By Sede Alonge
Nigerian media has been awash with news of a recent police raid in the capital, Abuja, in which dozens of women were arrested in and around nightclubs on charges of prostitution. A city official said one way police assessed the potential guilt of the women was if they were dressed provocatively.
No men were arrested in the raid. There was also an ominously conspicuous absence of any evidence of soliciting, which is a crime under Nigerian law. Most alarming of all, there are witness reports of rape, sexual assault and financial extortion of the women by the policemen who arrested them. Some of the women were taken to a mobile court and allegedly pressured to plead guilty to charges of prostitution on the spot.
Such arrests don’t just disregard due process but send a clear message as to who’s in charge: men
This is not the first time police in Nigeria’s capital have stormed nightclubs, arresting women who were perceived to be violating societal norms.
Justifying the arrests, Abayomi Shogunle, one of the country’s top police commissioners, responded on social media to those he disdainfully described as “making noise” about the arrests. He declared that prostitution was not only a crime but also a “sin”, according to the country’s two main religions (Islam and Christianity), and a practice “Nigerian culture frowns at”.
Such disdainful comments and arrests denigrate women, and send a clear message as to who’s in charge: men.
Sadly, the police commissioner’s comments reflect the views of an unapologetically chauvinist society. After all, this is a country whose president, recently re-elected, has made misogynistic comments about his own wife in public, once stating she belongs in his kitchen, his living room and in “the other room.”
While some men protested the recent arrests on Nigerian social media, many supported the actions, citing concerns around crime and morality. They did not seem to see any problem in the fact that only women had been arrested.
The Nigerian criminal code – used to justify the police actions – is supposed to also penalise owners of premises where prostitution takes place. Assuming, for argument’s sake, that these women were actually prostitutes, why were the owners of the premises – who are most likely to be men – not arrested too?
Such selective law enforcement shows that women are still far from being free to exercise their rights as autonomous individuals in Nigeria. The actions of the police, and using religion and culture to justify them, reveal a society invested in subjugating women.
Labelling women prostitutes because of how they dress shows how the law continues to fail women in Nigeria, where patriarchy dons the robe of moral and cultural custodian backed by the power of the state. It is not uncommon for a woman considered inappropriately dressed to be demeaned in public by men. This is despite the fact that Nigeria, being constitutionally a secular country, does not have any statutory dress codes.
If the latest reports of rape and more appalling treatment of women by the police are accurate, they show disgusting arrogance and inhumanity – yet that is nothing new for victims of sexual abuse: the trek towards justice in Nigeria is arduous and often simply abandoned because the power of the state is rarely deployed to assist them. And even if some of the arrested women were prostitutes, it does not remove one’s right to be treated lawfully, with dignity and fairness – prostitutes are not subhumans whose rights cease to exist.
A democracy’s treatment of vulnerable people indicates its preparedness to treat with a basic measure of dignity and respect all its citizens, regardless of their gender or status. Nigeria’s government needs to show itself a serious ally to all women in the country, promoting rights and protecting and the vulnerable in society.
• Sede Alonge is a writer and lawyer based in Lagos, Nigeria