By Rommy Mom Esq
The periodic indiscriminate arrest of women in Abuja has a history. Whenever there is push back either from intensive advocacy or the courts, there often is a lull for a period, then a return to the indiscriminate arrests again, with more intensity after a while.
The current situation is playing to type.
When 7 years ago Lawyers Alert, LA, a human rights body sued the Minister of the FCT and the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, AEPB, for the indiscriminate arrest of women at night, the response of the Minister to the court was that LA had no business in the matter of sex workers. Mercifully, the court ruled otherwise stating that as a Human Rights body with women as its target group, LA has the right to sue for the violations and discriminations which the actions portend. With the added advocacy at the time, women experienced a breather from indiscriminate arrest.
Two years after, the actions resurfaced, only this time the arrests of women for being seen in public places at night fanned across other states in the country gradually assuming near draconian proportions. Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Lagos and other states join in these acts targeted at women. Based on approaches to courts and advocacy again, we had some sort of break period.
The current action of government however has been steadily on for over a year. It is the manner of arrest now it appears, that has everyone involved. Initial arrests were restricted to the streets. After an initial lull, as earlier captured, security agencies, moved from streets into the homes of suspected female sex workers. Indeed, in early 2018 Lawyers Alert got a call at about 2.00 am in the morning from women in distress as soldiers invaded their homes in the Mabushi area of Abuja the FCT, on allegations of being sex workers. 52 of such women were again arrested, and LA is still in court seeking reliefs for them.
Hundreds of women had their rights violated by state security agencies with some alleging sexual molestations and outright rape in the process. Again, activists approached the courts with Dorothy Njemanze Foundation heading to the ECOWAS court. The reprieve by government based on the evident trend, when courts are approached, and voices raised in protest, was very brief.
State security personnel have steadily moved from streets, to homes and now night clubs, arresting not just suspected female sex workers, but also women “indecently” dressed in night clubs. In comparison to previous occasions, there is presently no lull nor period of respite by government. Even with the cases on, intense advocacy, the recent strategy of invading of night clubs and bars to fish out, not just alleged sex workers but also women who are indecently dressed” is still on. From the early days of arresting women found on the streets and suspected of sex work, government has now “progressed” to invading clubs, bars and the homes of women suspected of sex work in order to effect arrests.
What does this mean?
These acts infer that being a woman in 2019 in Nigeria negates your rights once the sun sets, as thereafter you become prey in your country, living your life in fear of state security agents. The tragedy of this situation is the associated allegations of rape and other sexual molestations brought against security agents and gradually gaining ground.
It is instructive to note that the actions of the police, soldiers and other state security agents involved in these acts, are not grounded in any Nigerian Law. In Abuja for instance, justification for the arrests is lodged under the Abuja Environmental Protection Board Act, an Act that criminalizes petty actions like hawking which is said to deface the streets and mar the city’s aesthetics. This law certainly cannot be stretched to cover sex work. The entire Nigerian jurisprudence does not expressly criminalize sex work nor provocative dresses and so laws are stretched in interpretation to accommodate the actions of the state.
The above explains why state security agencies in the recent raids, now find justification in religion and culture instead of the law. Mr. Abayomi Shogunle, an Assistant Commissioner of Police and the Pioneer/Head of the Police Complaints Response Unit, tweeted in response to a general outcry, “those making noise on the clamp down on prostitutes in Abuja, prostitution is a crime under the law, P is a sin under the 2 main religions of FCT residents, Medicine says P is spreading HIV & STD, P is lifeline of violent criminals, P don’t pay tax, culture frowns at P” the assumption here being that the letter “P” as used in the tweet is a reference to prostitution which is what the tweet generally addresses.
The judiciary unfortunately serves as a motivation for these violations, owing to delays in trials and or summary trials by mobile courts which fail to adequately interrogate the issues. In the Lawyers Alert case filed on behalf of the Mabushi women, for instance, in a year and half of the matter been filed, it has been adjourned 17 times with the Judge coming to court only once.
This type of justice system energizes and fuels the actions of the state security agencies who know that the judiciary in Nigeria is essentially a toothless dog. The courts that do sit, do so, so that women can be summarily tried, when it is the state approaching the courts to mete out “punishment”. These courts are styled “mobile courts”. Arrested women are hurriedly taken to these courts and allegedly intimidated into pleading guilty and fined, failing which they face going to prison to await full trial.
It is in this state of affairs and context, that the culture of abuse of women’s rights in Nigeria, is fertilized and nurtured into a national embarrassment that is seemingly untreatable. Of course, the country has the office of the Attorney General, the National Assembly and the Media. While state apparatus/state officials are quiet so as not to seem to be endorsing immorality, the media’s actions are largely inadequate, restricted primarily to reportage and not speaking against the practice, via editorials nor sufficient mirroring of the human rights violations and moral burden the continued abuse of women paste on all of us.
The inhuman and undignified stripping of women of rights by the state, is tasteless as it is a violation of our laws. The media needs to home in on this and interpret the acts of the state for what it is.
Activists alone cannot meet an objective which requires the active involvement of all other actors. The media, civil society and the legislature must come together to resolve this quagmire. The police who basically carry out instructions from the top must be sensitized and orientation carried out especially on human rights and the law.
The attack and discrimination launched against women from dusk in Nigeria is assuming a frightening level. When the Department of State Services, Nigeria’s version of the Central Intelligence Agency, is involved in raids, as happened in Cross River state recently, or when soldiers who should be protecting the territorial integrity of the state are also drafted into what seems to be a fight against women who are scantily dressed, the situation can only be referred to as …., yes, a disgrace.
Nigeria is a country of an estimated population of about 180 million people with a Police Force of less than 300,000 policemen in active policing. When a chunk of this number is spread across 36 states and the FCT in search of female sex workers or skimpily clad women, one can only imagine the number of robberies, kidnappings, and other serious crimes that can be successfully carried out within the period of this distraction. Those extra police officers on the hunt for sex workers could be put to better use of averting crime, their primary role. Our Police Force, hopefully with the responses of the Inspector General who has vowed to investigate the alleged acts of rape and apply the law thereto, can be made more professional.
For now, the effect of these rather needless actions assumes a deeper implication when soldiers are also drafted into the raids even while terrorism in the country has taken on a hydra headed dimension in many states. In Nigeria today, where security is a big challenge, petty acts like sex work and provocative dressing by women, which are not offences in our laws should not attract the waste of human and financial resources.
The situation is made more urgent as the issues border on human rights abuses and discrimination against women. No man has been arrested for patronizing these so-called sex workers who ironically are being arrested by the hundreds. Men can be seen on the streets at whatever time, not minding how they are dressed, without being arrested. Females on the other hand can barely stop by a pharmacy after dark without fear of being labeled. This is an appalling situation which must be halted. We must stop discrimination against women and allow for freedom of movement and association for all, regardless of sex.