Because the Police arrest of women last week in an Abuja night club was horrendous, public expression of revulsion was inevitable. Well-attended street demonstrations in Lagos, Abuja, and other places this past weekend symbolized an outraged society’s unequivocal denunciation of the raid. These represent a crucial public step in what should be sustained campaigns to change the peculiar and perverse Policing of Nigerian women.
What happened? The Nigeria Police worked in unison with the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) to raid a night club last weekend. Seventy women were arrested under two pretexts: that the club was illegal due to its location within a residential area, and that the women were engaged in prostitution, an unlawful enterprise in the federal capital. A useful report described the operation as the FCT Minister’s job-retention application, an elaborate show of force to convince President Buhari that he should not be shuffled out come May 29.
An abuse of power. This case demands that we ask questions about the place of dignity and respect in our regulatory agencies’ operations.
If the club was being operated illegally, how does the AEPB justify arresting customers as the appropriate way to punish the entrepreneur? This is worth asking as a matter of general principle since it is a pattern that recurs in the affairs of similar agencies with mandates to arrest and arraign. When the Ministry of Education’s inspection unit, for example, raids an illegally-operated nursery/primary school, do they arrest pupils and students, and afterwards descend on their homes to march parents into pick-up vans? What is the procedure for a neighbourhood patent medicine store that sells fake drugs to willfully-ignorant residents? How about roadside transactions in pirated intellectual property; do you arrest only the buyer and let the seller be?
Suppose, for argument, that the customers share in the guilt; how did the authorities in the case of these women rationalize the arrest of only the women, as though the club was populated solely by customers of one gender? Are women the class of living things that solely bear the intrinsic causes of this kind of crime and so must be exclusively extracted for treatment? The lopsided prejudice behind this invasion reveals itself here, as the PRO of the Social Development Secretariat of the Federal Capital Territory Administrstion will later confirm.
Essentially, the particular humans arrested in that Police-AEPB raid were targeted because they were women. They did not, however, get the benefit of being treated as humans. Instead, their arrest was justified by engineering generalizations based on what the Police presumed their appearance denoted. It did not matter that such generalizations – that all scantily clad in a club are prostitutes, and that prostitutes attract people from the underworld, etc – are about as factual as “all Policemen are thieves” and “all men are scum”. It was not considered that if they were indeed sex workers and deserved arrest (per the extant law that makes it illegal), their must have been buyers of their services who deserved to be apprehended too. Law enforcement personnel consider themselves “The Law” and whatever they feel it is at any given time stands.
The Police, as agents of the State, have legitimate claim to the ultimate use of coercive force. So they had authority to arrest the women, even under the guise of the above questionable excuses. But it certainly could have come out of this without adding another controversial feather to its scandal-infested cap. They should have handled all 70 women as individual humans, each with her full dignity and rights. They could have treated them as remaining innocent until a competent court hears their defense against the Police’s arguments.
But they did the complete opposite and when rational society rightly became outraged, a high ranking officer thought it wise to gloat on Twitter against those “making noise”. He has had his reward.
Justice demands proportionality. It requires evaluation based on the merit of actions, not merely on perceptions of appearance or predictions of intention. The Police owes itself a dispassionate review of this condemnable fiasco. The Inspector-General must demand a new order that emphasizes treating those with whom the Force comes in contact as, first and above all else, human beings. An approach that prima facie objectifies and vilifies targets and suspects makes the alleged sexual assault of some of the women by officers (in some cases using empty sachet water nylons as protection) believable. As some have pointed out, this Abuja incident is only the latest evidence of a culture around the country.
We should have conversations about the social costs of night clubbing, and the immorality of nude, sweaty congregations. But when enforcement takes the low road of shaming and plunder to reach the high aims of morality and order, we should say a loud and clear “No, don’t bother”. Let this moment signify the beginning of the end. Nigerian Women are human: accord them full dignity.
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