INVESTIGATION: How Abuja NGO, AEPB, arrest innocent women, label them prostitutes

Grace Adogo, Director of SAP-CLN
Grace Adogo, Director of SAP-CLN

AEPB and an NGO are trying to rid Abuja of prostitutes. But innocent women are bearing the brunt as they are arbitrarily arrested and stigmatised.

An Abuja-based NGO, Society Against Prostitution and Child Labour in Nigeria (SAP-CLN), in collaboration with Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) have elected to embark on a controversial campaign to rid Nigeria’s capital city of prostitutes. But it seems the campaign is being waged on the wrong side of the law following allegations of abuses and highhandedness, which grossly violate the provisions of Nigeria’s Constitution.

Party Turned Sour

When the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) posted Bimbo Ojo to Abuja, it was a dream come true. But not long after she arrived, she found that the city offered more than the bargain. While thousands of prospective corps members force their way to be posted to the “bling” city, hers came on a platter.

Abuja has an extraordinary allure especially for young Nigerians. Driven by radical ideas like those of former FCT Minister, Nasir El-Rufai, who in his controversial book, “Accidental Public Servant,” posited that “rural development is an oxymoron,” because “ultimately, everyone in the world will live in cities… we should all work … to get everyone to move to cities,” young people tend to have lost patience for the tortoise speed at which development has been trickling to the countryside. The result has been an unprecedented rural-urban drift. So Ms. Ojo and other young Nigerians believe that Abuja is pregnant with limitless opportunities to transform their lives.

However, majority of young people who came to Abuja hoping to get a better life have found themselves clutching the ebbing shadows of their once beautiful dreams. Nigeria’s capital territory does not seem to have room for the struggling people, artisans and even the low-level white and blue-collar workers. After all, succeeding ministers of the capital city have not only said so but have also proved that beyond every reasonable doubt.

But Ms. Ojo and some of her friends were yet to experience the other side of the beautiful city until one fateful evening. Apparently trying to explore the luscious nightlife of Abuja, she had set out for a party with her friends. Indeed, they had plenty of fun while the party lasted but towards midnight, they decided to go home.

Just as they walked out of the club towards the road to board a taxi, two buses pulled up. Like a scene from a Hollywood movie, she said, armed soldiers and policemen jumped out, cocked their riffles, took them violently and threw them into the waiting buses.

“It was so sudden that I couldn’t believe what happened was real,” she said. “The armed security officials shoved us violently into the buses and the driver moved in a neck-break speed to an unknown destination. Nobody told us what we did wrong and we couldn’t ask for fear of being shot.”

They were not the only occupants of the bus. Ms. Ojo said more than a dozen other girls had been hurled into the vehicle before she and her friends were seized.

The armed soldiers and police officers were not patrolling Abuja streets in search of armed robbers, who shot their way into neighbourhoods, kill and dispose law-abiding citizens of their properties. They were not looking for members of the dreaded Boko Haram sect, who have declared war against every strand of civilization. They were hunting for commercial sex workers, popularly known as “ashawo,” and the war has been total.

The AEPB Connection

The security operatives and touts who run amok in Abuja streets profiling citizens as prostitutes are said to be doing the bidding of the Society Against Prostitution and Child Labour in Nigeria, SAP-CLN.

Since the law does not permit an NGO to carry out such audacious campaign, its patrons enlisted the support of the fiery Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), and the police and got funding from countries that have largely lifted their citizens from abject poverty.

With the muscle of AEPB and dollars from donors, SAP-CLN set out to wage an unrelenting war against prostitutes in Nigeria’s centre of unity.

Several people have commended the NGO and its backers for electing to sanitise the capital city. Prostitution is illegal under AEPB law and offenders risk fines and jail terms. Unfortunately, the same law failed to clearly define who a prostitute is and how they can be identified. The operators have therefore, relied on gut feeling to arrest, detain and prosecute alleged offenders.

But the experiences of people like Ms. Ojo and hundreds of others have seriously called to question the propriety of the campaign with regards to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution.

And that is why Ms. Ojo and many others are angry. Indeed, they are so angry for the humiliation, pain and anguish of being falsely labeled, paraded and treated as prostitutes.

