By Kechi Nomu
In 2009, angry militants lodged within walking distance from students in the University of Port Harcourt decided to protest against the Federal government for not paying the rehabilitation money it had promised it would pay them monthly. Their preferred means of protest was rape.
They had the advantage of strength (they were after all militants) and the element of surprise. On a regular Monday afternoon when people were going about their day as they would every other day—rushing between lectures, making brief stopovers in hostels, generally just walking idly along the road—protesting militants ambushed them. The rapes that followed were indiscriminate and surreal. Almost everywhere you turned, it seemed like a rape was going on: on the road, along the curbs, in corners. Some militants carried girls back to their rehabilitation camp on their shoulders like sacks of rice. Later, we learnt that one of the victims committed suicide afterwards. Her marriage was only days away and she could not live with the burden of her new reality. We also learnt that a girl of about seven had been raped to death.
When I researched it on Google, i found only two links with the closest thing to comprehensive information on the rapes.
Vanguard reported it as; ex-militants raped twelve Uniport students, says VC–(12 being the official number). And in the Nigerian Village Square archive it was reported as: Militant rapes students in Uniport without condom.
What happened that day had forcibly altered our reality. Each day I walked that road, I knew it meant that I could be walking into a dystopia of rampaging horny militants. The gun hugging soldiers the federal government deployed did nothing to erase this spectre. And as the days came and went and the armoured tanks disappeared and the militants continued to stay in their camp just a stone throw from our hostels, I knew this: that in as much as our universe had been turned on its head, what had happened existed only in the space that we dwelt in. It had changed nothing.
When in 2011, a female ABSU student was gang raped by five boys who videoed the sordid act, nothing changed. After the video became viral, students, insensate, shared it among themselves via Bluetooth as they would any other X-rated video, while the university authority quietly detached itself from the responsibility of taking action against the rapists. It claimed the rape had not taken place within the campus and in that way, it was free to look away.
Inured in the ways that we are to rape, that video did not draw necessary outrage until Linda Ikeji brought attention to it on her popular blog. Later, even with the national attention that it got: female celebrities coming out to speak against rape wearing advocacy T-shirts, concerned NGOs allowed slots on National TV stations, the tireless efforts of social media enthusiasts, it did not translate into political will. More than a year later nothing obvious has been done and the girl’s identity remains a mystery.
When it comes to rape in Nigeria, this is the kind of lethargy that greets the dialogue.
When news of rape is reported in Nigeria, mostly it is sensationalized. Offered for its shock value. Man, fifty-something rapes ten-year-old girl! So that our outsized sensibilities can be both scandalized and tickled, so that papers can sell. The real issues are drowned.
What is perhaps worse than the commercialization of rape is the legal posture towards rape, the way in which the law connives with rapists to humiliate rape victims further.
Regardless of what the letters of the law suggests on the surface, here in Nigeria, when it comes down to trial, rape trials humiliate women. A woman is required to prove to a, often unsympathetic, court that she was not ‘consenting’ during her rape. In most cases, what this really boils down to is his word against her’s. And in a judiciary that is as warped as ours is, and a social context as patriarchal as ours is, this mostly means: justice for a raped woman in Nigeria is mostly a mirage.
Perhaps things would be different if rape guilt/shame was apportioned differently. The person who rapes should bear the shame of rape not just when this is convenient for society but at all times. The raped should not have to suffer stigma, their possibilities should not be limited because they have been raped. The discourse surrounding rape in Nigeria must be retrieved from channels that frustrate the dialogue. Each time we reduce the dialogue to what the person was wearing or where they were at the time of rape etc, we shoot ourselves in the foot. We create grey areas and latitude for worse versions of rape.
The silence surrounding rape in India has thawed rapidly since the Delhi rape incident of last month. People in India have become increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with the current laws that frame rape in their country. It is not enough anymore to say there is a culture of silence surrounding rape and leave it at that. Conversations are pushing beyond the old rhetoric’s and the boundaries are yielding. Perhaps they would too here in Nigeria?