Women can no longer walk freely at night in Abuja, and the law does not protect their right to do so
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By Seun DUROJAIYE
AMAKA Enemo retreated when the camera was pointed in her direction. Her bold, bright face was filled with dismay as she requested the device to be put away. Once that was done, she flashed a quick smile and proceeded to narrate the incident that left one of her colleagues, Joy Onyekachi, childless years back.
Onyekachi, a Nigerian sex worker, stepped out one evening to make quick cash while her baby lay on the bed hungry, waiting to be fed. The mother resolved to turn to transactional sex to get money for feeding and to buy items for her child but the night turned bad when she got picked up by policemen who arrested her for constituting ‘public nuisance’.
All her plea to be released in order to go attend to her baby fell on deaf ears and while she was locked up for two days, her baby left unwatched, struggled to survive in the small room in which it had been abandoned. By the time the mother was allowed to return to her life, she had lost her child and was left alone to deal with her loss.
“And you think it will be well for all these policemen and task force agents?” Enemo murmured curses in an almost bone-chilling tone.
Having worked as the national coordinator of the Nigerian Sex Workers Association (NSWA) for many years, Enemo has lived through horror fighting to protect the rights of her members and hers.
Between deep sighs, she painted a disturbing picture of the treatment meted out to sex workers by policemen and task force agents in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT.
Several women in sex trade have suffered varying degrees of inhumane treatments from task force agents. But majority of them are silent because of the stigma attached to sex work in the Nigerian society. ‘Ashawo’, a derogatory name for sex workers, is often hurled at these women in order to shame them into silence.
Someone like Vivian, a member of NSWA, swears that the insulting label hurts more than anything else.
Vivian’s experience with the FCT task force led her into the open arms of Enemo. She recounted how she struggled through school on a shoestring budget and later started sex work to eke out a living. It wasn’t long before she was arrested by Abuja task force and was detained for several hours until she begged a friend to bring money to bail herself.
“I prefer to be beaten up than to hear the derogatory comments and receive treatment passed by the task force agents after I was arrested. They made me question the worth of my life,” Vivian said, with her head bent down as she recalled the painful experience.
War against women
In April 2019, the Nigerian police in Abuja arrested over 100 women on the streets and paraded them as prostitutes. While in custody in Utako police station, most of the women claimed they were assaulted. They were also denied their fundamental human rights of getting legal representation, according to those who spoke to Legit.ng. None of them were released until after paying for bail.
One of the victims whose court affidavit was sighted by this reporter said she and her friend were picked up at a club in Gwarimpa on April 26. The victim, who cannot be named, said she was asked by men dressed in blue polo shirts and reflective jackets to follow them. She complied because she was scared of getting hurt.
Later, she and other ladies present at the club were taken outside and had their photos taken by the men. Later, they were pushed into a bus and taken to several other joints in Abuja, where other women were arrested without explanation as to why they were being arrested.
She said they were all taken to Wuse Zone 6, and witnessed police officers pay money to the men who earlier had picked them up before they were all transferred to Utako police station. At the station, about sixty (60) ladies were granted bail and released after paying some money. The victim stated that she and 10 others were left in the cell for days as they did not have money to pay the police officers.
While in the cell, the lady said in her affidavit: “a Criminal Records Officer (CRO) sprayed us with tear gas and left us coughing and struggling to breathe. I was physically assaulted by one of the officers who accused me of fighting with him the previous day.”
She also said that an NYSC corps member who had been picked up alongside with them was beaten with wire and baton and left injured.
Pamela Ibe, another victim of the raid suffered similar treatment. Ibe who only agreed to a meeting after getting permission from her lawyer expressed fear of being set up and rearrested stating that she was picked up by a female officer on the day of her arrest and couldn’t trust this reporter until her lawyer was reached.
In her case, she revealed that she was picked up by task force agents as she attended a friend’s birthday party at Delta Apartments in Abuja on April 26.
“I stepped out to get water downstairs and immediately I did, a woman held my hand and started dragging me. I asked her what happened and she told me not to worry that I should cooperate and follow her.
“When we got outside, I saw many people taking photos with their phones and I was dragged alongside other girls into a coaster bus. I tried to ask why I was being taken and one man told me to shut my mouth, that I had no right to speak.”