“Not only have I lost many job opportunities in Abuja after being charged to court on allegations of being a commercial sex worker but I have also been cursed by my immediate family. I don’t think I will ever overcome the stigma of this false and malicious accusation. My biggest headache is to clear my name because nobody who is aware of the allegation would want to marry me,” a distraught Ms. Ojo said.

At the premises of the Federal High Court in Abuja, where she had gone to seek redress, Ms. Ojo told PREMIUM TIMES that she had relocated to Lagos to stave off the negative publicity generated by her arrest and prosecution by the NGO.

Recounting her ordeal, she said, “We were driven like criminals to the Area 10 Sports Complex where they accused us and many other ladies who were already detained of being commercial sex workers.”

Struggling hard to control her emotion, she continued, “They then asked us to pay N5, 000 each to secure our freedom. Those who had the money paid and were released instantly. Others who had relatives called them to come and buy their freedom. Being a mere youth-corps member, I had no money and no one to call. I was charged to a mobile court the next morning where the magistrate discharged and acquitted me of any wrongdoing. But the humiliation, disgrace, and stigma of the ordeal are indelible. Indeed, they will torture me for the rest of my life,” she said.

SAP-CLN has many cases hanging on its neck including the N420 million suit against it by the angry youth corps member.

Ms. Ojo is probably one out of several other women who have braced the odds to take it out on their accusers. Majority of victims lick their wounds secretly and would not add salt to injury by exposing their shame to others.

With Ms. Ojo’s resolve to seek justice in the court, other women have started speaking up. For instance, Dorothy Njemanze, an actress and human rights activist, confirmed she narrowly escaped being arrested and humiliated by the controversial NGO.

Milliam Olufu said she was dragged from her SUV and beaten up on the allegation that she was a commercial sex worker. A lady who gave her name simply as Hanatu said security operatives attached to the NGO shot her on the leg for standing up to challenge the attempt to arrest her illegally. A house wife, who gave her name simply as Mrs. Osagie was not spared when the raiders met her coming out of a popular pharmacy in the Wuse 2 District of the nation’s capital, where she had gone to buy medicine for her sick child.

Ms. Njemanze, who has during the past two years been fighting against gender-based violence, said she has taken it upon herself to fight the illegal activities of the NGO.

Narrating her ordeal, Ms. Njemanze said her experience with the dreaded NGO made her realise just how bad women were being treated in the country. On the night she had a brush with the group, she said neither her identity card nor the many ATM cards she showed to her accusers made any sense.

While the atrocities against 'innocent' women continue, Abuja streets are flooded with prostitutes. this picture was taken on Friday, 6 February 2014.
While the atrocities against ‘innocent’ women continue, Abuja streets are flooded with prostitutes. this picture was taken on Friday, 6 February 2014.

She said, “With them, no ID card count and when I tried to call someone who could identify me, one of the operatives boasted that they too have a ‘big shot’ in the National Assembly and pulled out his phone and made some calls while another one said ‘let us call madam’ and he did.”

However, luck smiled on her when the crowd of young men who had gathered while the drama unfolded, resisted every attempt by the NGO to take her away. But the raiders didn’t leave until they dented her Honda Accord car.

Some residents of the capital city, who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES, expressed concern over the activities of SAP-CLN, saying the NGO’s operations violated the rights of women as guaranteed under Sections 34, 35, 41 and 42 of the 1999 Constitution.

Through her NGO, Dorothy Njemanze Foundation, Ms. Njemanze has declared war on SAP-CLN. Already, the foundation has called on the Federal Government to stop SAP-CLN from violating the rights of women in Abuja. The group said many female students, female employees of telecommunications firms, shoppers and even married women have been brutalised and abducted on the grounds that they were engaged in prostitution and taken to SAP-CLN detention facilities, including the Area 10 Sports Complex.

Ms. Njemanze insists that some of the victims are forced by SAP-CLN and its collaborators to buy their freedom. However, she explained that some of those who could not pay are tortured before being taken to a mobile court where they are charged and sent to a rehabilitation camp for sex workers located in Sabon Lugbe off Umar Musa Yar’Adua Way.

Abuja anti-Prostitution Law

While criticisms of SAP-CLN have come in torrents, PREMIUM TIMES investigation shows that commercial sex practice is not permitted anywhere in the FCT. Section 35 (1) of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, AEPB, Act of 1997, prohibits people from selling and or buying sexual intercourse.

