Losing a child to a rapist is traumatic for a mother, but the fading hope of getting justice is worse. The ICIR’s LUKMAN ABOLADE and IJEOMA OPARA write about the emotional trauma of Keren-Happuch’s mother as she awaits justice in a Police investigation that has taken different turns.
MONTHS after her daughter’s death, Vivienne Akphager rubs her hands together to restrain herself from crying. Moments later, she unfolds them and wipes tears that stroll down her cheeks as she narrates how she lost her only daughter, Keren-Happuch.
Fourteen-year-old Keren-Happuch was raped, and health complications from the incident reportedly cut her life short.
Keren was more than a daughter; she was also a friend who would pay close attention to the little things about her mother.
“When she is around, she would say ‘Mummy, you need to make your hair, you need to buy new clothes for yourself,” Vivienne says.
She shared a close relationship with her daughter. When her daughter was on break from school, they would always visit places together.
“I would always go out with her when she was not in school. I love country music but she listened to Nigerian songs. On our way out, she would always complain and ask me to change the song,” Vivienne narrates with hint of smile on her teary face.
One of Vivienne’s favourite moments with her late daughter was when she hosted her friends in her house. Although her mother had gone to work, Keren exchanged several WhatsApp messages with her, seeking guidance on how to cook rice for her friends.
Keren loved music; she danced to them often, according to her Tik Tok videos seen by The ICIR.
Her mother says she often danced to entertain her family and to convince them to dance with her.
But the Akpagher’s family house has been left with no more dancing. Only still picture frames of Keren hang on the wall to keep her memories alive.
Keren was not only close to her mother, she also had a mutual relationship with her grandmother, Bason Ivoh.
Though Bason lived in Benue State, she and Keren exchanged gifts with each other constantly. Karen’s grandmother says she called her Dee-Kwasi, meaning (Female Dee).
“When she was a kid, she would send me gifts. Sometimes, she would call me to send her gifts. When I was around, she would always hug me whenever she returned from school. She would look at me with love and that made me very happy,” she says.
Bason says that she would often call her name when she lay on the chair, but Keren never answered her like she used to after the gory incident.
“I don’t know how I can forget this. Sometimes, when I lay down, I would call out to her: ‘Dee-Kwasi, where are you?’ But I don’t get a response now. I cannot forget her.
“When I heard the news, I nearly died, and I was taken to the hospital before I got better,” she says.
Her older brother, Josh Akphagher, says he is yet to come to terms with his sister’s death.
Josh tells The ICIR that Keren was very close to him, but despite their closeness, she still showed him respect.
“She talks to me about her academic challenges, I had a lot of good moments with her, I really miss her presence; it’s not the same without her,” Josh says.
A summer that never came
It was close to her holidays. Like most boarding students, Keren listed out her summer plans in a jotter.
Most of her plans involved taking care of herself and spending time with her family and friends, especially her mother.
She planned to talk to God through prayers, go for dinner with her family, take random calls, clean her room, bathe after exercise and at night before bed.
Number 10 on her list of summer plans was to spend time with her mom. She also planned to watch ‘Netflix’ and chill, cook and shop with her mother.
The late 14-year-old wanted to eat lots of eggs, beans, sausage and fruits and exercise four days of the week.
She did not fulfill any of her plans as she died before the summer came.
Her mother says Keren had wished to visit Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), for her next birthday with her family.
Vivienne tells The ICIR that Keren wanted to study to become a nurse to save people from death.
She says her late daughter wanted to become a nurse so she could save people. “I asked her, ‘why not doctor?’ She says she wanted to be a nurse,” her mother says.
Keren’s young life has been cut short. She was buried on July 10th amidst long, sorrowful tears in Benue State.
How Keren died
Viviene was left in confusion on Saturday, June 22, when a doctor at the Queens’ Hospital in Abuja told her that dead spermatozoa were found in her daughter’s urine.
Oliver Amugo, a resident doctor at the Queen’s hospital, also informed her that a broken condom was also found in her 14-year-old daughter who was in the custody of Premier Academy Lugbe as a boarding student.
Two days before that Saturday, she had struggled to retrieve her child from the school after Keren insisted she would love to spend the weekend with her.
On Friday, June 18, Keren had called her mother saying that she had a problem with her eyes and needed to visit a hospital.
When her mother called to inform the matron of the school Grace Salami that she would come to pick up her daughter for an eye check-up, she was told that Keren would be mandated to go through a seven-day COVID-19 isolation upon returning to the school.
“She told me that if I picked Karen from school, they would isolate her for seven days because of COVID-19 protocol, and she would not be going to school or the dining hall.
