At the dark corners across Abuja popular streets, away from the street lights, men in uniform allegedly commit rape under the guise of clamping down on prostitutes.
By midnight some women are still in a police station at Garki. They look all tired. Some of them make distress calls to convince their friends to bring money to secure their release through bail.
Others seem paralyzed and gaze aimlessly around the reception of the police station. The women were arrested at Gimbiya Street, a well known red light district in Abuja. A female police officer in the station tells them they were captured as prostitutes. "If they will not cooperate, they are going to be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned for up to six years," she threatens, to the hearing of an undercover Weekly Trust reporter. The captured women negotiate on what to give.
Incidents like this happen frequently in Abuja, where women are allegedly arrested and harassed by regular police officers, military personnel or task force officials of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB).
Actress and social activist, Dorothy Njemanze, claims that she had fallen victim to such a raid. She complained that during such raids, it is impossible for the security and law enforcement agencies to differentiate between commercial sex workers and decent women. According to her, "every woman is a prospective victim". Dorothy Njemanze explains that last year September, she left her car in Wuse II heading towards a park to meet up with her brother. "I was suddenly stopped and pushed into a bus. When I struggled my way outside, the soldiers began to beat me up. Passersby were told that I am a prostitute" According to her the bus was labeled with society against child labor in conjunction with AEPB.
Such raids have become common-place after the FCT-Administration began the fight against commercial sex workers. The Director, Department of Social Welfare of the Social Development Secretariat, Mrs. Folashade Ayileka, explains that they started the fight because Abuja is the window of the country. "These ladies constitute a kind of embarrassment and nuisance". She explained that the FCT Minister has given a verbal directive to the Social Development Secretariat to get the ladies off the street during an internal meeting. In the fight against prostitution the Secretariat collaborates with the AEPB and a Non Governmental Organization called Society against Child Labor and Prostitution (SACLP).
Barrister Rommy Mom is an activist confronting the fight against prostitution. He currently leads a court case that has sued the FCT minister and the police over the continuous, night arrests of women. "Men go around freely at night. The offence of the citizens arrested is simply that they are women. It is a shame the FCT Administration is carrying out such discriminatory acts." He says that the intention is to intimidate perceived sex workers. "But in the process, hundreds of women are affected and traumatized by arbitrary and dragnet arrests." Barrister Mom raises the question on how to identify commercial sex workers. Mrs. Ayileka argues that during an operation undercover-staff will investigate the scene. She states: "One can identify commercial sex workers because everybody knows where they hang out at night. Through their dressing one will know who they are".
Such criteria are insufficient, Barrister Mom argues. According to him there has to be a customer to proof the allegation of prostitution. "Prostitution is selling of sex to a buyer, and there must be some sort of negotiation and agreement on the terms. A woman walking on the street cannot therefore be said to be carrying out the act of prostitution." Thus he argues that the male customer as the constitutive part of prostitution necessarily has to be arrested also.
Barrister Mom does not only criticize the conduct of the fight against prostitution but also questions its legitimacy entirely. He says: "Prostitution per se is not a crime in Nigeria. Nowhere in our law is there a ban on prostitution mentioned." According to Barrister Mom there is no legal basis for conviction and prison term as the female police officer in Garki Police Station has claimed.
However the director of the Social Welfare Department Mrs. Ayeleka explains: "Our legal backup is the government that has given us the mandate to do it. I want to believe that the government is armed to do that." Nevertheless she later adds: "The AEPB Act of 1997 has Section 35 that prohibits all nuisances. And for us prostitution constitutes such a nuisance." The Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the AEPB, Joe Ukairo further specifies: "We only look at the environmental nuisance that evolves out of the act of prostitution and public soliciting for men. We don't have anything against prostitution as such."
Barrister Mom disagrees with claims that the AEPB Act provides a justification for the fight against prostitution: "Hawking of wares on public streets, parking on pedestrian lanes and non-disposal of waste can be described as public nuisance. A lady on the street at night certainly does not constitute such a nuisance. The offence of public nuisance cannot supersede the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which guarantees freedom of movement."
It however appears that the rot goes deeper than unjustified extortion of money. Our reporter met a woman who alleged that she was raped by policemen conducting a raid in front of Eden Garden at Jabi. "They accused me of being a prostitute, dragged me into a car and took me to a bush. There they raped me and left me behind." A survey by Weekly Trust at three red light districts in Abuja reinforces the woman's allegation. According to several commercial sex workers it has happened on several occasions that staff of security and law enforcement agencies has given sex as a condition for bail. One of them complains: "Are we not human beings? Those men who think they can rape prostitutes with impunity should consider that also their wives could have hustled before. Do they know what their daughters who they believe to be in universities are doing. One should always treat his counterpart like his own blood."
Recently three women had the courage to report how they were abducted in the night by soldiers and raped at River Plate Garden in Wuse II last year December. A Radio Nigeria Report on January 14, raised the issue to public's consciousness. After the report was broadcast two more victims contacted Radio Nigeria and four soldiers of the Guard's Brigade who were identified by the victims were dismissed and are now in the hands of the police for prosecution.
However it appears that these cases of rape are only the tip of the iceberg. A security guard of a restaurant witnessed the rapes and disclosed to our reporter that there have been a couple of periods by the end of last year when the soldiers raped there on a daily basis. According to him the last rape was committed on January 3. Ensuing from his observations far more than five rapes were committed at River Plate Garden. It is also a matter of debate whether there are still unidentified perpetrators among the military apart from the four dismissed soldiers.
Confronted with these incidents the PRO of the AEPB, Joe Ukairo argues: "I don't say that every staff of AEPB sent out has done the right thing. But it is not possible that someone was raped. The system would not warrant that because it is teamwork." He adds that no security agency is permitted to go out on their own to checkmate commercial sex workers. "The AEPB maps out the strategy and staff for the operation. The police detachment is the last batch to join the team. Soldiers have never been attached to an AEPB mission".
However investigations show that the police conduct operations against commercial sex workers independently from the AEPB. Also the soldiers who allegedly committed the rapes in Wuse II were on permanent night watch at the Airtel-mast in Wuse II and not directed to arrest alleged prostitutes. The activist, Dorothy Njemanze complains thus: "It happens that in their spare time soldiers or police just use any vacant vehicle to abduct women. Nobody will wonder because catching is what they usually do." It thus appears that under the guise of the fight against prostitution security and law enforcement agencies in Abuja go out on their own account to extort money and sexually assault women.