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 28th of April. Individual women were also abducted, including one who had simply gone 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 arrested women gave testimonies of a range of violations: abduction, physical assault, mental anguish, and sexual assault. One woman who was menstruating at the time was ogled and humiliated by policemen. Women who wore wedding rings were released. The arrested women either paid between N5000 and N10,000 to be granted bail or, if they could not pay, were coerced into sex for bail.
Official raids on women in the streets at night in Abuja are not new. Activists have observed that the police and AEPB have been regularly involved in rounding up and removing women off the streets at night since the early 2000s. The previous round of overt state sponsored violence against women was in 2011, when police officers preyed upon women found on the city’s streets, dragging them onto buses, and sexually assaulting them because they were said to be “prostitutes.” Students, employees, shoppers, married women were among those abducted and told to pay N5000 to secure their freedom. Those who could not pay were tortured, brought before a mobile court, and then sent to a “rehabilitation camp” for sex workers(Isine, I. and Akurega, M. 2014.) In 2014, Dorothy Njemanze, an actor and activist, and three other women who had been assaulted by state agents, took the government to the ECOWAS Regional Court. In a landmark ruling on October 12, 2017, the Court found the Federal Government of Nigeria guilty of multiple violations of the women’s human rights. Despite this ruling however, official roundups of women in Abuja continue unabated.
Whilst extortion on the part of the police and the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) is not specific to their raids on nightclubs and abductions of women in public places at night, the manner in which the police and AEPB carry out their rounding up of women from nightclubs is very particular, being marked by sexually humiliating, coercive and violent actions. Women were stripped of their clothes and bundled naked into vans where they were sexually assaulted. This type of treatment is reserved exclusively for the women rounded up in such raids – no men were even charged by the police.
The latest state sponsored attacks on women in nightclubs signal an extension of roundups on the streets 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 to celebrate a cousin’s graduation when they were stopped by police. The women were accused of being provocatively dressed and therefore “prostitutes”, particularly since there was no man in the car. The police called their colleagues to arrest the women and only released them after members of the public gathered around them. (Adebayo, B. 2019.)
State officials’ violence against women rests on the assumption that it is 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 and therefore “not deserving of respect”. AEPB and police actions demonstrate their belief that women who are found on the streets of Abuja at any time after working hours fall into the category of “free women”. Moreover, they state that the environment must be “sanitised” of such women, particularly if they are thought to be dressed in ways considered too revealing. Women’s presence in the city at night, their dress, their mobility – all these are treated as “evidence” of women behaving badly and exerting a corrupting influence on the society 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 casting them as efforts to control crime and “promiscuity”. Police and AEPB officials have generally targeted women they consider to be “prostitutes” or else claim that the women they have targeted are “prostitutes”. The existence of commercial sex and a sex industry in Abuja is officially treated as an example of degenerate morality as well as being associated with criminality. What stands out, however, is the selective demonization by the police and the AEPB of women alone, not any of the men present in the nightclubs, the owners of the clubs or other parties involved.
Police and AEPB personnel feel justified in denying women sex workers, as well as women whom they claim are “prostitutes”, their bodily autonomy and integrity. Worse still, state agents treat the women as “fair game” – sexual objects whose bodies they are entitled to, whether through molestation, rape, the coercive exchange of ‘sex for bail’, which is also rape, or sexually degrading and intrusive language. Women who defend the rights of other women affected by state sponsored violence are also subject to such treatment. In the process, state agencies enact a toxic form of masculinity that perpetuates and legitimates rape culture.
The Nigerian Feminist Forum condemns these violations in the strongest of terms.
We demand an end to the rounding up, abductions and sexual violations of women and girls on the streets, in nightclubs, in markets, in public and private spaces in Abuja.
We demand an independent public enquiry into the latest spate of state sponsored violence against women, with substantive representation of women’s rights groups on the panel of enquiry.
We demand that the specific allegations of rape and sexual assault on the part of security and state officials should be investigated and prosecuted.
We demand the systemic transformation of all institutions involved in the state sponsored violence – particularly the police and the AEPB. This requires unravelling the obnoxious treatment of women in Abuja after working hours as “free women” whose bodies need to be controlled by official agencies. It also requires undoing the toxic masculinity which justifies male sexual entitlement to women’s bodies in institutional operations. Ultimately, it requires transforming the notion of “security” to mean, in principle and in practice, freedom for women from violence.
We insist that state agencies should actively respect the constitutional provision that the primary purpose of government is to provide for the security and welfare of all people (S.14 (2b)) without excluding women, whether these are students, hawkers, food sellers, civil servants, sex workers, married women, single women, shoppers or any other category of women.
We insist that state agencies should actively observe the constitutional provision that the sanctity of the human person should be respected and their dignity maintained (S.17 (2b)) without excluding all women’s rights to bodily autonomy and integrity.
We insist that state agencies should actively respect all women’s constitutional rights to freedom of movement (S.41(1)), peaceful association (S.40) and freedom of expression (S.38(1)).
We insist that state agencies should actively respect the constitutional rights of all women to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sex (S.42(1a)).
- Isine, I. and Akurega, M. 2014. ‘Investigation: How Abuja NGO, AEPB, Arrest Innocent Women, Label Them Prostitutes’. Premium Times, 10 February 2014.
- Adebayo, B. 2019. ‘Nigerian police arrested 65 women in a raid. Some of the women say officers raped them.’ CNN, 13 May 2019.