Ibe said that over 70 girls were arrested that night and taken to a place in Zone 6 where they had their names taken down and witnessed how police officers paid the task force agents money for picking them up.
“I was taken to a place in Zone 6 with other ladies who were picked up from different clubs and hangout spots in Abuja. When we arrived at Zone 6, they asked us to alight the bus and they counted and took down our names.
“After that, a man whom the task force agents were calling ‘oga’ came out and started paying money to the officers who picked us up. They all collected their money and left, then we were taken to Utako police station, we were over 70 in number.” recalled Ibe.
Within minutes of arriving Utako police station, Ibe recounted that some girls were bailed and released, while she and 10 others were left in a cell till the next day. “It was the first night of hell for me,” she described.
“At Utako police station, they put us in different cells and released some ladies on bail. I asked why they were being released but no one answered my question,” said Ibe.
While in the cell, Ibe, said that a female officer showed up and demanded to see the girls who had been released. When she was informed that they had been bailed and released, the officer vowed that the remaining girls instead would suffer. Her conversation with the DPO was overheard by the girls “ and we all feared for our safety while in the cell”.
According to Ibe, the police also took their belongings and they weren’t allowed to contact any of their relations. Later that day, she was visited by her sister who told her she saw the video of her being arrested along with other victims and recognised her from her dress and hair.
“They took my phone and belongings, I couldn’t reach any of my family members. It was later that day my sister showed up at the station. She told me she saw the video of us being arrested online and recognised me by my hair and dress,” said Ibe.
However the joy of seeing her sister who brought her a change of clothes was short-lived. Although she was allowed to collect the clothes, she was denied bail and her sister was sent away by the officers.
“My sister tried bailing me but they told her it wasn’t allowed because I and the other remaining ladies were picked up from ‘ashawo quarters’. They asked my sister to leave and told her no one had the right to bail me or the others,” Ibe told Legit.
After her sister was dismissed, she tried changing into clean clothes but a male officer who she identified as the ‘cell guard’ followed her into the room.
“I asked him to excuse me and let me change and he told me he had the right to guard me in the cell. I had no choice but to take off my clothes in his presence. When I took off my clothes, he tried touching my breasts and then I moved away and questioned why he wanted to touch my breasts.” said Ibe.
The cell guard also promised her that he would grant her bail if she allowed him to touch her.
“He then told me that if I wanted to be granted bail, I should allow him to touch me and I refused. He then stayed with me till I was done dressing u,” Ibe said.
In an attempt to find a way out of the cell, Ibe said she approached one of the officers and pleaded to be freed. But the officer instead became upset and slapped her. This triggered the other girls in the cell to revolt and demand their rights be respected. Angered by the audacity, two more officers joined and they started beating the girls.
“I later confronted another police officer and pleaded that he should let me go. I told him I had rights and if they had announced on radio or TV that no woman should step out on the night of our arrest, I would have obliged. I asked him why I wasn’t being granted bail and he slapped me. This triggered other girls to come together and start shouting that he had no right to slap me. Then two other officers came and they started beating us with wire and police baton stick.” said Ibe.
Loveth Yoko, another victim of the raid shared details of how she was abducted by the task force agents and made to suffer in the cell for three days. In her case, she was picked up from a club in Gwarimpa with many other girls and transported to Utako police station, where they spent three days before being taken to a makeshift court in an open field.
“They arranged their tables in a place that looked like a garden, an open field. One woman sat down as the judge and we were each made to pay N3,000 each for bail.”
Yoko revealed that she has been constantly harassed by the task force agents and their modus operandi sometimes was to sexually harass ladies and demand sex when refused, they then arrest girls at night and take them to the station to extort them for bail money.
“These task force agents, they will pick you up and be touching your bum bum. They will be asking for sex and when you refuse, they will take you to the station and force you to pay bail money.”
Yoko advocated that women should be allowed to live freely just like men do and not be subjected to harassment from security agents. She said she has mouths to feed and has to find a way to be there for her siblings.
“I have been a house help all my life, so I can choose whatever I want to do now. I want a better life for myself and I want to stand for my younger ones and contribute in my family. I have my freedom, I don’t need to be molested in my own country, I have my right. Women should be allowed to live freely like the men because they didn’t arrest any man,” cried Yoko.
