where he repented for his sins, asked God to strip him of his malicious demonic powers, and became a born again Christian. He would then express remorse at what he had done and take to giving sermons on the street and starting organizations to help reform former soldiers, eventually returning to Liberia to continue his church work and ask his victims’ families for forgiveness. Interestingly, although he has expressed deep remorse for his horrific deeds, he still does not cop complete responsibility, still firmly believing that he was indeed under the influence of the Devil at the time.

When Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission began going through and charging warlords and war criminals for war crimes in 2007, many of those who were remorseful and had been truthful and cooperative with the investigation were awarded full pardons, among them Blahyi. It is for this reason that, although former Liberian president Charles Taylor was charged with war crimes and sentenced to 50 years in prison by the Hague, the monster Blahyi not only walked free, but is now the President of the End Time Train Evangelistic Ministries Inc., has appeared in countless TV programs and the documentary True Stories: The Redemption of General Butt Naked, and has written numerous books on his experiences. This has not sat right with many, who claim that he is merely a self-promoter who has translated his notoriety from the war into personal gain. Indeed there are those who have even gone so far as to accuse him of exaggerating his misdeeds and inflating his death toll and atrocities as a cash grab in order to gain more fame and sell more books, and there is the notion that his whole turnaround to redemption is one big sham. One journalist named Tina Susman has said of this:

I covered a lot of warlords. After a war is over, they have to reinvent themselves. That’s how they survive. They want something to grab on to, whether they’re regular people looking for a miracle or journalists looking for a good story.

To these accusations, Blahyi has said, “Even now I’m fighting. I’m fighting a spiritual war.” So is this man a villain or a victim? If what he has said in the aftermath of the violence is even halfway true, then regardless of any "demonic influences" he was unequivocally a ruthless monster. We are left to ask what brought him to this? What forces are there roiling about within the human soul that could erupt outwards into such complete, hideous atrocity? It seems that we don't even need the Devil and demonic forces and powers to explain that perhaps we humans ourselves are perfectly capable of creating evil and violence in this world, with no supernatural forces needed.

Another story comes to us from the country of Uganda, and revolves around the the spiritual framework and deeds of the Lord Resistance Army (LRA), which is a Christian extremist organization which operates in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Long seen as a terrorist organization accused of widespread human rights violations over the years, including murder, abduction, mutilation, child-sex slavery, and recruitment of child soldiers, they are also known for their rampant use of black magic. The movement largely has its roots with a man named Joseph Kony, who claimed to be possessed by spirits and to have vast magical powers. He would often use his knowledge of the dark arts to concoct various oils and amulets that could supposedly protect his soldiers from bullets and machetes, and it was widely believed that he could read and control minds. He used this reputation to keep an iron grip on his subjects, and journalist Chawahir Yussuf has said of Kony and his powers and influence:

The LRA relied on traditional Acholi beliefs to coerce soldiers to commit atrocities. For instance, local Acholi beliefs in “Cen” was used to compel recruits to commit acts of violence. In the Acholi context Cen is thespirit of those slain by soldiers. It is believed that contamination with Cen, which is a harmful polluting spirit of those killed by soldiers, occurs when one carries the head of a victim. Commanders would tell abductees that if theyrefuse to kill then the commanders would remove the head of the victim and force the children to carry it. To carry the head of a victim many Acholi believed that the head transfers the Cen onto the carrier. Thus, many children killed to avoid contamination with cen. This internal function of coercion using magic, demonstrates how it can lead to atrocities.

Moreover, the belief in the omnipotence of Kony’s alleged supernatural powers because of being possessed, resulted in many child soldiers believing he could read minds. As one ex child soldier explained “if a rebel who was a captive had ill feelings against Kony, Kony would be told by the spirits and would kill him”.These spirits would also tell him if anyone tried to escape. The physical abuse compounded by psychological fear of the supernatural, meant absconding from the LRA was rare. Therefore, it could be argued that this belief removed or impaired the agency of many child soldiers, as they felt trapped within the LRA.

In addition, ritual is key for internal cohesion, which shapes how atrocities occur. For example, newcomers into the LRA had to go through specific rites. They would not be able to eat with soldiers for three days, only then would they go through an initiation which consisted of sheer butter and water which transformed them into Malaika (angel). This indoctrination served two functions. It facilitated social cohesion within the LRA as it ensured obedience and purity amongst the ranks. Many ex-combatants were told the concoction of shea butter and water meant even if they tried to escape the shear butter and water mixture meant they would eventually be returned into the clutches of the LRA.

The constant rituals and rites practiced within the LRA compounded with being isolated, cemented loyalty. Before an abductee could eat with the other LRA soldiers he had to be anointed with local oil called MooYaa. With this and other following rituals, the new soldier was incorporated into the group of the LRA. This sense of belonging is poignant to the abductees as one former child rebel explains he enjoyed being incorporated and “felt pure”. LRA’s spiritual practices such as rituals, regular prayers meant practices were ingrained in the psyche of abductees. There was a range of holy rules, which had to be followed strictly, as it was believed that the spirits could see everything and would punish disobedient soldiers. This belief, therefore, shaped violence as members would likely carry out atrocities ordered by Kony.

Joseph Kony

Kony also had a series of severe punishments for anyone who defied his rules. For instance, those who raised pigs or worked on Fridays had limbs amputated, and executions of his own men were not uncommon. He has long been one of Africa’s most wanted criminal warlords, and whether the magic is real or not, the LRA is to this day designated as a dangerous terrorist group by the United Nations Peacekeepers, the European Union, and various other governments, although in recent years their power and activities have decreased dramatically. Presently Kony is in hiding, supposedly in Darfur, but no one really knows for sure.

All of these cases paints a tapestry of deep beliefs in the arcane and paranormal world beyond what we think we know. Was there ever anything to any of this or is it all just myth, lore, and superstition? No matter what the answer to this may be, it is all a bizarre look into a land where belief in supernatural powers still runs deep. A peek into a place where magic still vry much exists in the minds of the people, and where spirits and dark forces still prowl about, unfettered by the boundaries of mere human imagination. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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