The FCT Social Development Secretariat (SDS) works in partnership with the notoriously brutal Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) to ‘sanitise’ the capital city of what it considers to be social ills. Those unfortunate enough to fall into the categories deemed to require ‘cleansing’ – and women in general, are being treated as such – are beaten mercilessly, rounded up and treated to summary ‘justice’. Several women caught up in these ambushes have testified to being raped. Yet two years ago, the FCT minister, Alhaji Muhammad Bello, inaugurated the FCT Domestic Violence Response Team as an institutional answer to the fact of pervasive violence against women and girls. How can it be possible for the same agency to justify violent raids on women in the city at night and simultaneously offer a ‘safe space’ for survivors of sexual assault and rape in the day? What does this tell us about the kind of ‘social development’ envisioned for Abuja? State institutional arrangements ideally express a vision of the future, the kind of society we would like to have. What is manifested here is less vision than will – the repressive and violent will to control and exclude, a world in which women are targets of sexual humiliation and assault in public spaces, with the impoverished majority simply being undesirables.

Over the last two months, members of the FCT Ministerial Joint Task Force (JTF) have rounded up over a hundred women in raids on nightclubs, as well as in violent, random swoops on women who happened to be in public spaces in Abuja after 6 p.m. The SDS is a member of the FCT Joint Task Force, along with the security agencies and others. The JTF’s mandate, according to SecurityKing, is “to sanitise the Federal Capital City and rid it of vices like: Drug peddling; Activities of scavengers; Hoodlums hibernating in shanties; and Commercial sex workers. Others are Street Hawking; Beggars” and various traffic-related offences. Although the FCT JTF was established in January 2017, the legislation from which its mandate is largely derived – the Abuja Environmental Protection Board Act – was formulated as a military decree over two decades ago.

By night time in Abuja, activists have observed since at least 2003, that hawkers and women on the streets at night are regularly rounded up by the AEPB in parts of the city like zone 4. The most recent round of targeted assaults on women are thus the latest in a long line of such violations. Women have been pursued, not only in nightclubs but in public spaces of all kinds, whether on the streets, in front of supermarkets, walking in their neighbourhoods, and even inside their cars. They have been arrested for their modes of dressing, particularly if they are considered to be ‘scantily clad’. Gun-toting military men and police officers descend on the women and shove them violently into vans, before arraigning them before mobile courts run under the auspices of the AEPB. The FCT JTF has actively created specific forms of gendered insecurity for women, effectively engaging in a war on women – all this in so-called times of ‘peace’.

Chief Nkereuwem Akpan, a human rights lawyer, recounted his own experience (on YouTube, of being brutally assaulted by the AEPB and Naval officers on the 20th of January, 2014. His car had stopped working one evening and after stepping out of it, he was thrown to the ground and severely beaten by several ‘operatives’. Abuses of the law were endemic in the behaviour of AEPB operatives: “If you arrest somebody hawking on the street and you end up raping her, that is not the law you’re facing. The exploitation of the innocent, the abuse, what is going on is just reckless … if this could happen in a democracy, then nobody is safe.” More damningly, he stated, “The girls are raped routinely. I have witnesses who have been raped routinely, just because they were selling bananas.” When rape becomes routine among state agents, it legitimates sexual violence and rape culture in the society at large.

The Acting Secretary to the SDS, Hajiya Safiya Abubakar, stated in her appearance before the National Human Rights Commission on the 16th of May, that she was part of the Team that conceptualised and executed the April raids on nightclubs and that the raids were justified on the grounds of curbing “social vices” such as prostitution in Abuja. She stressed that the SDS needed to ensure there was no deviation from “the norms and values of the society”. Despite several women having narrated their experiences of rape and sexual assault by armed security officials and police officers, Hajiya Safiya Abubakar discounted their testimonies. She denied that the police and security agents could have inflicted such violence even though she had left the police station before the women were released. At the heart of the Ag. Secretary’s arguments is a use of the false cover of ‘immorality’ to provide a veneer of respectability to the sexual abuse and rape of women. When it becomes expedient to justify injustice for some women, it is not long before it leads to the abuse of women in general, as is currently happening.

In an unexpected move two years ago, the FCT Minister inaugurated the FCT Domestic Violence Response Team on the 16th of February, as an institutional response to the fact of pervasive violence against women and girls. Sustained advocacy on this matter by women’s organisations and others had prompted the Minister to take this action. An advisory group was set up and after a retreat held in Kaduna in April 2017, with representation from several stakeholders in government and in civil society, the name and focus of the Response Team was broadened from domestic violence to cover sexual and gender based violence. The new focus recognised that the Response Team would cover a wider spectrum of violence, carried out by actors beyond those in the domestic sphere.

Strong support for setting up an FCT Response Team came from the Rule of Law unit in the Office of the Vice President (OVP), headed by Gbolahan Adeniran, Esq. Previously based in Lagos, Adeniran was inspired by the success of Mirabel Centre, the first Sexual Assault Referral Centre to be set up in Nigeria. Established in 2013, the Centre is a one-stop service centre where survivors of sexual assault and rape can reach a safe space, receive psychosocial services and medical care before making a police report, and potentially take their case to court. Mirabel Centre took ten years to establish and is distinguished by its feminist philosophy and practice of being survivor-centred, meaning that the survivors’ needs comes first. Although funded by Lagos State, the Centre works in partnership with the State, providing support for survivors and their family members for as long as this is needed, whilst operating strict protocols of confidentiality. Adeniran and others in the Rule of Law unit in the OVP were committed to ensuring that a similar institutional arrangement should be established in the FCT.

It has become clear, however, that the FCT Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) Response Team is not in a position to replicate the Mirabel Centre model. Rather than a one-stop service centre, the FCT Response Team functions as a referral centre with the aim of providing a space for survivors to report their cases and be counselled before being transported to a clinic for medical testing and to a police station for reporting. Neither the clinic nor the police station is close to the referral space and so transport costs are incurred. Since there is no funding for the Response Team, staff pay for such trips out of their own pockets. The personnel responsible for the daily running of the referral space have thus demonstrated a degree of good will towards the survivors that eventually reach their office but the obstacles to the Response Team’s effective functioning go beyond being overcome simply by good will.

The Response Team’s referral space is located in the Social Development Secretariat. The fact that this is a civil service agency means that it is only open during office hours, from Monday to Friday. As we all know, sexual assault and rape are not restricted to such hours. The ‘hotline’ is not operational over the weekend nor when all staff are at a meeting during the week. The civil service institutional ethos of requests requiring approval from the head of the hierarchy translates into the perpetual deferral of decisions, never mind innovations. The more serious problem, however, is structural. The Chair of the FCT SGBV Response Team is the FCT Minister and the co-Chair is the Acting Secretary to the SDS, Hajiya Safiya Abubakar. Both have justified state sponsored violence against women on the grounds of ‘curbing immorality and prostitution’ in Abuja. How can they simultaneously provide a ‘safe space’ for women?

Charmaine Pereira is chair, Board of Trustees, Legislative Advocacy Coalition on Violence Against Women (LACVAW).