Under the pretext of combating prostitution in the country’s capital, the FCT joint task force has abducted women numbering over 100 in 2019 alone. The Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) disclosed that the Federal Capital Territory Administration has empowered the AEPB in collaboration with the Nigerian Police to arrest, detain and prosecute any woman soliciting or offering herself for sexual service at night at any public place in the FCT.
In an interview, Oluwaseun Osowobi, executive director of Stand to End Rape (STER) Initiative, said there is a court injunction against the FCT joint task force’s mandate to remove commercial sex workers from the streets, noting that their actions contravene the law.
Similarly, Augusta Yaakugh, a human rights lawyer and program and legal officer of Rule of Law Development Foundation, a civil society organisation located in Abuja said “The FCT joint task force has been using a draconian approach in sanitising the streets of Abuja.
“There was gross human rights violation of all women arrested by the AEPB agents.”
In a bid to ‘sanitise’ the streets of the nation’s capital, AEPB’s methods of abducting women on the streets have also affected non-sex workers.
“They have created a mess and arrested women who have nothing to do with sex work. Just because some women were found in the club at night, they were picked up and the task force agents claimed that the telltale sign was because they were indecently dressed. Considering all the factors that are at play, this is just an attack against women as no man is being arrested in the same manner, for the same thing,” said Yaakugh.
A victim, survivor and fighter
Dorothy Njemanze had the demeanor of a scarred soldier. Tough and heavily built with a commanding tone, she shared with Legit.ng stories of how her path was chosen.
At the tender age of eight, she was defiled by her neighbour’s houseboy and his friends who took turns to forcefully have their way with her. This, she said, planted a seed of fear and shame that would haunt her till she watched an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s show. Through the programme she realised she was not alone in her struggle to fight shame.
“I was sexually violated by my neighbour’s houseboy and his friends at age eight. I didn’t trust that it was okay to talk about the sexual violation, so I bottled it up and it became anger but when I started watching episodes of the Oprah Winfrey show, I was then able to label my feelings and I knew that I also felt disappointed and there was some degree of hopelessness as well,” said Dorothy with confidence.
However, just before she sprung to survival mode, as a young girl, she had grown up being taught to question and hate her circumstances. She suffered in an accident that left her with a bent index finger and earned her the nickname ‘bend bend finger.’’ This she stated beat her self-esteem and made her vulnerable towards the predatory arms of the houseboy, the one who first snatched her innocence and left her filled with anger and questions about justice.
As much as growing up was difficult for Njemanze on account of her experiences, the worst of it was to happen in 2012, when she was arrested by security agents in Abuja and branded as a prostitute for walking the streets at night.
She was picked up from the streets of Abuja alongside two others and they were branded as prostitutes, abused and assaulted.
“I was first violated by agents of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) agents in 2012. After I was picked up, they groped and fondled my breasts and one of the officers dipped his hands in my private part and tugged at my pubic hair.”
“I have been raped well over 20 times since the first time my neighbour’s house boy first touched me, they were all bad experiences but I found myself hating injustice and so, I turned the problem into a good problem. I have invested my all in helping people fight against what I experienced.”
Njemanze has spent adulthood fighting for children, women and people living with disabilities, who have experienced any form of sexual abuse, assault, as well as domestic violence. However, the effects of the violations she has suffered for being a woman still hunt her till this day.
“I still battle with depression and anxiety.” submitted Njemanze.
In the court affidavit sighted by this reporter, in defending its actions of abducting women from the streets and arresting Njemanze and her friends , the AEPB and Nigerian police stated:
“The Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the FCT administration and indeed the international bodies in Africa are against commercial sex workers popularly called “ashawo” in Nigeria, as same constitutes a nuisance and a violation of the moral values of our African society.”
“That the Plaintiffs (speaking about Dorothy Njemanze and her friends) dress naked or half-naked by the roadside soliciting for men both interested and uninterested members of the public, including innocent infants.”
“That only an insane or an idle person can be in the street at 12 mid-night in the name of collecting signatures.”
In October 2017, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice ordered the Nigerian government to award compensation to Njemanze and two other women, Justina Etim and Amarachi Jessyford, for the violation of their rights by security agents of the government but two years after the landmark judgement, the ladies are yet to be compensated and more women have fallen victim of rights violation.
