Amidst rising insecurity and criminal activities across the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), officials of the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) and the police recently raided night clubs and arrested women of all shades and sizes for alleged various offences. These ranged from soliciting for sex to loitering. But the victims have since alleged sexual harassment and intimidation. PAUL OKAH in this special report writes on the contrasting claims.
From its creation in 1991, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) has had to contend with one social ill or another. As a developing city, the high influx of people into the nation’s capital has corresponded with a rise in armed robbery, prostitution, one-chance operators, to mention a few. However, while the police have been dealing with social ills in different ways, the recent organised raids on different night clubs in the nation’s capital and the subsequent arrest of women for offences bordering on soliciting for sex, loitering and constituting public nuisance raises the issue of misplaced priority.
On Wednesday, April 17, this year, the FCTA Joint Task Team, which comprises the Department of Development Control, Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) and the Social Development Secretariat (SDS), stormed the premises of a popular nightclub, Caramelo Lounge and Suites, located at Utako district of Abuja. They arrested 34 women and destroyed the front perimeter fence of the night club.
Again, on Wednesday, April 24 and Friday, April 26, barely ten days after the raid on Caramelo nightclub, police operatives raided different clubs within the metropolis and arrested more than sixty women for “hanging around nightclubs.”
“34 women were arrested on Wednesday and 31 on Friday, that is 65 women in total. They were arrested in Aminu Kano Crescent, Gwarimpa, and Katampe extension, and they are being charged to court. It was the Joint Task Force that arrested them. They were hanging around night clubs,” FCT police spokesperson, ASP Danjuma Tanimu, told reporters.
Allegations of rape
Nevertheless, after the raids, the arrested women were taken before a mobile court in Abuja on April 29, where 27 out of 32 presented to the court pleaded guilty to the charges read against them. They were convicted and sentenced to one month in prison with an option of N3, 000 fine.
However, during a media briefing in Abuja by a human rights activist, Dorothy Njemanze, on Thursday, May 2, some of the arrested ladies alleged that they were tear-gassed and sexually assaulted by police officers while in detention, with the officers using pure water sachets as condoms.
Some of the women that shared their experiences, alleged violations in the van in addition to varying degrees of molestation at the Utako Police Station before being granted bail and arraigned at a mobile court. They alleged that many of the rapists were policemen attached to Utako, Life Camp and Gwarimpa police stations.
“We were arrested on Friday and detained for several days. Some people were bailed the next day, while the rest of us were left behind. The officers picked us and slept with us one after the other because we did not have money to give them. They picked us from Banex and took us to Utako police station. When we got there, the police station was empty. We were told to pull off and then when we obeyed, they raped us,” one of the women who pleaded anonymity said.
Another said, “They beat us well, abused us sexually and also collected money from us before they released us. They beat us up after they arrested us at Gwarimpa. And when we questioned them about what our offence, the officers used pepper spray on us. The more you questioned them about your offence, the more beatings you received.”
However, the lawyer representing the women, Jennifer Ogbogu, said the women were forced by officials of the AEPB to plead guilty and that only about four out of the 32 ladies did not plead guilty and the matter was adjourned till Tuesday, April 30, even as the ladies were not told the consequences of pleading guilty.
Ogbogu said: “By the time I got to the court, the sitting had already started. After reading the first information report, I saw some of the ladies pleading guilty and I asked them why they were pleading guilty to the charges. They said officials of the AEPB told them to plead guilty to avoid prison time of six months and they were scared because their families didn’t even know where they were at the moment.
“Those that pleaded guilty were sentenced to one month in prison with a fine option of N3, 000. We paid the fine and all of them have been released from custody.”
NHRC on legality of the raids
In a reaction, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) condemned the raids on night clubs by FCTA operatives and police, saying citizens’ rights to freedom of association and movement cannot be abridged.
In a statement to the media in Abuja, the executive secretary of the commission, Tony Ojukwu, called on the police to desist from being used by any individual, group or government agency to carry out operations that may result in the violation of the rights of citizens.
He said: “There is no law that prohibits anyone from moving in the night or gathering for recreational or social purposes, except, perhaps, there is a curfew to temporarily restrict movements within certain hours and for which the necessary authorities would have informed the people.
“The FCTA and the police should respect the fundamental rights of citizens to freedom of movement and assembly and should not hide under any guise to breach or curtail these rights except in execution of the decision of the court of competent jurisdiction. The authorities must also adhere to human rights principles while carrying out their official duties to avoid molestation of citizens they are supposed to protect.
“We also state unequivocally that the reported plan by the FCTA authorities to embark on closure of some night clubs in Abuja without an order of a court of competent jurisdiction raises some fundamental issues which border on breach of economic, social and cultural rights.