Under the law, it is not only the female sex workers who are liable but also their patrons. But like the story of the biblical woman who was caught in the act of adultery, the patrons are always allowed to walk away free.

A legal practitioner, Abang Odok-Ogar of Armani Chambers, Abuja says SAP-CLN cannot hide under the AEPB Act to molest women whose fundamental right to dignity has been guaranteed under Section 34 of the 1999 Constitution. He said the AEPB Act contravened the provisions of the 1999 Constitution and is therefore, null and void to the extent to which it contravenes provisions of the grand norm.

Another legal practitioner, Aniefiok Iba, argued that every Nigerian is guaranteed freedom of movement under the law and no reasonable statute can detract from it. “There is no law that forbids people from going to parties or clubs in the night. People have the right to freedom of movement and association and nobody should hide under any guise to curtail those rights.”

Mr. Iba insisted that a boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife and even relations and friends might chose to attend a night party, a club or any kind of social gathering without let or hindrance.

“Nobody has the right to arrest another person on the road because she has elected to attend a social function in the night,” he said. “You cannot just pick somebody on the road and conclude she is a prostitute.”

More Complaints

Many victims have complained about the conduct of the men engaged in SAP-CLN prostitute raids. One of the victims, who gave her name simply as Blessing, said she was arrested by a popular supermarket along Ademola Adetokunbo Crescent. “I was just coming out of the supermarket when I spotted some men chasing young women towards my direction. I didn’t know why they chased the girls and so I walked to the road to pick a taxi home. Just then, the men caught up with me. Without provocation, they dragged me and in the process pulled my skirt up and shoved me into a bus that pulled up from nowhere,” she recalled.

Blessing said some of the security operatives violated the girls, saying that a young man wearing the AEPB sexually harassed her.

She said, “One of the men touched my breasts, but some of the smaller girls were seriously violated. For instance, some of the guys who arrested us inserted their fingers into private parts of some of the girls under the guise of searching for hard drugs or something. It was so disgusting.”

SAP-CLN officials, accused of humiliating women, pose for picture
SAP-CLN officials, accused of humiliating women, pose for picture

Uche Durueke, National President of the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, said the operations of SAP-CLN run foul of the Constitution. Mr. Durueke said the judiciary, especially magistrates should be wary of the activities of an NGO that uses the court to legitimise illegality.

He said, “I have also heard that some of these people arrested by the NGO are sexually abused. Some of these girls that have been so violated cannot come out in public and speak out. I will support them to sue this NGO and their backers and by so doing, they will make some points clear to the public. Until that happens, the level of impunity in the country will not abate.”

Mr. Durueke insisted that the mode of dressing does not make one a prostitute. “Finding a person outside in the night does not make the person a prostitute and even when a person is found in a brothel does not automatically translate that the person is a prostitute. Somebody can go to a brothel and have some drinks without having anything to do with a prostitute,” he argued.

Attempts to get SAP-CLN to shed light on its controversial activities were unsuccessful as an interview scheduled for that purpose was cancelled at the last minute on the grounds that its coordinator, Grace Adogo, was indisposed. Other attempts including visits to the corporate head office of the NGO, mailing of interview questions to the coordinator and several reminders yielded no result.

Responding to an inquiry by our correspondent, the Public Relations Officer, PRO, of AEPB, Sam Musa, said SAP-CLN operates under the Social Development Secretariat of the FCT.

“The Society Against Prostitution and Child Labour in Nigeria works under the Social Development Secretarial of FCT and AEPB collaborates with Social Development Secretarial to enforce the ban on prostitution,” Mr. Musa said. “When arrests are made, the Society Against Prostitution takes care of the rehabilitation and training of the arrested prostitutes. It is an NGO.”

Attempts by PREMIUM TIMES to speak with the FCT Police Public Relations Officer, PPRO, Altine Daniel, failed as she did not answer calls or respond to text messages from our reporter.

Meanwhile, many Nigerians who spoke on the issue advised the NGO to find more decent and legal approaches to their campaign. They also called on the Human Rights Commission and relevant agencies of government to investigate the cases of human rights abuses by the NGO and ensure that justice is done to the victims.

This investigation was done in collaboration with the GUARDPOST NEWSPAPER and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been updated with the correct name of the NGO run by actress Dorothy Njemanze. It is known as the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation and not Nigerian Women Trust Fund as initially indicated. We apologise for the mix-up.

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