“The fact is that prostitution cannot be curbed in Nigeria by arresting and prosecuting people. It cannot work that way.”
The National President of the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, Uche Durueke, is averse to any form of human rights violation in Nigeria. In this interview, he does not only criticise the operation of SAP-CLN, an Abuja-based NGO arresting prostitutes but also calls for proactive approach to dealing with social problems.
SAP-CLN, has based on Section 35 (1) of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, AEPB, Act of 1997, been arresting, detaining and prosecuting women in Abuja for prostitution. Some of the victims have challenged the NGO for infringing on their fundamental rights. What is your take on this?
We need to appreciate the fact that in this country we used to have a law against wandering. That law no longer exists and even when it was operational, a lot of Nigerians had challenged it for violating the peoples’ right of movement? The 1999 Constitution does not restrict people as to the time they move because we move for different reasons. Back to your question, the Abuja Environmental Protection law is not proper.
I must confess that I haven’t read the full detail of the law but from what I have heard, it is profiling and in law, that is wrong. Profiling means that they are making arrests and harassing people based on either gender and or mode of dressing. That is unlawful because you cannot tell who is a prostitute by what a person wears.
Under the Penal Code, it is a crime to engage in prostitution but the issue now is not the Penal Law. The conduct of the Abuja Environmental Protection officials and the NGO is questionable. For me, the act of prostitution is something that involves two persons – male and female.
If you see a lady walking on the road and you arrest the lady and call her a prostitute, that person has a right of action either to sue for slander if there are friends around who can give evidence in court or you can sue for the enforcement of fundamental right to movement.
As we speak, there is no law that stipulate when people can move and when they can’t. As far as am concerned, the implementation of the law is very wrong. Besides, for a human right organisation to be engaged in such acts is wrong. I think they need to look at the way they are implementing the said law so the society does not look at them as infringing the rights of the citizenry.
This is because civil society groups are meant to protect the rights of people especially the less privileged and vulnerable people. I would not support any campaign that infringed on the rights of the people no matter how laudable it may seem. What the NGO and AEPB are doing is embarrassing and dehumanising.
To the extent that they arrest and torture people is unconstitutional. The law provides that every citizen of Nigeria is presumed innocent until proven otherwise in the court of law. So even if people are seen on the road and are suspected to be engaged in prostitution, the NGO has no right to embarrass, harass or torture them because they are presumed innocent under the law. These are some of those acts of impunity we have been talking about in this country.
I think there is need for the Magistrate Courts where these matters are taken to, to be monitored by the relevant officials of government to ensure that peoples’ rights are not unduly violated. It is imperative to look at the charges made against the perceived offenders to see whether they are in line with the provisions of the law.
People should not be stigmatised for offences they have not committed and I think some Magistrate Courts in Abuja have become places where the rights of Nigerians are being infringed and where citizens are being oppressed. That is not a good image for the nation’s judiciary.
The magistrate carries out a ruling on the face of the charge sheet. However, there is need for advocacy and concrete action to alert the judiciary, especially the magistrates in this case, on the fact that the NGO and law enforcement agencies are using the court to legitimise illegality. I have also heard that some of these people arrested by the police are sexually abused. I have heard people complain about that.
The fact is that we must learn to speak out in this country. Some of these girls that have been so violated cannot come out in public and speak out. I will support them to sue this kind of NGO and their backers and by so doing, they will make some points clear to the public. When that happens, the level of impunity in the country will start going down.
Does the NGO has the right to engage the services of law enforcement agency to embark on any campaign that clearly violates the fundamental rights of the people since the AEPA law doesn’t define who a prostitute is and how a prostitute can be identified?
Let me say something here sir. If the AEPA law has provided how a prostitute can be identified, it would have been so laughable. That a women is walking nude on the street, for instance, does not make her a prostitute. So there can’t be a legislation that would say how you look at a person and conclude that she is a prostitute. 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. For instance, if a researcher goes in there and people around don’t know his identity, can he be counted among those patronizing the prostitutes? The fact that you go in there and come out is not enough reason for anybody to conclude that you are a prostitute. So these things happen as a result of poor legislation and implementation of laws.
For the NGO, I don’t know of any law that gives them the authority to carry out such a campaign. In Nigeria, the police have really abused their powers. They are often found doing things they are not supposed to do while failing to do what is expected of them. That is the irony. You go out to the street and see armed policemen following the touts to collect revenue and control traffic while armed robbers are dispossessing people of valuables in the next street. Kidnappers are unleashing terror on the citizenry and getting away with it.
These are some of the ironies of the Nigerian Police. If the streets of Abuja are to be cleansed of prostitutes, it can be done using the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, NSCDC. They can do it with the help of other charity organisations like the Scout and others. That too can only be done where the use of such services are absolutely necessary.
The fact is that prostitution cannot be curbed in Nigeria by arresting and prosecuting people. It cannot work that way. What is needed is public enlightenment and mass mobilisation. The approach should be empowerment-based. The basic questions they should seek answer is: why are these people selling their bodies for money? It is one question we have failed to answer in this country and the answer is poverty, unemployment and misery.
