Argument

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Why Nigeria Is Losing Its Fight to Prosecute Rape

Women who accuse men of sexual assault have faced backlash, high-profile defamation lawsuits, and even retaliatory police investigations.

By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
Protesters hold placards outside the Nigerian Police headquarters in Abuja during a demonstration to raise awareness about sexual violence on June 5, 2020.
Protesters hold placards outside the Nigerian Police headquarters in Abuja during a demonstration to raise awareness about sexual violence on June 5, 2020. KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty Images

In 2016, Ijeoma Ndukwe, a recent university graduate in southeastern Nigeria, launched an unusual social enterprise: a website where Nigerians could anonymously post their rape stories that pooled data on the locations of the often unnamed perpetrators.

Ndukwe wasn’t sure it would work. As elsewhere, sexual assault is notoriously underreported in Nigeria. But to date, both women and men have shared more than 200 accounts of assault on the site, the Share Anonymous Initiative. The majority of the survivors know their rapists. Ndukwe, herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, observed the community backlash that many in Nigeria face when speaking out about rape.

“Generally, people think that most rape victims brought the experience on themselves, that they caused it somehow. People are always looking for loopholes in the story,” Ndukwe said. “I believed that anonymity would protect [survivors] from stigma and further retaliation.”

In 2016, Ijeoma Ndukwe, a recent university graduate in southeastern Nigeria, launched an unusual social enterprise: a website where Nigerians could anonymously post their rape stories that pooled data on the locations of the often unnamed perpetrators.

Ndukwe wasn’t sure it would work. As elsewhere, sexual assault is notoriously underreported in Nigeria. But to date, both women and men have shared more than 200 accounts of assault on the site, the Share Anonymous Initiative. The majority of the survivors know their rapists. Ndukwe, herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, observed the community backlash that many in Nigeria face when speaking out about rape.

“Generally, people think that most rape victims brought the experience on themselves, that they caused it somehow. People are always looking for loopholes in the story,” Ndukwe said. “I believed that anonymity would protect [survivors] from stigma and further retaliation.”

According to UNICEF data, 1 in 4 Nigerian girls are sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Despite an increase in activism, justice is rare: Nigeria, a country of 206 million people, had just 32 rape convictions between 2019 and 2020, according to data from Nigeria’s national anti-trafficking agency. In that environment, some survivors find it more effective to name and shame rapists online than report to police. In recent years, Nigerians have used hashtags to openly name abusers, such as #ArewaMeToo—in the Hausa language, Arewa refers to the north—and #WeAreTired.

But there are legal risks involved. In the United States, Europe, and Asia, defamation cases followed the #MeToo movement. While survivors in Nigeria have received support, they have also experienced backlash and even retaliatory police investigations. Over the last year, Nigerian courts have seen a string of high-profile defamation lawsuits against women who have publicly accused men of rape—a development that activists fear will discourage survivors from speaking out.

One of the first was the photographer Busola Dakolo, who accused the celebrity pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo of rape in an interview in June 2019, sparking protests that forced the pastor to take temporary leave. (Fatoyinbo denied the allegations.) But Dakolo quickly encountered social media backlash, with many accusing her of lying. She sued the pastor, demanding an apology, and his legal team countersued. In November 2019, a Nigerian high court ordered Dakolo to pay Fatoyinbo 1 million naira—more than $2,500—in damages.

Nigerian police have contributed to this climate of silence.

Nigerian police have contributed to this climate of silence. In February 2019, Maryam Awaisu, an #ArewaMeToo movement leader, was arrested by police officers from Nigeria’s infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad for sharing posts naming alleged rapists on social media. She was released a day later. Last June, police allegedly held a woman in custody for two days after she accused the Nigerian pop star Oladapo Daniel Oyebanjo, known as D’banj, of rape—on the grounds of investigating her claim. She deleted the accusation and withdrew her criminal case after being threatened with a lawsuit. (In a since-deleted social media post, D’banj denied the allegations.)