Amidst tears, Njemanze expressed hopelessness as she revealed that she has lost everything following several attacks from the security agents of the government. She added that she has also received death threats and attempts have been made on
“I was targeted for assassination and I lost everything. Accommodation, feeding and everything became difficult.” She said.
Sex work: a right or a crime
Scores of women in Nigeria have been subjected to degrading treatment and treated like common criminals for being at certain places including nightclubs during the wee hours. According to Enemo, in April, 73 ladies were picked up on the streets of Abuja metropolis and marched to Old Parade ground, Area 10, where they were left for hours until their lawyer showed up to bail them with N3,000 each, making a total of N219,000.
“I had just returned to Nigeria from a trip when I started receiving several phone calls about my members being arrested. I immediately called our lawyer, who met the girls and bailed 73 of them with N3,000 each. The receipt they were given was issued from the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB),” said Enemo.
“There is nothing under the AEPB’s Act that empowers them, either by themselves or through the police or through any security agency in Nigeria, to arrest, detain or receive bail money from women on pretext that they are prostitutes,” said Deji Ajare, legal practitioner and coordinator at Sterling Centre for Law and Development.
Continuing, he said: “rather it is an anomaly. AEPB is an environmental organisation intended to preserve and maintain the quality of the environment but the AEPB has gone beyond sanitising the environment and has begun moral sanitation.”
AEPB’s lawyer and Abuja raid prosecutor, Barrister Eze, did not answer his calls and did not respond to sms sent to his mobile phone.
Chapter 532 of the Penal Code Act of the Federal Capital of Territory, 1990 criminalises prostitution and solicitation of prostitutes.
The law states: “An ‘Idle person’ shall include a common prostitute behaving in a disorderly or indecent manner in a public place or persistently importuning or soliciting persons for the purpose of prostitution.”
“The term vagabond shall include any male person who knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of a prostitute or in any public place solicits or importunes for immoral purposes; and
“Whoever is convicted as a vagabond shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to four hundred and fifty naira or both.”
However, even as the Abuja law criminalises prostitution and solicitation of prostitutes, only women have so far been arrested. There is no record of any man being arrested for prostitution or for soliciting prostitutes.
There is no law which suggests that women seen on the streets at midnight or anytime thereafter, are necessarily idle persons or prostitutes. But many women have been arrested on this pretext and some have tagged it an attack against women.
“Their argument (referring to joint task force’s mandate of ‘sanitising’ the streets of Abuja) is a weak one in the face of the Nigerian Constitution that guarantees the freedom of association. Why are the men also not being arrested? The value chain here also has men on it. Why are they left out of the arrest as well?” remarked Sola Fagorosi, executive director, OneLife Initiative for Human Development, while speaking to this reporter in a Whatsapp interview.
All efforts to get a statement from Manzah Anjiguri, FCT Police Public Relations Officer for comments was futile. Manzah, who spoke to this reporter in a face-to-face meeting at his office said that he was unwell and had no energy to answer any questions. He instructed that the questions pertaining to this report be forwarded to him and promised to give a response upon approval from his boss. But he never did. Each time, Legit.ng called him, the Police PRO said he had not received a response from his ‘oga’ and could not respond to the questions without approval.
Sadly, there are laws in Nigeria that discriminate against the female gender and perpetuate ill-treatment from the opposite gender and society at large.
Section 55 (1) (d) of the Northern Penal Code states that “an assault by a man on a woman is not an offence if they are married if native law or custom recognises such “correction” as lawful, and if there is no grievous hurt.”
Under Section 241 of the Penal Code, “grievous hurt” includes emasculation, permanent loss of sight, ability to hear or speak, deprivation of any member or joint, destruction or permanent impairing of the powers of any member or joint, facial disfigurement, bone fracture or tooth dislocation.”
Under Section 353 of the Criminal Code, a person who unlawfully and indecently assaults a man is guilty of a felony and liable to imprisonment for three years. However, by virtue of Section 360 of the Criminal Code, a person who unlawfully and indecently assaults a woman is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for two years.
Women are held to a higher moral standard than their male counterparts and, in some cases, denied entrance and privileges to some places and things regardless of their class.
