TThe exponential explosion in reported cases of rape in the time of COVID-19 may be responsible for the outrage that we have seen, but the truth is that the essential difference is the focused media attention that the subject now receives. Rape is an epidemic that has now reached pandemic proportions due to inaction, stigmatisation, limitations of existing law and the failure of the state to respond to what is clearly a major humanitarian crisis.
Since February 27, when the first index case of COVID-19 was reported in Nigeria, and that satanic, virulent virus overwhelmed our lives, Nigeria has had cause to deal with other convergent afflictions: the first, in my view, is the pandemic of irresponsible governance, as evidenced by the kind of poor leadership responses that we have witnessed in some states of the federation, and the growing narrative that some key players may have turned the main pandemic itself into a racket. The second is the pandemic of insecurity – even with states and borders on lockdown, bandits, criminals and terrorists – whichever label suits your fancy – have been running riot across the country, particularly in the North East/West, where villages are sacked in one day, for hours on end; Southern Kaduna, where villages have been razed and murder has been committed on a large scale; and elsewhere in the country where members of the middle class are now afraid of their own shadows. The third is the poverty pandemic: Lockdowns, shutdowns and the obvious possum-isation of all processes, have resulted in the loss of income; the suspension of jobs or their outright loss; a sharp rise, of course, in unemployment figures; and the abbreviation of hope in the face of inflation and economic contractions. The fourth is the pandemic of rape.
I have no immediate data to suggest that the menace of “sex without consent” and the associated ills of domestic and sexual violence have any causal relationship with COVID-19, but what has been seen so far is that in the season of COVID-19, there has been an exponential rise in the reported cases of rape and sexual violence. One newspaper has had cause to report, for example, that in one month, there were ten high profile cases of rape across the country. In Kaduna, in April, an 18-year-old young girl known as Jennifer was attacked and raped by five men. The victim’s family released a video of her ordeal. In Lagos, a young lady, Tina Ezekwe, just 16, was shot and killed at a bus stop in Lagos by a trigger-happy policeman. This was rape of another kind, but a popular variety in Nigeria pointing to the failure of the state and its agents to place a high premium on human lives. A few days later, in Edo State, a 22-year old university student, Vera Uwaila Omozuwa, simply known as Uwa, was beaten to death in a church after she had been allegedly raped. Her assailants smashed her head with a fire extinguisher.
In Dutse, Jigawa, there was the report of a 12-year old girl, named Farishina, who was raped repeatedly on different occasions by 11 men. In Ibadan, on June 2, a 19-year old student, Barakat Bello, was also raped inside her father’s house and murdered. There have been even more horrific reports: Of men sleeping with a two-year-old, of men sleeping with their daughters, and the only excuse one imbecilic offender could offer was that if his wife denied him sex, he would seek sexual pleasures from his own daughters. In Lagos, four masked men raped a 12-year-old girl. In Niger State, a 25-year-old man raped an 85-year old grandma! A university undergraduate in Lagos was also accused of kissing a child passionately. He has since been arrested. In Benue, a 38-year-old man raped his seven-month-old daughter! Nigeria’s social media space understandably, has been inundated with hashtags of protest, anguish and change: #JusticeforUwa, #JusticeforTina, #JusticeforJennifer; #JusticeforFarishina, #JusticeforBarakat; #Wearetired; #NotoRape; #StopRapeNow…#EndRapeNow…
The exponential explosion in reported cases of rape in the time of COVID-19 may be responsible for the outrage that we have seen, but the truth is that the essential difference is the focused media attention that the subject now receives. Rape is an epidemic that has now reached pandemic proportions due to inaction, stigmatisation, limitations of existing law and the failure of the state to respond to what is clearly a major humanitarian crisis. In 2017, the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics reported, and you must take this as merely an estimate given the challenges of data collection in Nigeria, that there were 2,279 reported cases of indecent assault and 1,164 cases of anal sex, at the time, from 35 states. In July 2019, a poll by NOI reported that one in every three girls in Nigeria, would have experienced one form of sexual assault before the age of 25. That means virtually every Nigerian woman has, at leas,t a story of sexual harassment or molestation to tell. In 2020, there has been an unprecedented explosion of this. Is COVID-19 a special type of beast that implants a new variant of madness in people’s heads, which is directly linked to their libido?
Nigeria’s attitude to the issue of rape and domestic violence has been at best unprogressive and far behind contemporary legal thinking. The failure to move forward and align with current trends on this subject is one of the sore aspects of our jurisprudence.
Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, under whose watch rape has been fully criminalised, deserves commendation. He has just signed into law, a piece of legislation from the State House of Assembly, titled “Compulsory Treatment and Care of Child Victims of Sexual Abuse Law 2020.” There have been objections to the new Ekiti State Law on the grounds that it says no sexual offender will be entitled to bail. Expressly, this would be a violation of Sections 35(1), 36(5) of the Nigerian Constitution, and to that extent questionable, but let it be known that the right of bail is contractual in nature, per Tobi, JSC.