“We, therefore, urge the authorities of FCTA or their agents to desist from any further carrying out of this threat and to respect the fundamental rights of citizens. In the past, incidences like this are usually abused by the handlers to molest innocent citizens and sexually exploit them. FCTA authorities are directed to immediately release all the people arrested during the raid of the night clubs or charge them to court immediately and desist from any monetary or sexual exploitation of the victims.”
Playing to the gallery
Also speaking, a legal practitioner, Kola Alapinni, said stripping is not illegal, but that officials are trying to impress President Muhammadu Buhari ahead of impending cabinet reshuffle; hence the raids.
He said many public officials are so desperate to get in the good book of President Buhari for a possible cabinet appointment that they can do anything to impress him, including trampling on the rights of other Nigerians.
“Many people want to be included in the cabinet of President Buhari in this second tenure; hence the desperation to please him by raiding night clubs that have always been in existence,” he said.
Expectedly, human rights activists within and outside the country have continued to express dissatisfaction over the arrests of the women, challenging the legality of the raids. This is even as the hashtag #Abujaraidonwomen and videos of the raid have trended on social media, showing varying human violations of women taken into vans and in custody at the Utako police division.
The arrests have also drawn the ire of many Nigerians on social media who have labelled the police as a cowardly lot that focuses on arresting innocent women, instead of arresting kidnappers and Boko Haram members or Fulani herdsmen.
In an exclusive interview with Blueprint Weekend in her Abuja office, the executive director of Global Rights, Mrs Abiodun Baiyewu, said it is disheartening for the police to turn against the same citizens they ought to protect by invading their privacy and subjecting them to different levels of degradation.
She said her organisation was working with different non-governmental organisations to make sure that the arrested women get justice for the abuse of their fundamental human rights.
Baiyewu frowned upon the alleged rape of the arrested women, saying that the police are engaging in illegal activities. According to her, the arrested women were not given fair hearing and that their trial was shrouded in secrecy.
“I feel bad that our society is abusing the laws protecting the rights of citizens. It is the job of the police to protect citizens, not to round up women enjoying their fundamental human rights of freedom of movement and association. The arrested women are law-abiding citizens and did not commit an offence under the law by hanging out in nightclubs.
“Even those who were charged before a court were forced to plead guilty, but guilty to what exactly? What type of tribunal would not allow the public to witness its proceedings? Why shroud everything in secrecy? There are so many questions to ask about the anomaly of infringing on people’s fundamental human rights. Nevertheless, my organisation is working alongside other organisations to bring justice to the victimised women and forestall future occurrence,” she said.
Also, speaking with Blueprint Weekend, the executive director of Tap Initiative, Barrister Martin Obono, who earlier wrote about the different raids on Abuja night clubs and alleged sexual violations of the arrested women by policemen on his Twitter handle, said “it is totally illegal for police to invade the premises of Caramelo night club, as it is a closed environment where adults decided to enjoy their rights.”
He said going by the argument of police and FCTA authorities, prostitution is not illegal in Nigerian laws, even if religion might frown upon the act. He equally implored government to look into the allegation of sexual harassment of the arrested ladies and bring erring officers to justice.
Obono also said “it is a threat to national security for police to raid night clubs, when they are supposed to protect citizens and that the form of arrest by police is illegal.”
“Government should prosecute officers found guilty of raping the ladies arrested during raids on Caramelo night club and other clubs within the FCT. You cannot in the process of preventing what you call a crime and commit other heinous crimes. The raids are actually an infringement on their fundamental human rights as the women are adults enjoying themselves in a closed environment.
“The form of arrest is illegal and all the people that took part are culpable, including the FCTA Joint Task Force, Civil Defence and police. Prostitution is not illegal in Nigeria, though Nigerians are very religious people and frown on the act. “However, we need to separate what is illegal from religion. You can’t criminalise what people see as sin in their religions. It is a threat to national security to raid night clubs and arrest people. The action may give birth to angry citizens who can do anything, because you have labeled them as criminals, when they are innocent people trying to eke out a living,” he said.
Reasons for the raids
However, addressing journalists on Thursday, April 18, the coordinator, Abuja Metropolitan Management Council (AMMC), Umar Shuaibu, said the raid was due to complaints by residents.
Shuaibu said the plot “under reference is zoned as health clinic on the Utako District Landuse Plan, and in line with this plan, the building plan approval granted was for the development of the health clinic.”
He said the authority has repeatedly engaged with the operator of Caramelo and other operators on the need to stop their operations, but all to no avail. He, however, gave the assurance that his department “will continue to ensure the city remains a safe place for living, working and recreating.”
He said: “In response to security reports and complaints from the residents of area adjoining the location of Caramelo Night Club on Plot 630 Cadastral zone B05 along T.O.S Benson Street within Utako District, the relevant authority deployed its officers to carry out surveillance in order to validate the complaints.