Many of those, who engage in prostitution have no opportunity of going to school, they have no opportunity of learning trade. Maybe, somebody had told them they are pretty and they can use what they have to get what they want and they decide to go out in the night to make money by selling their bodies.
It is not something anybody would wish his sister, daughter, wife or friend but it is a reality of life. It is the society that has pushed many of them into it and that is why government must do things to touch the lives of the citizenry and make the society more conducive for everybody to live better. Many people will walk away from crime without waiting for law enforcement agents to tell them and without any compulsion because they have found better opportunities to make a living.
How would you then describe what is happening in the FCT with regards to the anti-prostitution law?
For me what is happening in Abuja is discomfiting. The FCT is supposed to be a centre of hope for all Nigerians but today, it is a centre of despair. The wealth in the city is in a few hands and they play around so blatantly with it. What some of those engaged in illegal acts are saying is, “let’s go out there and use what we have to get what we need.” Another question we should also ask is: who are those patronising prostitutes in Abuja? It is the high and mighty who have the resources to buy illicit sex.
When arrests are made, only the women are picked while their patrons are allowed to go free. For me, this amounts to gender discrimination. Why are the men not arrested? It therefore goes to show that the FCT Administration needs to go back to the drawing board and change the approach through which the law is being implemented. I guess that they are not getting the law right and from what I have gathered, the NGO is not on the right side of the law. What they need more is enlightenment, advocacy and empowerment to achieve their goal and not the arrest, harassment and detention of perceived offenders. It is very wrong to stigmatise, embarrass, and violate the rights to movement of any citizen of Nigeria.
What would you have done differently if CLO were to be involved in this kind of campaign initiated by SAP-CLN?
If CLO were to be involved in this kind of campaign, first we would have carried out a research to identify the real prostitutes, find out their locations and whether they have formal or informal organisation or leadership. These are key issues to understanding them and the mode of their operations. We would want to interact with them based on the findings of our baseline research. We would carry out intensive research that would yield a wide range of data on prostitution and child labour and the dynamics behind them. We would find out those who are willing to leave prostitution and why others are not willing to give up the job.
It is only when such data are collected that we can begin to look for agencies that would collaborate with us to implement a wholesome campaign that would address the core issues of prostitution and child labour. We would also use the data to get partners to help rehabilitate and reintegrate the victims. We would also embark on public awareness campaigns and advocacy to tell the people the dangers of prostitution, the social consequences and other factors. With that level of awareness created, you find that significant impact would be made that using force and embarrassing the victims. What is needed is a transformational approach but that is not what the NGO is doing.
What would you say about the role of law enforcement agencies in the NGO’s campaign?
I have always said that in Nigeria, law enforcement is archaic. We are involved in reactive policing instead of proactive policing. Instead of preventing crimes from occurring, we wait till they occur and we arrest innocent people while the criminals escape to safety. For me, it is the duty of the people to find out why there are increased numbers of prostitutes in Abuja. What factors are responsible for the thriving prostitution business in the city, the security challenges and implications? The focus of security agencies would be on how to handle the aspects of security breaches and challenges and then create a working relationship with other security agencies on how to deal with the situation.
As far as you are concerned, the mode of operations of SAP-CLN and their backers are clearly illegal and against the provisions of the Constitution?
I do not support the way they have been operating because, they are profiling. They conclude that because a person is a woman, she is a prostitute. They conclude that a woman is a prostitute because she has lipstick on her mouth, or because she is walking alone at night, or because she wears high-heel shoes.
That is profiling and for me, that is illegal and unconstitutional. These are Nigerians they pick on the roads and we do not have law on wandering and even if we do, we had maintained that it was unconstitutional. It was a law that violated peoples’ right to movement. While I wouldn’t want to lambast them, my advice to the NGO is that they should not be consumed by passion to violate the fundamental rights of Nigerians.
Passion is something that could easily be mismanaged especially when it pushes you to the other side where people feel you are doing the wrong things.
I want them to look at their operations again and find out if they are really getting it right. They should find ways of carrying out their campaign with civility and without infringing on the rights of the people. That should be their challenge. They should get to the drawing board and look at their operations again.
What would you say to the FCT Administration?
Abuja has come to stay as the rallying point for all Nigerians. People will always come to the city as the land of hope. The FCT Administration should therefore, be able to make the hope to manifest. There is need to create more jobs and embrace public private partnership in the provision of infrastructure and services.
There is also need to expand the economic base of the city through policies that make for investment by the private sector. We should also know that Abuja is a place where cultural-based policies are difficult to implement because of the make-up of the people inhabiting the city. People from different cultural, social and religious backgrounds live in the city and their sentiments must be respected. Any attempt to force any particular type of thinking on the people will definitely infringe the rights of many.
This applies not only in this issue of prostitution but also in everyday issues of governance. The FCT Administration should work more towards creating jobs and building infrastructure than engage in the high-sounding projects one finds in its budgets, year in and out. They should aim at empowering and transforming lives than wait to punish law breakers.
If we reduce corruption in the management of public funds in a place like Abuja, more will be achieved in terms of infrastructural development and job creation and more people will move away from prostitution in decent jobs.