Apart from facing lawsuits, women who accuse men of rape in Nigeria are themselves defamed—labeled as liars, sluts, or other derogatory names online—discouraging others from coming forward. In the D’banj case, for example, hostile comments about the woman reflected a culture of blame, showing how Nigerian women are judged based on lifestyle choices when they are raped. “This is a celebrity. As widely reported as that case was, it shows how difficult it is to still get justice,” said Angela Uwandu, the head of the Nigeria office at Avocats Sans Frontières France.


Sex crimes and domestic abuse have increased around the world during coronavirus lockdowns, leading U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to call gender-based violence a “shadow pandemic.” In Nigeria, more than 700 cases of sexual assault were reported between January and May 2020, with numbers surging after a temporary lockdown began in March, according to Nigerian police.

The government declared a nationwide state of emergency on rape in June after a series of harrowing crimes. On May 27, Vera Uwaila Omozuwa, a 22-year-old microbiology student, bled to death after being brutally raped in a church in Benin City. Days later, another student, 18-year-old Barakat Bello, was gang-raped and stabbed to death during a robbery at her home in Ibadan. On June 4, four masked men raped a 12-year-old girl in her home in Lagos.

The incidents sparked online outrage and nationwide street protests. “I am particularly upset at recent incidents of rape, especially of very young girls,” President Muhammadu Buhari said on June 12, asking all states to adopt the existing Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, which demands a minimum 12-year sentence for rape, and create a sex offender register. In July, the Nigerian Senate passed a bill that, if enacted, would protect students from sexual harassment at universities. In Kaduna, in north-central Nigeria, tougher laws that went into effect in September will see convicted child rapists castrated or executed.

These punitive measures do not address the problems of a society that refuses to believe women.

But these punitive measures do not address the problems of a society that refuses to believe women—and particularly one with so few rape convictions. “What you are saying to those subjected to this form of abuse is that people are going to get away with it,” said Evon Benson-Idahosa, the executive director of Pathfinders Justice Initiative, which works to combat sex slavery.

Many survivors already do not trust the police because they have witnessed the culture of victim blaming and seen allegations that are improperly investigated. For example, in a recent study of 155 rape allegations reported to police in Anambra state in Nigeria’s southeast, only 12 were investigated, and none resulted in a conviction.

Moreover, once a case makes it into Nigeria’s corrupt and overstretched judicial system, it can drag on for years. Survivors and their families are often pressured into withdrawing their cases and accepting a financial settlement to preserve so-called family respect rather than go through a protracted public investigation or trial. “An investigation can go on for as long as it takes for you to forget the case,” Uwandu said. “When the perpetrator is rich, it becomes a huge problem.”

Finally, in the rare case when a conviction is secured, in Nigeria’s more conservative regions it hardly matters. Under federal law, convicted rapists can face up to life imprisonment, but state legislators have the power to impose separate laws. In many northern states, courts often sentence convicted rapists with small monetary fines and minor jail terms.

By contrast, the economic hub of Lagos has taken steps to improve statistics on prosecuting sex crimes. The government-run Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) has handled more than 6,000 incidents since it opened in 2016. Lagos state governors opened Nigeria’s first state-owned DNA forensics lab in 2017 and launched a sex offender registry in November 2019. It is now compulsory for witnesses to report sexual violence to the police.

Titilola Vivour-Adeniyi, the DSVRT coordinator, admits that more can still be done. “The resistance from members of the public and, in certain instances, from the survivors themselves can be overwhelming,” she said. “There is still that stigma [to reporting], but at least we are slowly shattering the ceiling and we are hoping that people will be able to speak up.”

Social media has only recently brought the extent of Nigeria’s rape crisis to the surface. Websites such as Share Anonymous have given a platform to survivors and contributed to a better understanding of sexual assault and the mental health issues that people face when they are unable to speak out. But until Nigeria’s system is reformed and the conviction rate improves, it cannot build on that momentum.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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