In this interview, OSAI OJIGHO, Country Director of Amnesty International shares her perspective on the current buzz around rape and sexual assault in Nigeria. She discusses Amnesty’s work in this regard and the role lawyers, and the legal profession can play.
In recent times there has been quite a buzz about rape, sexual harassment, rape culture and so on. Do you think this is caused by widely reported cases such as those of Uwa and Barakat or can it be attributed to some other cause(s)?
It’s always been there. I think the difference this time is as a result of the groundwork that has been done in the past. There is now a lot of awareness on these issues. Unlike a few years back, people can now say rape without blushing.
I think the “me too” movement has also contributed. But even more important than that are the small local wins such as; the “Monica” case – where an OAU lecturer was sentenced to a 24-month jail term for soliciting sexual benefits in exchange for marks – and the Adenekan case, where a supervisor in Chrisland School was sentenced to a 60 year jail term for serially defiling a child that was two years and 11 months at the time. Civil society groups are able to cite these successes and it encourages people to report more incidents.
Then COVID happened. And all hell was let loose. I was speaking to a lady that runs a rape crisis center the other day and she told me that the calls they receive from victims have increased by 64%. The Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) were getting nothing less than 13 calls per day on not just rape but also on gender- based violence. These increases are largely because unlike the situation prior to COVID and the related restrictions, many victims no longer have a means of escape. With COVID-19 restrictions, many victims were locked down with their abusers. There was more opportunity and time for the abusers and therefore an increase in the frequency of abuse. So many victims would call “Oh, I can’t cope anymore, come and get me”.
There is also the fact that people generally seek the “perfect victim”; young girls, virgins and so on. This has always been a challenge in the fight and advocacy against rape and related offences. The cases of both Uwa and Barakat seem to fall into this category and therefore has broad appeal. One Christian, one Muslim, both religious, conservative, not found in night clubs and so on. People find many elements of their stories relatable and that in combination with the other factors have led to this seeming buzz.
What does this Buzz mean for Amnesty? Has it created more attention to the work you do or provided an opportunity to do more?
For us, it falls into some of the things we have been doing around criminal justice reforms. We have released statements in response to the current incidents. Also, prior to these recent statements we had released a number of outputs on rape and gender-based violence. In 2005, we released a report called “ Unheard Voices” looking at gender based violence and domestic violence in Nigeria, then a few years after that we did a study on rape called “ The Silent Weapon”, looking at rape being used by the police in cases where people are kept in detention and things like that. We have also made submissions to the UN CEDAW Committee, that is the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
Our last report on Rape was in 2018 “They Betrayed Us”. It was focused on IDP camps and women who were raped by Boko Haram and also raped by soldiers in exchange for food and other benefits. Our latest report, which was on children, showed that even though they tried to call them “child brides”, basically what Boko haram was doing was raping children. Some of them were still exposed (not as much as the women) while being detained after they had bee rescued from Boko Haram.
All of these falls within our campaigns around Dignity. We find that for women, the greatest assault that can be committed against her dignity is rape. So, for us sexual and gender – based violence has to be viewed as taking away a woman’s right to her dignity. And the right to dignity is guaranteed by the Constitution. Every- body has a right to dignity and also to freedom from violence which Nigeria has been ignoring for a long time because of religion and culture. At Amnesty our focus is to see how the criminal justice system can respond in a positive manner for victims and secondly to highlight issues on discrimination against women and girls in Nigeria.
Have there been any wins that you can attribute to Amnesty’s advocacy and campaigns ?
On one hand, government sometimes appears to vilify us. For instance, when we released “They Betrayed Us”, there was a lot of uproar and counter statements stating that soldiers don’t rape women and so on. But quietly, they did try to put certain things in place, to investigate and determine exactly what was going on and how it could be addressed.
With the current situation, the fastest impact we see, is that the Governor’s forum decided to accept and declare a state of emergency. As Amnesty, we had called for the declaration of a national crisis. But some groups called for a state of emergency and that is what the Governor’s forum have picked up. We therefore have the opportunity to continue to call on them to ensure that they fulfill the commitments that they have undertaken.
The Attorney General of the Federation has also made a few commitments, including the establishment of an inter-ministerial gender-based violence committee. We have also seen that the Inspector General of Police has come up to say a few things as well. I am particularly interested in his contributions, because as you know, the police are the first point of contact for victims, so we need to get that right first. These are some immediate wins that I see, and once we finish collating the petitions from the online campaign which we are currently running on the girls that were raped, we can then be even more concrete and move the matter forward by writing to the Attorney General, thanking him for the commitments made so far, and proffering further recommendations.
