ABUJA, Nigeria — On September 29, 2012, Dorothy Njemanze stopped off to meet her brother in a lively, urban neighborhood called Wuse Zone 3. The 35-year-old filmmaker and on-air radio personality was on her way to anchor the Miss Ambassador for Peace Beauty Pageant, a popular event in Nigeria. Little did she know that what would happen next would put her at the center of a long legal battle for human rights.
Dorothy parked her car behind a white van around 8 p.m. As she walked past the van, a man dressed in a volunteer paramilitary “Man O’ War” uniform got out and accosted her. He tried to force her into the van, but she fought back, raising an alarm and got away. It turned out that her attacker was no outlaw. The incident was the first of two times Dorothy would be harassed by representatives of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), established in 1997 to achieve “sustainable development in the territory and secure the quality of environment adequate for the health, conserve and use the environment and its natural resources for the benefit of the territory, [and] minimize the impact of physical development on the ecosystems of territory.”1Abuja Environmental Protection Board. https://www.vconnect.com/abuja-environmental-protection-board-garki-abuja_b65233. Accessed: 11/22/1017
The AEPB is also part of a taskforce the city authorities established in 2011 in what they described as “a total war against prostitution in Abuja.”2Silent Tears Documentary. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hcUKhchpGc. Accessed: 11/20/2017 Under the scheme, the AEPB, Social Development Secretariat and the Society Against Prostitution and Child Labor in Nigeria (SAPCLN) patrol the streets and apprehend people deemed to be engaging in nuisance behavior.
“They grabbed me by my breasts and pushed me inside the bus. I fought my way out and the soldiers beat me up,” Dorothy said. “I created a scene until passersby helped me not to be carted away.” She was assaulted under the presumption that she was a commercial sex worker. After her ordeal, Dorothy decided to take the AEPB to court.
I met Dorothy at a hotel in Wuse one evening in November following several weeks of trying to get her to speak with me. She had just finished moderating a discussion about “Silent Tears,” a short documentary film highlighting the victimization of women in the capital by security officials and law enforcement agents. Tall and dark-complexioned, Dorothy had her natural hair pulled up into a ponytail. She had an air of confidence and wore purple lipstick with fingernails painted in the colors of the Nigerian flag—green, white and green vertical stripes.
Dorothy was luckier than most other women accosted by the AEPB, who are often unable to escape being taken away to makeshift detention centers. They are typically subjected to verbal abuse and sexual harassment by supposed law enforcement officers until they manage to pay their way out, witnesses say. Those who can’t afford payment are “tortured into admitting they are prostitutes and forcibly transferred to an alleged rehabilitation camp for purported sex workers,” says Ayisha Osori, former CEO of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund who was involved in Dorothy’s case.
After several failed attempts to file suit in Nigerian courts (due to technicalities—she was told she could not bring two different cases against the same group), Dorothy appealed to the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional union headquartered in Abuja. The court has jurisdiction over cases involving human rights violations in its member states, including Nigeria. Dorothy’s case was heard between September 2014 and October 2017.
She is in the minority in Nigeria because only 23 percent of sexual assault cases are even reported to the police, while 77 percent of rape and assault cases go unreported. Dorothy was discouraged when she went to the police, when she was asked, “What were you doing out at that time of night?” The coordinator of the SAPCLN, Grace Adogo, denied all accusations of wrongdoing. Asked about alleged violations by security personnel, she said, “Since we started this office, nobody has ever come to say ‘I was molested by your officers.’ When people make these allegations and it is investigated, we find that the allegations are incorrect. We are here to protect girls. Why would we commit crimes against them?” Defending her staff against accusations of abduction, she also said, “What decent woman would be out at 2 a.m.?”
The problem is that the officials apprehend all women they find walking at “late hours” of the night. Even in the presence of men, women find themselves harassed and arrested. While some residents applaud the efforts to create a more pleasant living environment, many have called the city authorities’ effort against prostitution a war on women, highlighting the arrest solely of women as commercial sex workers.
“While the Nigerian Penal Code makes prostitution a crime, the definition of prostitution provides, among other things, that the person arrested must be found to be ‘persistently soliciting,’” said Osori, a human rights lawyer. “How many of these women abducted as they come out of offices, restaurants, houses, clubs or even sitting inside cars can be found guilty of ‘persistently soliciting’?”
Woman are typically subjected to verbal abuse and sexual harassment by supposed law enforcement officers until they manage to pay their way out. Those who can’t are ‘tortured into admitting they are prostitutes and forcibly transferred to an alleged rehabilitation camp for purported sex workers.’
“We’re meant to treat women with respect, kindness and love,” a radio personality known as Ordinary Ahmad Isah said in an interview. “If you want to arrest a prostitute, arrest both the sex worker and their clients.” Dorothy agrees. The arrests are a “targeted and systematic attack against women… Prostitution doesn’t happen with one person alone,” she said. “Why are the men not also picked up?”
Nigerian law remains vague when it comes to commercial sex work. Dorothy points to the fact that although sex work per se is not illegal, others who profit from it are subject to prosecution, including pimps and traffickers. Nigerian law states that “if a girl is caught openly soliciting for sex, and money is being exchanged, she should be arrested.”3Juliana Ameh. Nigerian prostitutes ramp up drive for rights. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2014/07/nigerian-prostitutes-ramp-up-drive-rights-2014723141235936593.html. Accessed: 11/22/2017 The criminal system also prohibits national and trans-national trafficking of women for commercial sex or forced labor.