“The outcome of the surveillance revealed that the complaints are genuine and real. Please note that the substance of these complaints include, noise nuisance from loud party music, nude/strip dancing club activities intractable traffic challenge, resulting from uncontrolled patronage to the commercial nightclub within the residential precinct.
“Accordingly, the property was developed as a health clinic; however, the use of the building has been changed to a commercial night club (Caramelo Night Club).”
‘Raid, a vendetta’
When this reporter visited the Caramelo Lounge and Suites, suited directly opposite the Nigerian Red Cross headquarters and beside Top Rank Hotels in Utako, he observed that the perimeter fence of the hotel had been destroyed.
Plywood, tarpaulin and metal objects were used to erect an improvised fence, while the hotel’s security were on ground to ward off prying eyes.
Apart from the vandalised fence, there was nothing to suggest that the hotel was raided, as customers thronged the premises when this reporter visited on Wednesday afternoon.
Upon inquiry, this reporter was told that the general manager of the hotel, who was introduced simply as Mr James, was running around to “settle” with FCTA authorities.
When this reporter stated the purpose for his visit to the hotel, workers vehemently refused to comment on the raid by FCTA, saying that they lacked the authority to speak on official capacity, no matter the good intention of this reporter.
However, one of the workers, who asked not to be named in print for obvious reasons, alleged that the raid on the facility was more of a vendetta than for public good, as they have been in operation for long without the FCTA raiding the premises.
“All I can tell you is that the raid is beyond what you read in the media. It is more like a personal vendetta as the owner has issues with someone big in the FCTA. We have been operating for a long time now, so why is FCTA only realizing that we are running a nightclub? The raid on other nightclubs is just a cover up, Caramelo was the main target,” the hotel staff said.
Speaking on reasons for the raids, the Public Relations Officer of the Social Development Secretariat of the FCTA, Sunday Shaka, said different reasons are usually considered before raiding a club. He said some of the clubs raided are located in residential areas while others are hangouts for prostitutes and consumers of hard drugs, even as he said provocative dressing forms one of the reasons for arrests.
He said: “The enforcement team consists of other agencies under the FCTA who are saddled with different responsibilities. These agencies know areas that are strictly residential areas. Like Caramelo night club is located in a residential area. A clubbing activity should not be in such an area.
“So, first and foremost, they already breached the FCT Code. We are working in line with complaints and petitions from people who live around those areas where clubbing takes place. That is one criterion we used in raiding some of these places.
“Some of them dress provocatively, that is half nude. Some of these ladies do not have anything that is covering them. We have graduated to such western life where pornography kind of behaviour will be seen to be roaming the streets of the FCT. That is not allowed because people that are dressed like that attract people from the underworld to begin to invade such environments.
“Such areas are open to attack. So, when people complain about getting attacked in such areas, such place is raided. Another criterion that leads to the raiding of some areas is illegal consumption and intake of hard drugs. The ladies smoke indiscriminately, they smoke Indian hemp, they abuse alcohol and drugs. And while at this, they attract people of the opposite sex to flock around such areas. And in the process, they engage in illegal consumption of drugs and abuse substances which affect innocent residents going about their normal businesses.”
On the legality or otherwise of night clubs, Shaka said night clubs are not illegal in the FCT, but that their locations forms the focal point. He also denied the allegations of sexual molestation of the arrested women by the law enforcement officials.
“Clubbing is not illegal in Abuja because there are designated areas where clubbing activities are supposed to take place. We have more than 800 clubs or so within the FCT and so we are just talking about less than 10 facilities that have been raided. Those places that have legal paper and genuine permits to operate as clubs are not being raided.
“The Social Development Secretariat and the FCTA is a responsible administration that looks into the welfare of the residents of the FCT. That somebody is compromising the law does not give advantage to an enforcement agent to begin to abuse them.
“This accusation is already being investigated. Our team is well trained and they have been warned against such an act. They are all aware that if any of them is caught to have abused these persons, such a person will be dismissed and persecuted.”
In a press statement issued on Friday, May 3, by the spokesman of FCT police command, ASP Danjuma Tanimu, the command pledged to mete out stiff penalties on any officer found guilty of the alleged harassment and molestation of women at the Caramelo night club. According to the statement, a high powered team has been constituted to investigate the veracity of the allegations.
He gave the assurance of the police’s ‘zero tolerance for unprofessional disregard to human rights,’ adding that “as a responsible corporate citizen, the command views the allegations seriously.”
Tanimu said investigations were already on in the allegations of rape, severe beating, extortion and maltreatment of some of the women arrested and confined at the Utako Police Division from April 26 to April 29, and that invitations had been sent out to relevant individuals that would assist in uncovering the truth.