Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory confronts a conflating crisis of law, religion and morality with overwhelming concerns for the safety of women. This is evident in the arbitrary arrests and assault of women on the basis of “sanitising the Federal Capital Territory and maintaining its master plan”, which the authorities have claimed.
The authorities have also argued that the notion behind these assaults and arbitrary arrests is, “every woman seen on the streets at late hours or at the night clubs/bars is a prostitute”. It is also based on the misconception that prostitution or sex work is a crime. It extends to the belief that prostitutes do not have rights and so, they can be stripped of all forms of human dignity.
On Monday (June 10) evening, I was privileged to attend the screening of ‘Silent Tears’, a short documentary based on the stories of women from different backgrounds who have been arrested and abused by law enforcement agents for being out late at night.
In attendance was Dolapo Osinbajo, wife of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, representatives of the Armed Forces and the diplomatic community.
Barely a few hours after the event, I received a phone call from a fellow lawyer that the police have again arrested some women in Gwarimpa and they have been taken to the police station. I immediately joined her in order to hear their offence(s) and why they were taken to the station.
On getting there, we met 11 women sitting on the floor. Two of them said they were arrested while inside a ‘Keke Napep’ (tricycle) while some were arrested in front of a supermarket. Others, however, were just walking by the road and got picked up.
Some of these women claimed to have been beaten with batons in the process of arrest. The police did not tell them their offence and they were not profiled at the time.
I asked the officer at the counter, Inspector Yakubu, why they were brought to the police station. He said the patrol team just brought and dumped them there without saying anything, hence, he cannot give details of their offence.
At this point, it was about 11:15 p.m. and I was worried that the women would sleep there. I took a peep into the cell and it looked full. It also did not look like there was a separate place for women. My colleague then drew my attention to what the inmates were saying, one of them said, “omo, see plenty fish”.
He was referring to the women as fishes. That was scary. I could not imagine the sexual violations that will take place if the women were put in the same detention cell with the men. It was at that point we agreed that the women were not going to spend the night at the police station and we were not going to leave until they were released.
Tweets went out, calls were made by concerned Abuja residents and Nigerians to the police hierarchy. I spoke to Frank Mba, the Police Force Public Relations Officer at 11:39 p.m., through my phone. He spoke to the most senior police officer at the station and I overheard him say, “Why are you people causing problem for us in the force? I am not yet done answering questions and sending reports to different organizations all over the world from the women you raided the last time. Why are you bent on bringing us shame? Release all those women immediately. Get me the DPO.”
Finally, the women were released to me at 1:20 a.m. as I signed for them.
Frank Mba’s conversation with the police suggests that the top police authorities did not give approval of those raids. It must have been some overzealous officers at the divisional level of Gwarimpa police station who went on a rampage of their own, to assault and arbitrarily arrest women.
However, the only way the Inspector General of Police can put an end to this arbitrary arrests or abduction of women on the streets is to make example of the officers who are bent on giving the police and the rest of the country, a bad name.
What the law says
While interacting with some of the officers at the police station, they said the women were prostitutes and they want to protect them from the dangers of prostitution. First, prostitution is not a crime known to law in Nigeria. A crime or an offence is never created by morals but by law. So, an act can be a sin in any religion but not a crime at law, and you cannot arrest any person for committing sin in any part of Nigeria.
Section 35 (12) 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN) provides that, “a person shall not be convicted of a criminal offence unless that offence is defined and the penalty, therefore, is prescribed in a written law…”
By extension, the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal gave a similar interpretation in the case of Faith Okafor v Lagos State Government & Anor (2016) LPELR-41066 (CA), where the legal question bordered on whether it was legal to arrest people who did not want to partake in environmental sanitation in Lagos. The court held that a person can only be tried for an offence known to law and environmental sanitation was not a compulsory act that was known to law.
By virtue of the combined effects of the Constitution and Court of Appeal Judgment, sex work is not a criminal offence in Nigeria, because the word “prostitute” and the act “prostitution” is neither defined nor described by any written law in Nigeria. It thus means that, since there is no legal definition in any Nigerian law for prostitution, there can be no punishment for it in law.
Also, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, Criminal Code and Penal Code which are principal enactments of criminal litigation in Nigeria do not proscribe them, on the contrary, the law seeks to protect women engaging in prostitution. On the other hand, the Penal Code makes no reference to prostitution as a crime either.
If there was any law criminalising prostitution, the prosecuting counsel for Abuja Environmental Protection Board, Eze, E. Eze, Esq would have written that law in the First Information Report that is used to charge them to court. Curiously, the women are charged under section 35 (1) (d) of AEPB Act 1997 which is about “any person who sells or displays or offers or carries for sale any goods or article of trade in a road junction, or any other unauthorised place.”
Therefore, what is happening is actually criminal and a deliberate attack on women.
Obono is the Team Lead of Tap Nitiative he tweets from @martobono
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