- The Abuja Environmental Protection Board Task Force should be called to order
At a period the federal capital territory (FCT) and its satellite towns and villages are being overtaken by refuse, with people defecating in the open and streets littered with garbage, the Abuja Environmental Protection Board Task Force is preoccupied with violating the rights of women and girls. Not only are dozens of women languishing in prison for the unproven charge of prostitution, they are also being molested by policemen.
In collaboration with a so-called NGO, the Society Against Prostitution and Child Labour in Nigeria (SAP-CLN), raids are carried out almost on a regular basis at nightclubs and any woman who is unfortunate to be walking around is immediately tagged a ‘prostitute’. With nightlife practically criminalised within the FCT, especially for women and girls who are now targets of humiliation, assault and sexual harassment by law enforcement agents, several civil society groups, including Amnesty International Nigeria, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Nigeria, and Girl Child Africa, yesterday rightly staged a public demonstration to protest the disturbing trend.
That all this can be happening in a city intended to be Nigeria’s convergence point for commerce, business, innovation, ingenuity, creativity and social development beggar belief. As we have argued several times on this page, Abuja was conceived not for some Talibans, but as a city where the human rights of all residents would be safeguarded. Unfortunately, the rights of women and girls are frequently violated by the tyrannical activities of a misguided police force being used for dubious purposes.
Indeed, for several years now, women in the FCT have been assaulted, intimidated and incarcerated by this all-powerful task force on the pretext that that they have a mandate to ‘eradicate commercial sex workers in Abuja’. These so-called enforcers of the law are most often unidentifiable (wearing neither uniforms nor badges) and they lurk around the street corners in Abuja. A woman needs only be out in the evening, no matter the reason, for her to be arrested, humiliated and detained.
In April 2011, Dorothy Njemanze, a popular actress, reported that she had just parked her car and was walking towards her brother’s house one evening when she was roughly shoved towards a parked van by someone in a ‘Man-o-War’ uniform. She was then rudely assaulted and beaten by some men. No matter how hard she tried to identify herself as an actress, they would not let her go. Branded as a prostitute, Njemanze was eventually thrown inside a van just because she happened to be taking an evening walk in the city of Abuja. Even when she and her colleagues won their case at ECOWAS Court and were awarded damages, the federal government ignored the judgment.
Similar real-life but incredible stories have been narrated by women standing in front of their residences or offices: law school students, bankers, employees of a telecom company attending a colleague’s birthday party, etc. According to many survivors of this ordeal, after being harassed, the women are then ‘arrested’, molested, and subsequently detained in a choked-up cell in Area 11. No phone calls to family and friends are permitted, and no lawyers can be alerted. Prolonged humiliation and torture then follow, and finally, a ‘confession’ is forcibly obtained, along with a public statement denouncing prostitution. This option is reserved for the lucky few, those who ‘cooperate’ and are therefore allowed to ‘financially negotiate’ an exit. Otherwise, they are hauled before a compromised mobile court where punishment is swift and without mercy.
There is no known justification in Nigerian law for these despicable acts of violence and intimidation against ordinary law-abiding citizens. Indeed, there are clear and definite constitutional provisions that entrench the rights of women to their dignity, liberty, privacy, freedom of movement and expression and against gender-based discrimination. Strident attempts have been made to draw attention to these atrocities, being outrageous violations of the constitutional rights of women in Nigeria. Unfortunately, reminding these ‘law-enforcement’ personnel of the fundamental guarantees to all Nigerian women, without exception, is futile. As far as they know, women have no business being outside any structure or building during the evening or at night.
In this case, the real criminals are the people hiding under the authority of law enforcement to abuse, rape and dehumanise innocent women and girls in the name of morality which they themselves lack. In the process, they do incalculable damage to Nigeria’s image and the efforts of government to attract investment in these hard times. We need concerted efforts to bring them to account.