“So she gave me an alternative of paying five thousand naira to the school account for logistics so the school would bring her to the clinic and take her back. That way, she would not be in isolation,” Vivienne says while narrating her conversation with Salami.
Contrary to the matron’s statement, Keren told her mother that there was no such rule as compulsory isolation.
After the eye check-up, Vivienne asked Keren if she could give money to one of the nurses who brought her from school, but she replied in the negative.
“I asked her if I could give the nurse some money, she said, ‘no, is it not those people that are treating me anyhow?’ “
Vivienne says when she went back to the school, the matron convinced her again not to go home with Keren.
However, on Keren’s insistence and advice of a teacher in the school, she insisted on going home with her child.
“Someone in the school told me to disregard whatever the school management said and come and pick my daughter, because Keren could not even walk to the school on Wednesday, 16th,” she says.
For more than four hours, she was still unable to see her child. When she did, she was made to present her identity card, a situation that had never happened.
When Keren got home, although a cheery and chatty person, she hardly spoke to her mother or anyone at home.
“That day, she was quiet. She did not eat. It was the next day that she woke up and ate. Around 7 pm, she came to ask if she could use my bathroom because if she tried to climb her bathtub, she might fall. I asked what happened, but she said nothing.
“Around 11 pm, she came to me with vomit on her body, so we decided to go to the hospital. She had become weak. When I wanted to dress her up for the hospital, she kept on saying, ‘leave me alone, don’t touch me,’” she says.
Vivienne says when she got to the Queen’s Hospital in Abuja, the doctor observed that there was discharge from Keren’s genitals.
“The discharge kept coming so the doctor (Amugo) removed it and told them to test it, so the doctor called me and said ‘madam, we have tested her urine and that discharge, it is not discharge, it is a condom and her urine has dead spermatozoa,’ ” Vivienne says.
At that point, Keren had become partly unconscious and was still struggling. By midnight the following day, around 2 – 2:30 am, she took her last breath.
What we know
Keren’s mother wanted to pick her daughter and the school authority insisted that she would be isolated and her mother was made to provide a copy of her identity card. The ICIR found that this was a peculiar case to the Akphagers.
Between Tuesday, August 31 and Wednesday, September 1st, The ICIR reporter was at Premier Academy to speak to some parents who came to pick their children.
All the three parents interviewed said they had never been told about isolation nor had they ever had reasons to provide a copy of their identity cards.
Also, before Keren’s death, her mother said she talked about an ‘ugly black nurse’ in her school who asked her ‘if it was her first time.’ The nurse was eventually identified as Lois Bong.
Bong was one of the last persons that gave insulin injections to Keren while she was in school.
The ICIR found out that a few weeks after Keren’s death, Bong resigned from Premier Academy.
When The ICIR contacted her on why she resigned immediately after Keren’s death, she said it was due to her marriage. After her marriage, she continued to live in Abuja.
Bong told The ICIR that she knew Keren as an easy-going child and there was never a fracas between them.
She said her last encounter with Keren was on June 19th when she was on night duty and nothing transpired between them.
Initially, she denied that there had ever been a case of sexual harassment in the school but she eventually told The ICIR that a teacher was suspended for allegedly sexually harassing a student.
Oliver Amugo, who treated Keren before her death, refused to comment when contacted by The ICIR.
The ICIR contacted and scheduled an interview with the Principal of Premier Academy Christopher Akinsowon over the allegations levelled against the school.
However, on the day of the interview, he cancelled the appointment on the grounds that the school was going to organise a press conference where The ICIR would be invited.
As of the time of filing this report, Premier Academy had not organised the press conference.
In previous reports, Akinsowon had denied allegations that Keren was raped under the school’s custody.
Police compromising investigation
Vivienne has accused the FCT Police Command of compromising the investigation into Keren’s rape case.
She said since the commencement of the investigation, the Police have refused to avail her a copy of her late daughter’s medical report.
Although an autopsy has been conducted on Keren’s remains, the Police also failed to give her a copy of the autopsy result, arguing that it would compromise the investigation.
Lawyers to the Akphager family filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to have a copy of the autopsy result but it was not honoured.
The FOI Act in Nigeria stipulates that a person, group or organisation has the right to access information from government agencies, parastatals, federal civil service, private and public sector organisations providing public services, among others.
Rather, the Police have invited Akphager family lawyers and Premier Academy to a meeting and read part of the autopsy to them.
