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Violence against Women in Nigeria: the Internet as Amebo

December 1, 2009

Image removed.(Speech delivered at a public symposium jointly organized at Carleton University, Ottawa, by the Institute of African Studies, the Pauline Jewett Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies, NIDO Ottawa, and NIMNEWS Radio to mark the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. November 25, 2009)

Among the several enemies of the internet in Nigeria are individual and institutional actors and agents for whom that invention has become a nightmare. These are people or institutions that have good reasons to curse whoever invented the internet. A borderless spatial Republic, the internet quarries in what used to be your private warren, drawing out and making a public spectacle of your peccadilloes like the yells of an eight-day-old baby at christening. The internet is indeed one patriotic amebo in the service of the Nigerian people. The Nigerian state, the Sharia establishment in the North, and the Pentecostal establishment in the South are some of the institutional actors that have learnt very bitter lessons and have consequently been expending considerable resources to cope with the ‘meddlesomeness’ of the internet. Please allow me to examine the short history of cyber predicaments already experienced by each of the aforementioned institutions as a useful window into how the internet offers new mediations of violence against women in Nigeria.

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Like all draconian apparatuses of power, it took considerable time for the Nigerian state to begin to get the message that, with the internet, it could no longer be in the business of exercising power as usual – the sort of brazen arrogance of power that is routine even in the so-called democratic dispensation of a typical African postcolony. Thus, while it is taken for granted that the President’s health is the peoples’ business in civilized climes and the people are consequently notified of even routine presidential medical check-ups, the Nigerian state had other ideas about President Yar’Adua’s health condition. It first behaved as if Nigerians clamouring for an honest declaration on the matter of the President’s health were seeking some hallowed privilege that we were all unworthy of – that is until Olusegun Adeniyi and other mishandlers of the President’s image found out that the internet was no respecter of the cult of silence and the culture of arrogance and deceit they were weaving around the President’s health issues. Often, details of his health safaris would be all over the internet even before he stepped out of the Presidential villa. Internet pressure explains in large part Mr. Adeniyi’s new tack of issuing hypocritical press releases on the President’s health trips.

Pentecostalism has also “seen pepper” in the hands of the internet, to borrow a popular Nigerian expression. Contemporary Pentecostalism in Nigeria operates a theology of instant prosperity and endless miracles that has transformed it into one of the most lucrative sectors of the Nigerian economy. Instant prosperity thrives in narratives and imagery of neon, gloss, and razzmatazz woven around a deified character always known as Founder General Overseer. If the God of Nigerian Pentecostalism is not a God of poverty, as adherents of that version of Christianity insist, He nonetheless has this annoying habit of always zeroing in on the Founder General Overseer as the only example of boundless prosperity among thousands of poverty-ridden church members. Thus, the Founder General Overseer is often the only one God elects to deck in Armani suits and Ferragamo loafers, supply with posh cars that can sometimes run two hundred kilometers on empty, ferry across the world in a private jet. Sometimes, as is the case with Chris Oyakhilome, the bonus of a fake American accent is added unto these numerous blessings. But the internet is what we, Nigerians, call amebo - a busybody, a loudmouth, a flaneur, a voyeur, and a whistleblower rolled into one. And so, when the internet pokes its unwanted nose into the business of the gospel, you could have a scandal of international proportions develop around something as ordinary as a Pastor buying a private jet in an ocean of poverty.

What, you may wonder, have these scenarios got to do with the issue at hand – violence against women in Nigeria? Well, just as the internet has not spared Nigeria’s current illegitimate state and the purveyors of Pentecostal hyper-prosperity, it has also not spared the social institutions and practices that are rooted in philosophies of gender victimization and inferiorization which almost always eventuate in violence against women in our society. The Sharia establishment in northern Nigeria should know a thing or two about this. Dateline March 2002. In this day and age, the guarantors of a wholly opportunistic and political sharia in that part of Nigeria, who look the other way when their politicians steal millions of dollars, only to use ordinary people, especially women, as expendable instruments of propitiation, sentenced Amina Lawal to death by stoning.

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They should have thought of the internet before doing that. And because they did not think of the internet, it burnt their fingers, burnt their toes, and burnt their turbans very badly. Suddenly, a conservative, pre-Medieval, Caliphal, feudo-religious establishment that is used to having its way and riding roughshod over Nigerians got itself into the worst international backlash it has ever experienced as news of the possible fate of Amina Lawal spread online like the proverbial bush fire in the harmattan. Exposed and embarrassed locally and globally, the sharia establishment buckled and started looking for a face-saving way to reverse the sentence. That is one woman’s life saved when the internet acted as amebo.

