Nigeria’s women remain vulnerable until power changes hands
This week, the release of the BBC Documentary Sex for Grades has been the talk of the town in West Africa — and for good reason too.
Too often, women in conservative societies like ours are made to feel like second-class citizens, angling for the right to be treated decently and with the respect accorded their male counterparts while also fighting for a seat at the table with respect to economic opportunities.
This brilliant documentary is the work of undercover journalists in both Ghana and Nigeria in detailing the lecherous attempts of university lecturers who use their positions as men of authority to sexually harass and abuse young women under their tutelage.
For Nigeria in particular, it is one more shocker in a yearlong roster full of sex-related scandals.
- In February 2019, a group of women tired of the status quo in traditionally conservative Northern Nigeria perpetually fuelled by a culture of silence, began the #ArewaMeToo movement to shame perpetrators and bring them to justice. One of them was arrested by the state secret police. She was later released.
- Two months later, policemen and paramilitary officers on a night raid harassed, beat and raped commercial sex workers and female partygoers in Abuja, using discarded water sachets in lieu of condoms.
- In June 2019, protesters took to the streets of Abuja and Lagos to demonstrate outside the churches of Biodun Fatoyinbo, the flamboyant clergyman who has been accused of raping and serially manipulating church members, some of them minors, into having sexual relationships with him.
- In September 2019, 16 members of staff at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, were let go for a number of offences, including sexual harassment.
For a country with pretentiously high moral standards and as deeply puritanical as Nigeria, there are thriving subcultures of rape, sexual abuse, violence and predatory exploitation by those who ought to serve as guardians and custodians of both the legal and moral codes.
The national outrage over these scandals and revelations continues to stir up reactions and have galvanised some level of offline action as well, but that is barely enough.
Though commendable, the incremental but slow impact of community action and street protests will continue to have only a little dent in terms of impact from all of these exposés because of the pervasive societal filth.
So even if protesters lobby for policy change in addition to hitting the streets, what is the guarantee that there will be strict implementation to serve as a deterrent to wannabe predators – or that it will even be passed in the first place?
Back in 2016, the Senate passed the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Education Institution Prohibition Bill. The intent was to have anyone in a position of authority in any tertiary institution in Nigeria sentenced to a five-year jail term if found guilty of sexual misconduct.
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) pushed back against the bill, saying it violated university autonomy.
- Its spokesman also said: “The bill is discriminatory, selective, spiteful, and impulsive and lacks logic and any intellectual base by attacking the character and persons of those in tertiary institutions rather than addressing the issue holistically.”
In the end, the bill was never assented to by the presidency.
A culture of impunity and ‘no consequences’
The use of power corruptly is such a pervasive problem across different facets of society. Just as importantly, it is pertinent to point out that impunity is a greater problem than anything in West Africa, even corruption.
In Nigeria, only the poor, those from ethnic minorities or powerful folks who have fallen out of favour with the top brass suffer from the consequences of their actions. People act as they will, because they know they have enablers in the upper echelons of the power structure.
- A senator caught on CCTV violently abusing a sex shop attendant was never disciplined by the Senate. As it turns out, he previously funded the campaign of the current president of the Senate. No prizes for guessing that he will remain a sacred cow and possibly a repeat offender.
- The scandal of 2018 was a series of leaked videos showing the governor of Kano, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, pushing wads of dollar notes into his robes on camera. The money is believed to be kickbacks for contracts executed in his state. But barely weeks after the videos surfaced, he was frolicking with the president and not a single word of caution came from his party or the presidency.
Decentralisation of powers
This impunity to act knowing there will be no consequences is emboldened at the core by the concentration of too much power at the upper echelons of any leadership structure. In my opinion, a decentralisation of power is needed in order to protect those at lower levels of the pyramid.
- An important example is the difference in the disciplinary process for both Fatoyinbo’s church and the Foursquare Gospel Church, where Boniface Igbeneghu, one of the protagonists in the #SexForGrades documentary is a resident pastor.
- Fatoyinbo as head of the Commonwealth of Zion, which he founded and has immense influence in, has barely commented on his sexual escapades; compare that to the case of Ibeneghu who was suspended within hours by his church which has a well-defined organogram with varying levels of authority to discipline every pastor across board.
If one lecturer is not completely responsible for the grades of a student, the probability of him asking for sexual favours reduces considerably because there is no carrot to dangle in front of his victims. If spiritual leaders answer to a democratically elected or constituted board of their peers, the chances of them being sanctioned after misdemeanours rise.
And if there is too little influence domiciled in the higher levels of the power chain, soon enough patrons will no longer be able to cover up for their friends and loyal subordinates.
Bottom line: Dismantle the uneven power structures and watch people be held accountable. Young women cannot continue to be the avenues for people in authority to practice power trips on.