Landmark judgement on the Maputo Protocol: Nigeria found guilty of gender-based violence
Shedding Light on the Journey to Justice and the Person Behind the Struggle: Dorothy Njemanze
In October 2017, the Community Court of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Court) pronounced a historic judgement on the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. It found that the Nigerian government had committed gender-based violence and multiple other grave human rights violations. The Lead interviewed Dorothy Njemanze, one of the plaintiffs who brought her case to the Court, about her continued struggle for justice in a system that does not work for its people.
It is 8pm on 29 September 2012, in Abuja, Nigeria: Nollywood actress Dorothy Njemanze is on her way to see her brother when, suddenly, four fully armed men stop her. Without identifying themselves, they start to sexually harass and beat her. The men attempt to force her into a bus that has AEPB written on it. At that moment, Njemanze realises that these men belong to the Abuja Environment Protection Board, a public enforcement authority. Njemanze continues to resist and screams for help. Eventually, only because pedestrians recognise the well-known actress, the men let her go.
The Nigerian government will later accuse Njemanze of being a sex worker, a profession that is illegal in Nigeria, and will seek to justify the attempted abduction on the grounds that she was found alone on the streets at night.
The Landmark Judgement: ECOWAS Court Pronounced for the First Time on the Maputo Protocol
Five years pass before Dorothy ultimately gets justice. On 12 October 2017, the ECOWAS Court found that the Nigerian government committed multiple and grave human rights violations. In the case Dorothy Njemanze and three others versus the Federal Republic of Nigeria, all women plaintiffs were abducted, assaulted sexually, physically, verbally and unlawfully detained at different times between January 2011 and March 2013 by the AEPB and other government agencies, such as the police and the military.
The ECOWAS Court, which for the first time pronounced a judgement based on the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, better known as the Maputo Protocol, found that the Nigerian government failed to recognise and protect the women plaintiffs’ rights. It also found that the treatment by agents of the AEBP, the Nigerian police and the military amounted to gender-based violence and discriminatory cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
The Woman Behind the Struggle
To appreciate the magnitude of this judgement, it is important to not only look at structural barriers to justice in Nigeria but also at the woman who has been fighting those barriers. Dorothy Njemanze is the leading plaintiff, who has long stood for accountability, equality and justice in a system rigged with corruption and impunity. Besides being a well-known Nollywood actress, Njemanze is also an investigative journalist, a radio presenter, a film-maker, an event planner and manager, a car racer, a stunt-driver, and a tourism promoter. Yet above all, she would describe herself as a ‘humanitarian and social entrepreneur’. Following her abduction she founded her own non-governmental organisation to help other victims of abuse perpetrated by law enforcement authorities. Since then, Njemanze has fought for accountability, equality and justice with great persistence, immense strength, sacrifice, passion and courage.
Abuja’s ‘Total War Against Prostitution’
In 2011, the Federal Capital Territory Administration, FCTA, launched a ‘total war on prostitution’ in Abuja, reportedly Africa’s fastest growing city, pledging to ‘cleanse the city of sex business’. Law enforcement personnel were required to identify and arrest sex workers and send them to rehabilitation centres.
Soon claims emerged that state officials were abusing their power and abducting those they were meant to protect, including sex workers, law students, bankers exiting shopping malls, people sitting inside or vacating their cars, and women standing in front of offices or residences. Njemanze was among those unlawfully detained.
A documentary, Silent Tears, released in 2016, covers Njemanze and other women’s horrific experiences at the hands of public authorities. They used the war on prostitution to legitimise the arbitrary arrest of women, while sexually harassing or even raping them. They abducted and then released innocent women after torturing them into confessing they were prostitutes or after extorting money from them. Organisations such as Amnesty International confirm that violence against women, perpetrated by state officials, is pervasive not only in Abuja but all over Nigeria.
Njemanze detected that pattern of violations and says, ‘I knew somebody would have to speak up. I knew I had to do things differently to those who were keeping quiet. Every part of my body just needed to say that this was a violation.’
Njemanze petitioned numerous government entities to have her case heard. Most of them never reacted. Finally, the Public Complaints Commission responded saying that only a non-governmental organisation (NGO) could submit a petition. Njemanze did not hesitate and the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation was born.
Even before the Foundation’s registration process was completed, she had collected more than 70 reported cases of similar violations by state authorities. Jointly with three other women, who were prepared to go public, she filed a complaint in front of the ECOWAS Court against the Nigerian government.
Njemanze and her colleagues were not sitting still while awaiting judgement. Instead, they used the entertainment media for grass-roots empowerment to improve access to social justice, social inclusivity and victim support. However, ‘raising awareness about sexual and gender-based violence is not an easy task at all,’ according to Njemanze, as survivors of abuse are often stigmatised and abused children are also not taken seriously. One of the major obstacles to her work are the long-held cultural norms and beliefs‘ because a lot of people will tell you, “My grandmother was raised this way, my mother was raised this way and she raised me this way. So, who are you to come and tell me differently? This is what I know, and what we have always known.”