There is Elizabeth Udoudo, a mother of two children aged five and three years respectively. Sometime in February 2008, this woman and her children had the temerity to share the road with convoy of state governor in Lagos. Permit me to enter some details on the psychology of Nigerian convoys for the benefit of our Canadian friends in this audience. That is what you call a motorcade here in Canada and also in the United States. Purely ceremonial here, the motorcade wears a human face and respects ordinary Canadians and extant speed limits. I have always argued that the convoy is Nigeria’s worst postcolonial tragedy. The convoy of the Nigerian government official is obscene ostentation, intimidation, unbridled arrogance, and abject alienation from the people. It is an isle of inebriation by power, an oasis of total lawlessness. In his convoy, the Nigerian government official - often an empty barrel also known locally as a “Big Man”, “Chief”, “Alhaji” or a combination of all three - is no longer human. The speed limit of his convoy is determined by how far the speedometer of each constituent bullet-proof SUV can go.

President Obama’s convoy comprises his limo, a decoy limo, one or two media buses and a few police outriders on motorcycles. That is the length of the convoy of a self-respecting Local Government Chairman in Nigeria. At higher levels, a respectable convoy should be at least one kilometer long. I am not going to tell you the price they normally invoice for an SUV. You will have a heart attack. I am not going to mention the soldiers and/or stern mobile police men wielding AK-47s and horse whips. I am not going to tell you that many Nigerians have been crushed by the convoys of our lawless and inhumane rulers over the years. The Nigerian convoy of course comes with the sort of siren blaring that you people here associate with the emergency services: police, ambulance, and fire engines. When you see a convoy and hear the wailing siren in Nigeria, you jump into a ditch or drive your car quickly off the road for the man of power to pass undisturbed by the people he is supposed to be serving. When the people of Nigeria eventually wake up, the convoy will be one of the first targets of their ire. It is one symbol of oppression that they need to take out. Violently if necessary.

My generous recourse to imagery here is to highlight the atmospherics of oppression in which the convoy thrives and also to give you a true portrait of Nigeria’s rulers and government officials since they wear a totally different persona and pretend to be cultured when they are here to interact with you in the West. Don’t ever believe what you see or hear when Nigerian government officials come here grinning from ear to ear. They are just acting for you or, as we say in Nigeria, they are “forming”. That is not who they are back home. They brutalize our people daily. If you belong with the little people, you’d better not mess with the convoy of a Nigerian government official – especially if you are a woman. Elizabeth Udoudo was driving and broke this rule that is so crucial to the architecture of power and democracy in Nigeria.

Governor Ikedi Ohakim of Imo state and his convoy would broach no such violation of the rules of engagement - by a woman for that matter! They stopped the convoy – even time stops when the ego of a big man is at stake in Nigeria – dragged her out of the car and proceeded to beat her black and blue in broad daylight and in the presence of her young children. Needless to say, Governor Ohakim and his complement of cowardly masochists did not reckon with the might of the internet and were soon hit by a public relations nightmare as news of their barbarity travelled in blogs and listservs. So bad was the internet backlash that the Chief Press Secretary to the governor deemed it necessary to subject himself to the indignity of explaining their own side of the story to the Nigerian people – a symbolic victory if you ask me. Of course he justified everything that happened to Mrs. Udoudo, chastising her for being disrespectful to constituted authority.

I don’t expect what I have called the symbolic victory of Mrs. Udoudo and the Nigerian people over Governor Ohakim and his security goons to be immediately clear to my Canadian audience here. Only Nigerians would understand what it means for what we would call “a whole state Governor” to feel compelled to explain why his security details beat up what we would call  “an ordinary woman” on a busy street in broad daylight with her children watching. Remember, we are dealing with gigantic egos inebriated by power that is not answerable to anyone.

There is Miss Uzoma Okere. Same city. Same scenario. Lagos. Convoy. Big man. Huge ego. The difference this time is that we are dealing with a top military man. Rear Admiral Harry Arogundade was being chauffeured to the officer’s mess in a convoy. He was in a hurry because he had a do-or-die appointment with a bottle of beer and a bowl of pepper soup. Miss Okere committed the usual crime of being an ordinary Nigerian competing for road space with the convoy of a big man. A military man for that matter! Please remember that these offences are much more serious when the offender is “an ordinary woman”. As was the case with Mrs. Udoudo, the big man’s convoy stopped, dragged Miss Okere out of her car, stripped her naked, and beat the living daylights out of her. In broad daylight in Lagos! There was one little problem though. The Rear Admiral – whom the Nigerian internet community immediately renamed a rare animal – forgot the internet! All it took was for some passersby to capture the sordid scene with their cell phone cameras and upload it immediately on youtube for our rare animal to be in big trouble. So serious was the internet backlash this time that the President even had to pretend to take an interest in the matter and promptly transferred the rare animal from Lagos to Abuja. Another hitherto unimaginable symbolic victory actuated by the internet serving as amebo.

