Briefing Paper by the Nigerian Feminist Forum, 15 May 2019.
On the 22nd of April, 2019, agents of the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) carried out a raid on Caramelo Club in Utako, Abuja. Of the mixed clientele, men and women, only women were arrested. All the 27 women arrested were profiled as strippers, regardless of whether they were or not. Women were dragged out of the club in the nude and manhandled by male law enforcement agents. The 27 women were coerced into “confessing to prostitution”, without legal aid or counsel, and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment or a fine of N3000.
Barely a week later,further raids were carried out on several nightclubs in Abuja, on the 28thof April. Individual women were also abducted, including one who had simplygone out to buy noodles and another who was in front of a supermarket. In all,70 women were abducted from different parts of Abuja and profiled as “prostitutes”because they were out after working hours. At a press conference, the arrestedwomen gave testimonies of a range of violations: abduction, physical assault,mental anguish, and sexual assault. One woman who was menstruating at the timewas ogled and humiliated by policemen. Women who wore wedding rings werereleased. The arrested women either paid between N5000 and N10,000to be grantedbail or, if they could not pay, were coerced into sex for bail.
Official raids onwomen in the streets at night in Abuja are not new. Activists have observed that the police andAEPB have been regularly involved in rounding up and removing women off thestreets at night since the early 2000s.The previous round of overt statesponsored violence against women was in 2011, when police officers preyed upon womenfound on the city’s streets, dragging them onto buses, and sexually assaulting thembecause they were said to be “prostitutes.” Students, employees, shoppers, married women wereamong those abducted and told to pay N5000 to secure their freedom. Those whocould not pay were tortured, brought before a mobile court, and then sent to a“rehabilitation camp” for sex workers. In2014, Dorothy Njemanze, an actor and activist, and three other women who hadbeen assaulted by state agents, took the government to the ECOWAS RegionalCourt. In a landmark ruling on October 12, 2017, the Court found the FederalGovernment of Nigeria guilty of multiple violations of the women’s human rights.Despite this ruling however, official roundups of women in Abuja continueunabated.
Whilst extortion on the part of the police and the Abuja Environmental ProtectionBoard (AEPB) is not specific to their raids on nightclubs and abductions ofwomen in public places at night, the manner in which the police and AEPB carryout their rounding up of women from nightclubs is very particular, being markedby sexually humiliating, coercive andviolent actions.Women were stripped of their clothes and bundled naked into vans where theywere sexually assaulted. This type of treatment is reserved exclusively for thewomen rounded up in such raids – no men were even charged by the police.
The latest statesponsored attacks on women in nightclubs signal an extension of roundups on thestreets to intrusion into more enclosed/private spaces. In another instance,Ada Akunne, a Nollywood actress, was in her car on a night out with friends tocelebrate a cousin’s graduation when they were stopped by police. The womenwere accused of being provocatively dressed and therefore “prostitutes”,particularly since there was no man in the car. The police called theircolleagues to arrest the women and only released them after members of thepublic gathered around them.
State officials’ violence against women rests on the assumption that itis appropriate to divide women into two groups: “good women” – married,caregivers, sexually chaste and therefore worthy of respect – and “free women”,women whose bodies and sexualities are not under the control of men andtherefore “not deserving of respect”. AEPB and police actions demonstrate theirbelief that women who are found on the streets of Abuja at any time afterworking hours fall into the category of “free women”. Moreover, they state thatthe environment must be “sanitised” of such women, particularly if they arethought to be dressed in ways considered too revealing. Women’s presence in thecity at night, their dress, their mobility – all these are treated as“evidence” of women behaving badly and exerting a corrupting influence on thesociety at large.
The police have presented themselves as being concerned with “public morality”, which they (and many in the society at large) see as appropriately policed via control over the bodies of women. This is not only wholly inappropriate but also ultimately untenable. The responsibility for public morality cannot reside with women alone. Public morality would be more appropriately advanced by addressing official corruption, extortion and impunity. These are clearly not addressed by policing women’s presence in the city at night or in the evening nor by acting in ways that violate the safety of women in public.
By asserting that policing women’s bodies will advance public morality,state agencies justify their acts of extortion, sexual assault and rape by castingthem as efforts to control crime and “promiscuity”. Police and AEPB officials have generallytargeted women they consider to be “prostitutes” or else claim that the womenthey have targeted are “prostitutes”.The existence of commercial sex and a sex industry in Abuja is officiallytreated as an example of degenerate morality as well as being associated withcriminality. What stands out, however, is the selective demonization by thepolice and the AEPB of women alone, not any of the men present in thenightclubs, the owners of the clubs or other parties involved.
Police and AEPB personnel feel justified indenying women sex workers, as well as women whom they claim are “prostitutes”,their bodily autonomy and integrity. Worse still, state agents treat the womenas “fair game” – sexual objects whose bodies they are entitled to, whetherthrough molestation, rape, the coercive exchange of ‘sex for bail’, which isalso rape, or sexually degrading and intrusive language. Women who defend therights of other women affected by state sponsored violence are also subject tosuch treatment. In the process, stateagencies enact a toxic form of masculinity that perpetuates and legitimatesrape culture.
The Nigerian Feminist Forum condemns theseviolations in the strongest of terms.
- We demand an end to the rounding up, abductions and sexual violations ofwomen and girls on the streets, in nightclubs, in markets, in public andprivate spaces in Abuja.
- We demand an independent public enquiry into the latest spate of statesponsored violence against women, with substantive representation of women’srights groups on the panel of enquiry.
- We demand that the specific allegations of rape and sexual assault onthe part of security and state officials should be investigated and prosecuted.
- We demand the systemic transformation of all institutions involved inthe state sponsored violence – particularly the police and the AEPB. Thisrequires unravelling the obnoxious treatment of women in Abuja after workinghours as “free women” whose bodies need to be controlled by official agencies.It also requires undoing the toxic masculinity which justifies male sexualentitlement to women’s bodies in institutional operations. Ultimately, itrequires transforming the notion of “security” to mean, in principle and inpractice, freedom for women from violence.
- We insist that state agencies should actively respect the constitutionalprovision that the primary purpose of government is to provide for the securityand welfare of all people (S.14 (2b))without excluding women, whetherthese are students, hawkers, food sellers, civil servants, sex workers, marriedwomen, single women, shoppers or any other category of women.
- We insist that state agencies should actively observe the constitutionalprovision that the sanctity of the human person should be respected and theirdignity maintained (S.17 (2b)) without excluding all women’s rights to bodily autonomy and integrity.
- We insist that state agencies should actively respect allwomen’s constitutional rights to freedomof movement (S.41(1)), peaceful association (S.40) and freedom of expression(S.38(1)).
- We insist that state agencies should actively respect the constitutionalrights of all women to freedom fromdiscrimination on the grounds of sex (S.42(1a)).
#Genderand Transparency Project (GAP)
Constance Meju is publisherof Port Harcourt based National Point Newspaper and Gender and Human RightJustice advocate
 Isine, I. and Akurega, M. 2014. ‘Investigation: How Abuja NGO,AEPB, Arrest Innocent Women, Label Them Prostitutes’. Premium Times, 10February 2014.
Adebayo, B. 2019. ‘Nigerian police arrested 65 women in a raid. Someof the women say officers raped them.’ CNN, 13 May 2019.