By Dr Abubakar Bukola Saraki
GUEST COLUMNIST on Thisday
When I tweeted on the sad incident of the rape and murder of Vera Uwala Omozuwa in a Benin church last week, I did so for many reasons. First, it was the right thing to do as these incidents of violence against our women are becoming too frequent. Second, it was out of conviction that we all need to stand up and fight this dangerous trend depicting the new low that our country has sunk.
Third, I ruminated over the Uwa case and the question came to my mind: What else could a functional society have expected from that young lady? Instead of wasting the period of this lockdown on frivolities and immoral practices, she chose to reinforce her academic intellect by being busy with her books. With the assurance of a safe space of physical and spiritual protection, she chose to study inside a church auditorium. Yet, our society failed her innocent choice, fatally.
Now, since the Uwa case occurred and got so much public attention, many more sordid cases had been reported. There had been the case of 18-year-old Barakat Bello in Ibadan who was also raped to death, the 12-year-old girl in Jigawa raped by 12 men including a 67-year old man, the 13-year-old Elizabeth Ochanya Ogbanje who was a victim of her guardian’s criminal tendency. The Daily Trust edition of June 6, 2020 stated that 65 cases of rape had been reported between January and the first week of June 2020.
The recent gory details of shocking dehumanisation and violence against the female gender compels sombre reflection on these incidents: and questions worth asking, and answering on whether this is how our society should be?
The swift reaction of the police to the case in Benin is encouraging and should be sustained and spread to all the other cases. Anti-social and heinous crimes occur and prevail because after the initial noise, everything dies down, lacking diligent follow up to ensure a satisfactorily punitive, deterrent and rehabilitative final resolution.
There is no doubt that justice delayed is justice denied – thus delays in investigative and forensic processes, along with judicial delays do indirectly encourage criminals – and damage the innocent. There are many instances of the haphazard handling of investigation, prosecution and final resolution of crimes.
A question worth asking is what legislative measures exist to prevent sexual and gender based violence, and govern the conduct of agencies charged with the protection of law and order, and citizens? As the 13th President of the Senate for four years, the lawmakers encountered this same problem of the constant violence against the Nigerian female gender and our responses were swift.
On May 23rd, 2017, we debated a motion titled “The Urgent need to investigate the alarming rate of rape and sexual assault against women, children and vulnerable people across the country.” In our resolution, we urged the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) and all security agencies to establish help desks to provide increased support for the victims. We also called on government to immediately activate the administration and implementation of the provisions of the Violence Against Persons and Property Act.
Knowing the importance of frontline community audits and learning, we created a platform of formal engagement with Civil Society Organisations. One such CSO groups was the Women Arise for Change Initiative led by Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin. During one of the meetings with her organisation, I remember my assurance to her that “The Eighth Senate is in total support of your activities and you can take us as partners in this process of reducing Gender Based Violence. To us, it is a big NO to gender based violence”.
The Eighth Senate passed the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institution Bill 2016. This bill inspired our stern response to the case of sex-for-marks complaint raised by Miss Monica Osage, a student of the Obafemi Awolowo University against one of her professors. We directed our committees on tertiary education and women affairs to follow up with the University’s Senate, Governing Council and Federal Ministry of Education to ensure the lady in question got justice.
It is a good thing that the professor was used to teach other randy lecturers a lesson. And since then, one can observe that sanity is reportedly returning into the university system in the area of lecturers – female student relationship.
While these legislative milestones may not have been front-page news, due to the appetite of the media for sensational and salacious news stories from the legislature rather that the catalytic debates on substantial issues of national development, they represented a new way of parliamentary workings, to put our citizens needs, and protections first.
The need to improve the performance of the Police led us into enacting the Nigeria Police Reforms Act which aims to amend and update the 77-year old Police Act which governs their operations. In working on this law, we benefited from contributions from the Police, our development partners and many experienced individuals. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives was not able to conclude deliberations on the Bill before the eighth National Assembly adjourned sine die.