One could go on recounting stories of how the internet creates new vistas of female agency by seriously undermining the former safe havens of career perpetuators of violence against women in Nigerian society. The internet has truly become a formidable ally of gender rights activists in Nigeria because it makes the business of beating and stripping women naked in public a lot riskier and infinitely costlier for the perpetrators. Are you a Senator or a member of the Federal House of Reps thinking of slapping any of those female secretaries in Abuja? Think twice. If she returns the slap, you never know who is around to give the story considerable shelf life online. Are you the otherwise popular Governor of Lagos state now victimizing female strippers and allowing your goons to do unmentionable things to them in detention rather than address the underlying hostile patriarchal structures that instrumentalize those women? Beware! The internet may be your undoing.

The cyber age has in a way turned Nigeria into one gigantic panopticon. Those of you in academe here will of course remember what Jeremy Bentham and, later, Michel Foucault, have to do with the idea of the panopticon. Prisons are designed in such a way as to make the prisoner feel constantly observed without knowing who is doing the observing and where the observation is coming from. The constant sense of feeling observed is internalized by the prisoner and this induces correct behavior. Governor Ohakim, Rear Admiral Harry Arogundade, the sharianists of northern Nigeria, and other career violators of womanhood must experience the internet as a panopticon. This people must now affect a hypocritical smile every time they meet a woman. If they frown, there is no way of telling who may post the frown on youtube!

 Ladies and gentlemen, we must not make the mistake of deifying the internet as the ubiquitous savior of Nigerian womanhood. That is far from the intention of this lecture. Besides, internet or no internet, Grace Ushang was still gang raped and murdered only last month and this underscores the need for continuous vigilance. We must also remember the fact that the internet hasn’t spared women as perpetrators of violence against women, especially institutional and symbolic violence. Such (potential) female perpetrators of violence against women have been having a rough time in cyber Nigeria. One of the extremely rare Nigerian politicians I admire is a member of the Federal House of Representatives called Abike Dabiri. So far, I have only positive things to say about her but I am now nervous. For good reason. Perhaps because she used to be a journalist before she morphed into one of Nigeria’s brightest politicians, perhaps in onomatopoeic consonance with her last name, Dabiri dabbled recently into the extremely dangerous territory of media control by sponsoring a curious bill that has alarmed even her most ardent supporters.  

Although Mrs. Dabiri has argued that her bill seeks to enhance self regulation and professionalism in the target profession, it is becoming quite apparent that she did not reckon with the eternal verities of this saying: perception is everything. And perception acquires more dangerous potency when it travels online as Mrs. Dabiri is unpleasantly finding out even as I speak. Cyber Nigeria is gradually becoming a hostile territory for her on account of that potentially dangerous bill. Those of us who maintain our trust and confidence in her are nervous and must now handle our public expressions of faith in her extremely carefully while watching her moves ever more closely. For how could she possibly not have known that her bill has the potential to make of her a female perpetrator of symbolic violence against female journalists?

Somehow, we are supposed to trust the Nigerian state! We are supposed to believe that an irresponsible state like Abuja would use laws emanating from Dabiri’s bill responsibly! I foresee opportunistic men of power turning any law that results from such a bill on its head and using it against female reporters and exclaiming: well, your sister authored and sponsored the bill! When another female journalist is over-ripe for a fatwa like Isioma Daniel, the sharianists of northern Nigeria would be happy to invoke Mrs. Dabiri’s bill and not the sharia.

Finally, at a time when the global activist community is struggling to expand the rights of women, especially in the Arab world, a Nigerian woman has for almost two years now tried to convince the Senate that Nigerian women have too much freedom - chief among which is a woman’s right to dress as she deems fit. Senator Ufot Ekaette has been misusing her position as Chairperson of the Senate Committee on Women to inflict violence on her fellow women by pursuing a strange Indecent Dressing Bill with missionary zeal. Why are these female lawmakers enamoured of bills that are potentially dangerous to women? Unlike Mrs. Dabiri, Mrs Ekaette even took the fight to have Nigerian women dress conservatively to the UN. How relieved she must be that the crazy sharianists who murdered Grace Ushang in northern Nigeria said they raped and murdered her as punishment for indecent dressing – she was wearing trousers!



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