While visiting a club in Apo area of Abuja in July 2019, Amina Jibrin, an actress, model, and entrepreneur faced gender-based discrimination and was prevented from entering the club because of her outfit.
“The bouncer asked me who invited me, I responded that no one invited me and he stopped me from entering the club. So, I turned back to leave. I shared a post on my Instagram page about the club, it went viral and the manager of the club responded saying that I was indecently dressed and that’s why I wasn’t allowed into the club. I was wearing a shirt dress.” said Jibrin.
Many other ladies have suffered the same treatment when visiting some clubs or other hangouts in Abuja. Most of them reveal that they are either refused entry when alone or required to come with a man or group of men before they are allowed to be a part of the gathering.
“I haven’t really been refused entry into a club because I always go with a guy or in a group but I see how they treat other ladies who show up alone. They tell them there is no space inside the club or ask them if they are meeting anyone” says Uche Obumkaneme, a make-up artist residing in Abuja.
“Some of the bouncers at the club even ask ladies who come alone for sex just to be allowed in the club. It is always different when a girl comes with a man” continued Obumkaneme.
A club owner explains why some ladies are denied entrance into clubs
Ikechukwu Ranex, an Abuja club owner, agreed that some women are not allowed into his club when they are perceived to be sex workers aiming to find customers in the club. Often, this can cause problems, he said.
“We have to prevent ‘hustlers’ from gaining access to the club. They may cause mischief or embarrass high profile clients who are looking to have a good time. So it is better to nip it in the bud at the gate and not let the girls enter. If a girl is looking ‘razz’ and tattered, she won’t be let in but if she looks classy and smells nice, the bouncers know to let her in as it is part of their training.” emphasised Ranex.
The problem with this type of profiling is that it is “judgemental and discriminates against women generally because of the way they decide to dress or look, which should be their decision and nobody else”, a commercial sex worker observed.
Nigeria is a signatory to several human rights treaties imposing obligations on the authorities to protect, respect and fulfill human rights for everyone within its jurisdiction, without distinction of any kind. Not only is the country a signatory to human rights appropriation treaties, it has also ratified most including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.
The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa was drafted in 1995, adopted on July 11, 2003, and took effect on November 25, 2005.
The Maputo Protocol has its premise hinged on principles that arrest and eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. It also demands the participation of women in all areas of life.
Nigeria is one of the 49 African Union countries that is a signatory to the protocol and one of the 37 countries to have ratified the Maputo Protocol. Nigeria ratified the protocol on December 16, 2004, and deposited its articles of ratification on February 18, 2005.
However, almost two decades after ratifying the protocol, several articles provided in the agreement are still flouted by security agents of the government, even in the nation’s capital.
Articles 11 of the Maputo Protocol enshrines the principle of non-discrimination and calls upon participatory states to undertake appropriate institutional, legislative and relevant measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.
The protocol also provides a guarantee for women’s right to dignity, right to integrity and security. The obligation of the Nigerian government by virtue of the protocol is to prohibit all forms of violence against women. However, the singular action necessary to activate the laws and promote the freedom and development of women is yet to be taken.
Laws as paper tigers
Laws have been passed and treaties have been signed by the Nigerian government in an attempt to show commitment towards halting the perpetration of violence and discrimination against women but as one step is taken forward, several are taken backward.
The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP) was enacted in 2015 but is yet to be domesticated in many states across the country. In fact, most provisions of the act are only recognised in the FCT, the nation’s capital, the same state where over 100 women were arrested and branded as prostitutes for being outside their homes in the night.
The VAPP Act is a rich law but it is only as rich and strong as the implementation says Fagorosi of OneLife Initiative for Human Development.
“The police and these law enforcement agents need to stop profiling women based on how they dress. They should keep their personal opinions to themselves. Besides the FCT has other pressing needs than hiding under the cover of darkness to perpetrate crime in trying to rid the city of women at night,” Fagorosi said.
Njoku Chibuzor, spokesperson for Sexual Offences Awareness & Victims Rehabilitation (SOAR) Initiative expressed a similar view. According to him, laws have no power when enforcement agencies are weak.
“The truth is the law has no power as long as the enforcement agencies in this country are not working up to acceptable standard,” he said.
Editor’s note: Some names of victims in this report have been changed to protect their identity.
* This investigation is supported by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.