However, we successfully enacted the Police Trust Fund which aims to create alternative ways of funding the police, apart from budgetary allocation. The law provides that 0.5 per cent of the national gross income and .005 percentage of profits made by companies operating in Nigeria will go into a fund that will be used for equipping, training and welfare of police officers.
This Bill had been in circulation since my period as Governor in 2007 when the idea was first presented before the National Council of States. It is to the credit of the eighth National Assembly that 11 years later, the Bill was given life and passed. One is happy that this law has been signed by President Muhammadu Buhari and the board to administer the fund has been inaugurated.
It is one thing to have the laws made by the legislature. It is another kettle of fish to get the presidential assent to them or even get the executive arm to implement the provision of the laws. That is why I believe that preventing and curbing violence against persons will require better co-operation between the legislature, executive, the civil society and the general public.
The co-operation between ordinary citizens and those they elected to bring about changes or resolve social welfare problems as evidenced by the public outcry and initiatives on these recent cases of rape excites me. We must have social justice in our society. And it is important we all commit and make a pledge to work against the evil perpetrated by some of our fellow citizens.
I am particularly encouraged to see that some public-spirited youths are leading the on-going campaign against rape and other violence against the female gender. I saw the raw energy being put into the campaigns by youths who want results and desire positive action from the authority. The recent initiatives by these young people who are raising funds to help provide financial succour to the families of victims are good. I congratulate them for their sacrifice and selfless action which are good omen that the future of Nigeria remains bright.
My advice is that the rest of us should not limit our activism on these important issues to just press releases, tweets and Facebook posts. We should walk the talk. All of us – the President, legislators, governors, former public office holders, clergies and other opinion leaders – who have used the social media to express our outrage at the heinous crime against women must now play more active roles.
The legislators must look at what laws need to be newly enacted, amended or repealed to deal with the current challenges. The technocrats in the executive must go beyond waiting to pick holes in the bills passed by the legislature and seeking to give reasons why the laws should be denied presidential assent. They must co-operate with the lawmakers to ensure the bills are signed into law and full implementation commences in earnest.
The tendency is always for this anger to be expressed over a period of time and then we move on, behaving as if nothing has happened. Those campaigning against these social vices should stay on the course and ensure positive changes are effected. The end is to see justice served to the victims, the accused persons and the traumatised society.
We need the Police Reforms Bill to be enacted into law without delay by the current National Assembly. Both chambers should dust up the old bill and work on it. The emphasis of the police needs to shift to forensic investigation and necessary equipment must be provided to this end. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Public Complaints Commission (PCC) should be equipped to take up cases on behalf of victims of violence. Ensuring justice for the victims of violence in the shortest possible time should now be their watchword.
With COVID-19 and the resultant budget deficit, fall in the price of oil and the value of naira, it is obvious the government can no longer meet its target on provision of infrastructure. However, there is still the easy objective that can be met. That is ensuring justice for all victims of violent attacks. Unlike construction of roads, building of power stations and other key infrastructure, the actions needed to redress these wrongs and send strong signals to rapists and violent predators among us do not require oil prices to rise or dollar exchange rate to the Naira to be lower.
The issue of addressing injustice presents us with a low hanging fruit that we can quickly harvest. After all, what is needed is the commitment on the part of everybody to faithfully and conscientiously play their part.
What constitutes a good society is that it must be built on justice, law and order and protection of the weak from the indiscretion of the strong. We can start from these recent cases of Omozuwa, Barakat, Elizabeth and others to ensure all outstanding cases are swiftly concluded and justice served to all concerned. It is never too late. Even, in America, the George Floyd case has proved that the superpower country is still grappling with the challenge of dealing with issues of violence against innocent citizens.
It is my belief that these recent sad occurrences present us with the opportunity, as a society, to make life better for all. The actions required need to be taken up by both the leaders and the followers. The followers must demand for these actions, canvass and agitate for them through lawful means. They must become more critical, discerning and thorough in electing leaders at all levels who have that respect and recognition for rights and social protections as a core compass guiding the courage to address endemic national malaise. Only then will we build a safe society for all citizens.
• Abubakar Saraki, Board Chair, The Africa Politeia Institute, was the 13th President of the Senate.