It is interesting that you mention the Attorney General, because as you can imagine our (Legal Business) audience are lawyers. What role do you think lawyers are playing or should be playing with regards to the issues of rape and sexual harassment.
I do not know for sure if the NBA at the national level has put out any statements or carried out any campaigns relating to these recent cases. I am however aware that some branches such as the Ikorodu branch, did a few things to raise awareness and sent messages to their colleagues on the issues.
In my opinion, one thing that would be useful, would be for lawyers to see how they can contribute to whatever it is the AGF wants to do. I do not think the ministries of justice have enough lawyers. But are they willing to work with private lawyers? It would be good to see if the NBA can structure an arrangement for collaboration between law firms and the Ministries of Justice.
Another thing, is that we tend to focus on the criminal aspects of rape, which is not bad, but there is nothing stopping us from also bringing civil suits. I think we can borrow a leaf from the Busola Dakolo case, where they have gone the criminal as well as civil route.
Amnesty International is also exploring a human rights angle to these issues. Can women bring a type of class action suit relying for instance on the fact that they are not safe in Lagos, Abuja or some other place as a basis to say that their human right to be free from violence has been violated? This is an area that lawyers can also explore. But like I said, an immediate way that laws can intervene would be through contributions to the jurisprudence and support to the Attorneys General to ensure they have sufficient manpower.
Another thing, could be Amicus Curiae, which is a practice Amnesty uses. Even though we have lawyers in our ranks, we work with law firms for this purpose. And one of the things we could be open to doing in Nigeria is submitting an Amicus Curiae through law firms in these cases, with a view to guiding the courts through a robust evaluation of the rape laws to ensure firm convictions of the alleged rapists.
Last year, following a global survey, the International Bar Association released a landmark report, Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession”, the report indicated that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 14 men had been sexually harassed in the legal workplace. One of the conclusions was that workplaces were not doing enough to respond to misconduct with policies on bullying and sexual harassment. Both the IBA and NBA last year also held special showcases on this subject matter. Against this background, what do you think lawyers and law firms should be doing?
The NBA by now should have a sexual harassment policy because that is one of the things, they had indicated would be done coming out of the conference last year. I don’t know how far they have gone with that. If the NBA had this policy, it would be easy to cascade to the law firms and offices. The truth is that there is a lot of harassment in the profession although lawyers find it difficult to admit. Being one of the oldest and most distinguished professions, a lot of people do not want to rock the boat. If they were to have a “Me Too” or an “Us Too” as the IBA called it, people would be shocked at the numbers.
Someone shared that in Spain, a campaign was conducted where they sent a note to law firms stating” we want mentors and not abusers”. They wanted partners and senior lawyers to see that young people, male and female want to be mentored but that in that process, they are misunderstood, abused or taken advantage of and that needs to change.
The old way of thinking “if you do not like it, leave” can no longer be obtainable, because it only emboldens abusers and results in job and income loss for the victim. We need to be at the place where, if a law firm does not ascribe to certain values, then it shouldn’t be respected. Clients should be able to say that we want to ensure that you are operating at the highest levels possible.
“many times sexual harassment is actually more about power than sexual gratification”
We also need to find ways that people who come forward to share their stories can be protected. From my experience, most victims really do not want noise. They just want an apology, to be assured that such situations will not re-occur and to be able to exist and work in a safe space, free of reprisals. But in many cases, the abuser or his/her cronies can make the victims life a living hell and that is why many times sexual harassment is actually more about power than sexual gratification. If it were just sexual gratification, they could get it from any other person and it would not be matched with threats of harm or violence or things like that.
People have also come out to say that women leaders have not come out strongly on sexual harassment issues. But I see it from the perspective that it is possible they were themselves harassed. So it could be, “look I survived and got here, I am not sure I am ready to be dealing with someone else’s issues. Another angle could also be that as women leaders, they have obtained a seat on the table of patriarchy and are not willing to risk their seat at the table because of some young person who can pick up the pieces and start again. However, I do not think this is a fight for women leaders, I have never supported that perspective. It is a fight for senior leaders. All senior lawyers, men and women who can, should come together in groups to speak out against these issues. The profession needs to be mindful that people are now talking a lot more and so to avoid disgrace this is the time to come together and seek concrete ways to address these issues to avoid the fall out. We are a very inter-connected world. Many firms are involved in big international transactions. It is important to be mindful of potential reputational damage and loss of business that could occur as a result of allegations of sexual harassment or even rape. So more than even before it is important that as a profession that should be fighting for equality and justice for the society, lawyers take steps to address these issues internally.