When the Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) Adeh Josephine was contacted to speak on the allegations levelled against them by the family of Keren-happuch, she asked for more time to get details on the case but had failed to provide information on the case.
The House of Representatives, on Thursday, asked the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) to conduct a DNA test on all staff of Premier Academy to identify the culprit involved in Keren’s death.
The decision followed a motion moved by Mark Terseer Gbillah, lawmaker representing Benue Gwer East/Gwer West Federal Constituency.
The lawmakers also ordered the Nigeria Police Force to investigate the mysteries surrounding the death of Keren, allegations of harassment and threat to the life of Keren’s family and the leader of a Coalition of Gender–Based Violence, Lemmy Ughegbe.
It also mandated the Committees on Woman Affairs, Human Rights and Police Affairs to invite stakeholders to investigate the allegations of unwillingness of Police to initiate an investigation into the death of Keren, previous cases of sexual harassment at Premiere Academy Abuja, among other issues related to Keren’s death.
One too many cases
The story of Keren-Happuch is not an isolated one as there has been a recorded increase in cases of sexual abuse in Nigerian schools.
Earlier this year, a three-year-old nursery school student in Awin International Schools Ikono, Akwa-Ibom State, had been sexually abused.
The mother of the victim Dorathy Alphonsus said her child confirmed that a pen had been forcefully inserted into her vagina by her class teacher.
Also in March, eleven-year-old JSS 1 boarding student David Archibong suffered sexual molestation at the Deeper Life High School, Akwa-Ibom state.
The victim’s mother Deborah Okezieh, in a viral video, said she discovered that her son was sodomised during a private meeting with David.
“When I met him in that condition, I took my son into the car, he was afraid, he said that if he talks, they would kill him.
“I had to beg a boy who talks like a parrot, who told me that because he wees, he was taken from JSS 1 to SS1 and when he gets there, senior students in the hostel used hands and legs to penetrate his anus,” she narrates in the video.
In another video by the mother of the victim, she said the principal of the school Solomon Ndidi pleaded with her not to go public with the matter, adding that the school would pay the child’s hospital bills.
Okezieh said the principal did not want her to go public with the issue because of “who is involved” in the case against her child before eventually removing her from the WhatsApp group of parents of children in Deeper Life High School, Uyo Campus.
The ICIR also reported the sexual assault of a 14-year-old student in June, by the 62-year-old proprietor of her school, Emmanuel Madueke in Lagos.
Executive Director of Cece Yara Foundation Olabisi Ajayi-Kayode said sexual violence in schools had been in existence, but only seemed to be on the rise as survivors had found the courage in recent times to speak up.
She said some school policies, including the prohibition of phones in schools, were contributory factors to the perpetration of sexual abuse against students.
“One problem with boarding schools is they don’t allow these children to use phones. They cannot communicate with their parents, which the perpetrators take advantage of.
“There should be child helplines. Children should have access to telecommunications even in schools. The society has gone beyond keeping people incommunicado,” she said.
“The children should be empowered with their rights. No child protection, no training programmes on sexual violence, all these should be part of the school curriculum. There should be a strong reporting format within our schools,” she said.
Communications Officer of Dorathy Njemanze Foundation Noya Sedi, in an interview with The ICIR, identified a lack of proper orientation of school children as a major reason for sexual violence in Nigerian schools.
“There is a lack of proper orientation. We hear cases of children who are abused and they do not even realise it. They do not even know that it is sexual violence. They do not have knowledge of body boundaries. I think this enables and creates a conducive environment for these predators to thrive,” she said.
She also noted that the government had to do more in sensitising the general public on laws and other options available to victims of sexual abuse.
“There is definitely more the government can do. We have a framework for violence-free basic education, but there is no proper sensitisation. A lot of people do not know about this. We have a sex offenders’ register but people are not even aware of this,” she said.
For Ajayi-Kayode, a child rights activist, a collaboration between the government and non-governmental agencies was required to end sexual violence against children in Nigerian schools.
“A single agency cannot ensure comprehensive child protection intervention for children. It takes inter-agency collaboration.
“There is a dearth of school counsellors. There should be counselling rooms in schools and routine trainings for children on sexual violence. School counsellors should have direct access to the police, social welfare department and medical institutions outside the school,” she said.
She called for designated offices and courts to handle cases of sexual violence against children and unrestrained access of parents to their children, especially in health-related issues.
“Parents should have access to their children regardless of visiting days. There should be emergency intervention. Immediately anything is wrong with any child, they must alert the parents. If they don’t, then they should be held accountable.
“If such procedures are in place, the school authorities will sit up instead of hoodwinking children into silence,” she said.