But in a 2011 case involving the arrest of a fashion designer named Kiki Akinbohun, a court ruled that no basis exists for AEPB officials to detain people considered to be commercial sex workers. The Federal High Court ruled that the AEPB had violated Akinbohun’s fundamental rights to personal movement and liberty, and ordered the AEPB to pay her two million naira ($5,500) in damages. Sex work may not be a popular profession in Nigeria, but prostitutes who are not infringing on anyone’s rights are protected under the constitution.
Initially quiet about her ordeal and scared she would be stigmatized, Dorothy said she learned that “silence only worsens the stains.” When I asked what led to her decision to sue the government, she said, “Files were getting lost in Nigerian offices. I wrote several petitions and when I went to follow up, the files were missing. It was a strong cartel.”
Dorothy sent her petitions to the Public Affairs Commission, where she was told she needed to be affiliated with an NGO before her case could be taken up. That led to the registration of her organization, the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation (DNF), which advocates for justice for victims of sexual and human rights violations. She also wrote to the Public Complaints Commission, National Human Rights Commission, Legal Aid Council, as well as the ministers of women affairs and the federal capital territory, the attorney general, and the secretary to the federal government, among others. “I wrote to everybody,” she said. “I needed them to know that there was a problem.” Although the organizations acknowledged receipt of her petitions, they took no action.
Dorothy joined three other women presenting their cases in a joint suit against the AEPB. “There was need to prove that the violations were actually happening,” she told me. The other women are Edu Oroko, Justina Etim (who resides in Abuja) and Amarachi Jessyford (who lives in Port Harcourt). Their case was filed in the ECOWAS court—a panel of seven judges from different West African countries—in September 2014, with the following allegations:
1. They were abducted and unlawfully detained by officials of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, the police and the military.
2. The federal government failed to investigate their complaints about the violation of their rights or offer the required protection.
3. They were sexually assaulted, physically and verbally abused and threatened at different times between January 2010 and March 2013.
Judgment was delivered three years later on October 12, 2017. The court dismissed action on Edu’s case, citing a three-year statute of limitations. But each of the other three women was awarded 6 million naira ($16,807) from the federal government for the “unlawful arrest, detention and declaration as prostitutes in Abuja.”4Alex Enumah. ECOWAS Court Awards N18m against FG for Labelling Actress, Njemanze, Two Others Prostitutes. https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2017/10/13/ecowas-court-awards-n18m-against-fg-for-labelling-actress-njemanze-two-others-prostitutes/. Accessed: 11/22/2017 The court ruled that the government, through its failure to investigate and prosecute the matter, failed to protect the women’s rights, violating the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The law enforcement agencies presented no evidence to indicate that the women were soliciting or engaging in sexual acts at the time of their arrests.
The fight for justice
Dorothy succeeded in getting her case before the ECOWAS court thanks to social media. “People read about my story and didn’t believe it,” she said. “They called lawyers who helped me.” A coalition of legal organizations funded the effort, including the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA), Alliances for Africa (AFA), and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). “I’m proud that we did that,” she said of her suit. “A lot of cases that were filed in Nigerian courts are still going on; they were filed before I went to the ECOWAS court and long after I received judgment from the ECOWAS court, they’re still going on.”
“A lot of Nigerian lawyers do not know about human rights law,” Dorothy added. “They take a lot of things for granted. They feel somebody has hit you, so what? But as long as I can prove someone has hit me, I’m entitled to damages.” The ECOWAS court’s verdict is “final and binding under the 1991 protocol [and] member states and ECOWAS institutions must take all measures necessary to ensure execution of the court’s decision.”5Open Society Justice Initiative. ECOWAS Community Court of Justice. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/fact-sheets/ecowas-community-court-justice. Accessed: 12/08/2017 Dorothy believes that if more citizens understand and utilize the ECOWAS court, law enforcement officials would not abuse their power as much.
But more than simply ignore her case, the Nigerian authorities saw Dorothy as a threat. When she had earlier reported her case to the State Security Service, she began to receive phone calls telling her she was “spoiling things for people.” But “I was scared until I was no longer scared,” she told me. While her case was in court, she was denied several movie roles and event hosting jobs because she was “fighting the government.” But she says she continues to work against injustice because she feels someone must. “We should learn to speak up and take action. When we see wrong, we should call it out.”
Her case represented the first time a regional court pronounced judgment on violations of the African Union’s 2005 Maputo Protocol on women’s rights, which requires African countries to “combat all forms of discrimination against women through appropriate legislative, institutional and other measures.”
Judging by the social media reaction, Dorothy’s victory may be emboldening more women to report abuses, although many remain skeptical about getting justice. Ibe Nwaonyeuku, commenting on the case, stated, “The case and its outcome is [sic] quite commendable. It is impressive to see citizens sue the government and win the case. This will teach government agents better ways of carrying out their functions.”
“My concern is whether the government will pay them the compensation,” she added. “Going by the happenings of the recent past, it seems this present administration does not obey court orders.”6Linda Ikeji. https://www.lindaikejisblog.com/2017/10/for-calling-her-a-prostitute-ecowas-court-awards-n18m-to-activist-dorothy-njemanze-against-nigerian-govt.html. Accesssed: 01/08/2018
Dorothy says she wants society at large to change. That would require more education of the public to help stop sexual assault. She hopes her case will at least prompt the government to be more sensitive about investigating claims of human rights violations, particularly against women. However, she knows real change will come only when the Nigerian justice system begins to prosecute allegations without the prompting of regional or international organizations.
It will be an uphill struggle. Nigeria has yet to honor the ECOWAS court decision. As of November 2017, a month after the judgment, Dorothy and the two other plaintiffs in her case were still waiting to receive compensation for damages. They are also still waiting for a response from the attorney general or justice minister. And to this date, none of Dorothy’s assailants have been identified by name and no apology has been issued.