Are you seeing any industries or sectors that are setting examples of best practices that can be adopted in addressing these issues?
For Nigeria, I will say, I have not really seen any cohesive standards that have emerged from any sector in addressing these issues. Sadly, even the churches and mosques are some of the worst perpetrators. But we have seen some organisations that have impressed on their staff that they will not accept a certain standard of behaviour. This is commendable and is something that should be replicated and encouraged.
My thinking is that we should also look at ways that professional bodies can be brought in to address sexual harassment complaints within professions. This will help ascertain some level of fairness and independence because one of the biggest complaints people make when discussing issues of sexual harassment is that they think HR is in cahoots with management. There is also the need sometimes for anonymity depending on the situation, because in many cases it would be difficult for an accuser to continue to work comfortably in the same space with a person accused of sexual harassment. There is therefore need for intervention from outside the affected organization. Regulatory bodies can act as clearing houses, whistle blowers and so on.
Considering that when a person reports to a regulatory body, they may still face reprisals as the leadership of their organization is likely to have good relationships with the regulatory bodies, what is your view on the “name and shame approach”/ “court of social media”?
I think everyone should attempt the official routes first. Only if that fails should other options be considered. The courts are still an option. Although sexual harassment is not strictly speaking a crime, depending on the circumstances the matter can be brought to court. For instance, in the OAU sex for grades case, the matter was dealt with as a corruption case and the charges against the lecturer were actually filed by the Independent Corrupt and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC).
Also persons living in Abuja and states that have domesticated the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (“VAPP”), who can plead violence as one of the elements of the sexual assault can bring such matters to court relying on the VAPP.
Social media should always be a last resort. To go that route you must have all your facts rights. You must also be ready for the publicity because it is a game changer. Even celebrities that are used to the lime light do not always find it easy when they reveal these issues. To go this route one must be ready for the onslaught and to go all the way. Some people are just looking to break the latest news, so do not give them the pleasure.
So I always say that though it might be slow and seem like nothing is happening, it is better to follow the official and judicial routes. Find the right groups that can work with and support you as you move the matter along.
Thank you so much for your time, I would like to end this by bringing it to you personally. Please share with us a bit of your journey to Amnesty.
It’s always interesting to tell my story. Many of my friends and former classmates see me as gentle and really do not know how I got into this “aluta” stuff as they call it. For me its about sharing and throwing light on issues that would not have otherwise received attention. When I set out to study law, one of the things that motivated me as a young girl was that I would be able to help people who could not defend themselves. But in university my interest changed and I became interested in corporate law and so when I did my masters, it was in commercial and international trade.
After my masters, I got the opportunity to do a six months internship at the International Criminal Court and this marked the turning point for me. The Court was still very new at the time. I worked in the victims and witness’s unit and we were exposed to some of the cases that were happening in Rwanda and Uganda and we were getting ready to see how we would support the victims and witnesses when they would come to the Court. Also, since it was based in the Hague, I had the opportunity to attend some of trials for the ICTY, i.e . the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. To actually see people that were committing genocide and all of these crimes was indeed eye-opening. I also got to hear people’s stories and the horrific things they had been thorough. So with all of this, I told myself that I could actually use law to do something more reformative than just handling commercial transactions.
This guided my choices when I got back. I worked in Legal Research and Development Consultants from where I moved to Alliances for Africa. It was there that I really learnt how to do campaigns, advocacy and so in. Our work there was focused on the African human rights system and so I was thrown into it early on. I found people who were willing to teach me and mentor me which was really helpful particularly as I was not the typical activist type. I was more researcher, academic and a bit legalistic. I had to learn new skills, soft skills. It required a bit of humility. I also had to do a lot of studying.
While at Alliances for Africa, I took a sabbatical with the AU and went on a foreign mission to Mali, a country at the time just coming out of conflict. It was not until I donned the bullet proof vest and helmet that I asked myself if I really knew what I had gotten into. But it was such a crucial learning point, it was an opportunity to see and document first hand many of the scenarios we had been working on.
After that mission I went back to Alliances for Africa and after sometime got invited to apply for a position as state of the union coalition coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya. It was an Oxfam project. I was there for three years and undertook several roles in that period including a position as the Acting Pan-Africa Director for the Great Britain Arm and the Pan-Africa programs manager for Oxfam International.
Many people were surprised that I was coming to Nigeria to take on a country role after doing continental work for so long. But it’s been an opportunity to come back home and contribute directly to my own country. Also, Nigeria is a big and diverse country. The work here is very important and feeds into our work at the regional and global levels.
It has been an interesting journey and I have been quite fortunate to grow in my area of interest.