Indeed, breaking through cultural beliefs remains a major challenge, with half of the Nigerian population being illiterate and more than two-thirds living below the poverty line. However, the Foundation’s approach is impactful. ‘You don’t need to be able to read and write to understand [its] message because you can see pictures and you can hear sound in a language that you understand. And dramatisation helps people to relate more to the message.’ For instance, in a recently launched campaign, Njemanze and her colleagues describe on camera what constitutes abuse and how to deal with it, encouraging people to use legal routes to solve conflicts. Working closely with the community of people with disabilities, she ensures that all of her audio-visual material is also translated into sign language.
The Issue of Entrenched Impunity
A Human Rights Watch report, dated from 2010, already concluded that ‘institutionalized extortion, a profound lack of political will to reform the police force, and impunity combine to make police corruption a deeply embedded problem in Nigeria.’ After almost a decade, nothing seems to have changed.
In Njemanze’s work to support abuse survivors, the police have asked crime victims to bring their own witnesses if they wanted an investigation. Similarly, she says that enforcement authorities require abuse survivors to pay for police investigations or just ‘bully people into extortions’. Without the money many people are denied access to justice, perpetrators go unpunished and ‘justice is for sale to the highest bidder,’ according to an activist quoted in the Human Rights Watch report.
As reported by Amnesty International, authorities consistently fail to exercise due diligence in preventing and addressing sexual violence perpetrated by state actors. While chronic underfunding of enforcement authorities does pose a significant obstacle to achieving justice, Njemanze would tell the police: ‘If you say you don’t have funding, speak up, so that we know (…) that this needs to be tackled. Stop shifting the burden of proof to victims.’
According to the Human Rights Watch report, there is near total lack of will on the part of senior police officers and government authorities to hold officers to account. Even worse, Nigeria’s highest authorities have sought to vilify their own citizens. In front of the ECOWAS Court, the government (in addition to many other unfunded and outrageous claims) accused Njemanze of running ‘a prostitution gang’. About the claim, she comments, ‘That shows how dirty the system is going to play to shut people up.’ Therefore, – unsurprisingly – the Nigerian government has not reacted to the judgement.
Death Threats and Economic Instability: The Severe Implications of Njemanze’s Activism
Njemanze faces major challenges. Her outspokenness and persistence to fight the Nigerian government have had serious implications on her private and professional life.
A well-known actress, she was cast for several films but was eventually turned away. Film-makers told her, ‘We can’t have you on set because you are fighting the government. We need politicians to be at the film premiere.’
She also received death threats that were never investigated, which forced her to be constantly on the move. She is sure that it ‘was to force me to drop the case in front of ECOWAS’. To protect herself from more threats, her response has been to become extremely outspoken on TV, radio and social media about what happens to her and the people she supports. That way, she ensures that she remains in the attention of the public eye, deterring potential attackers.
However, this comes at a cost as she struggles to pay her own bills while she is amplifying the voices of so many others. ‘As I talk to you now, my house rent is not paid. My house is a shelter for many; all the people I live with are abuse survivors. We are talking of raped children, adults, who see me as the only support they have, irrespective of the fact I seem to have nothing.’ The lack of long-term and sustained funding has been a major challenge to her work and poses a constant threat to the survival of her foundation. Donors often restrict support to short-term projects, instead of gearing funds towards salaries or logistics.
Amidst all of these challenges, how does she find the strength to keep going? ‘Sometimes I am unable to motivate myself. But I just don’t have a choice…Other people believe in me… I didn’t know that so many know about my work, but people do, and I respect the fact that a lot of people refer me,’ she admits.
The Struggle for Justice Continues
The judgement by the ECOWAS Court is ‘a monumental victory for the rights of women in Africa’ and an ‘encouragement for a lot of us that things can move in the right direction’. The judgement will remain a crucial advocacy tool for her and for many others.
Njemanze has an adopted daughter who sought support at the Foundation, ‘I always say that she adopted me. It feels safer to say that because she chose to be with me. She is an abuse survivor as well, her dad used to rape her. She is at risk of suicide. She just turned 18. Local authorities have denied her justice. I am thinking to take that case to the ECOWAS Court,’ she says.
Dorothy Njemanze is very grateful to: Amarachi Nwakpa, Chioma Chuka, Ayisha Osori, Professor CHidi Odinkalu, Alliances for Africa, Institut for Human Rights and Development in Africa, Nigerian Women Trust Fund, OSIWA and Amateur Heads Production Company, SPA Ajibade & Co, Abang Odok Ogar & Co, for the roles they played on the journey to justice for her, her co-plaintiffs and indeed all the women in West Africa who will benefit from the ECOWAS Court ruling.
How You Can Support the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation
The Dorothy Njemanze Foundation is in dire need of financial support to pay staff (such as lawyers and counsellors) and set up a shelter for abuse survivors in terrible conditions seeking refuge at the Foundation. Please consider donating here.