Elsewhere, I have spoken about the principled position that has been taken by Governor Fayemi and the Ekiti State House of Assembly. They are both convinced that there should be zero tolerance for all forms of sexual violence. Nobody should argue with that. Governor Fayemi also says there should be a national consensus on the issue of rape in Nigeria. His wife, the delectable Erelu Bisi Fayemi, turns 57 this week and has been a victim of sexual molestation by her own account. I do not not think this is why Fayemi is gung-ho on the question of rape and sexual violence; we should look more at the principle behind his protestation. Before him, it is only in Lagos State that we have had a similar passion expressed about sexual violence, with the establishment under then Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola of a sexual violence agency. In Ekiti, Fayemi has moved further by instituting a more active naming and shaming system by activating a Sexual Offenders Register, and taking that register to the Social Media. It is a brilliant initiative, even if we must not overlook the fact that the register has not yet named and shamed a power-figure – power figures, the NGOs insist, are the worst perpetrators of rape. Power, class, culture and privilege being the strongest enabling factors of rape. But the issue is: Can we ever have a national consensus on rape in Nigeria? Opinion is divided on that and that is the real problem.
Nigeria’s attitude to the issue of rape and domestic violence has been at best unprogressive and far behind contemporary legal thinking. The failure to move forward and align with current trends on this subject is one of the sore aspects of our jurisprudence. With regard to rape, the relevant body of laws, include the Criminal Code, Sections 215, 218, 221, 357-361 thereof; the Penal Code, Section 282 thereof; Section 1 of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, 2015 (VAPPA); and the Child Rights Act (2003), are all reasonable and valid in expression and effect under Chapter Four of the Nigerian Constitution. Ancillary provisions within the statute books also do not in any way justify the abuse of human rights often indicated by the obtainment of carnal knowledge by force. But there are known gaps in the law that have not been addressed. Without being pedantic, it is worth noting that concerns have been expressed about the definition of “rape” itself under Nigerian law. Section 357 defines rape as a man having forceful carnal knowledge of a woman. In today’s reality, it is not only men who rape women. Women rape women. Men rape women. Men rape men. The law needs to be changed.
In the extant law, a married man cannot rape his wife. This does not arise from a construction of the doctrine of the unity of spouse: That is a man and his wife being one and the same, but the thinking is that a married woman is a property of her husband, to be used as deemed fit. There are decided cases that have freed women from this primordial and antiquated misconception, but this is one curious area in which the law has not yet penetrated the proverbial “other room”, where even wives of presidents, and accomplished women, suffer in silence. There is also the problem of child brides. Nigeria operates a conflict of laws, or perhaps a dual legal system with the rights of children. The definition of a child, for example, in the Child Rights Act (2003) is different from that of the Children and Young Persons Law, in the same manner in which the Criminal Code Provisions on Rape are at variance with the same provisions in the Penal Code that are applicable to the Northern States of Nigeria. The existence of a dual legal system is at the heart of Nigeria’s under-development process. It accounts mostly for the failure to forge a consensus on anything in the country.
The culture of silence is the biggest threat to the now emerging #MeToo movement in Nigeria and Africa, reinforced by the fear of stigma. The final sticky problem here is that nobody talks about when a man rapes a man, or a woman rapes a man or a woman, and the fact that many of those shouting #MeToo, may just well be making false accusations.
Take the Child Rights Act. Whereas it has been ratified, as required by virtually every State in the South of Nigeria, 11 states, mainly Northern States, have refused to ratify it. They claim that it violates the Shariah law, which allows child marriages. UNICEF reports that Nigeria accounts for one of the highest rates of child brides in the world. The figure is put at 23 million child brides, most likely to double by 2050. Nigeria also accounts for one of the highest rates of Vesico-Vaginal-Festula (VVF), arising due to early exposure of child brides to coitus, with the added complications of high infant mortality, maternal morbidity/maternal mortality rates, out-of-school syndrome, poverty… and yet the defenders of culture, tradition and religion in parts of the North insist that any attempt to change the regime amounts to a violation of their rights. The rule is that a child below a certain age is not in a position to grant consent. The definition of a child in Nigeria is confused and confusing.
This is perhaps why since 2008, every attempt to review the extant laws on rape has been unsuccessful. There have been repeated talks about the need to review the punishment for rape, the definition of it, the burden of proof, the fielding of evidence and the time within which reasonable action can be taken. But every Bill addressing the matter since 2008, simply ends in the drawers. As recently as 2019, a bill to amend the Criminal Code on rape made it to second reading and vanished into thin air. A few weeks ago, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege and others started talking again about the need to amend the laws to discourage rape. There is no guarantee that the latest effort will not end up as another effort at grandstanding and populism. Rape, like federalism/restructuring, is one of the most discussed problems in Nigeria. Every stakeholder knows what the matter is but nobody is willing to do anything about it, or is courageous enough to go the extra mile. Nigeria is a country of smart talkers without either ambition or will.
The other issue with regard to rape is the evil of stigmatisation. In traditional societies, rape was a taboo, a Karmic affliction, a curse. Victims and their families could not talk about it. Families were afraid that nobody would marry their daughters who may have been defiled, and in those traditional communities the biggest achievement of a female child was to marry well and be a good wife. The times have changed, but primordial frames of mind have remained resilient. The culture of silence is the biggest threat to the now emerging #MeToo movement in Nigeria and Africa, reinforced by the fear of stigma. The final sticky problem here is that nobody talks about when a man rapes a man, or a woman rapes a man or a woman, and the fact that many of those shouting #MeToo, may just well be making false accusations.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.