Last week, Nigerian women as a collective mourned the death of Oluwatoyin Salau. Death is the tamest way to describe the life she had to endure and the evil that preceded her last days. Salau first gained prominence through her work as a front line activist during the Black Lives Matter protests in Tallahassee, Florida in response to the police shooting of Tony McDade, a transman who lived in the city. In the videos that remain as her legacy, Salau is impassioned and articulate, explaining in detail how her activism is fuelled her personal experience with racism and colourism, misogyny and violence against women. She declares she will die for her skin and demands that the institutional racism that targets black men be dismantled. It is such cruelty that mere weeks later, Salau would be brutally murdered by one of the men she put her life on the line to protect.
Anyways I was molested in Tallahassee, Florida by a black man this morning at 5:30 on Richview and Park Ave. The man offered to give me a ride to find someplace to sleep and recollect my belongings from a church I refuged to a couple days back to escape unjust living conditions.
— Oluwatoyin (@virgingrltoyin) June 6, 2020
Her last personal statements, tweets on her personal account clearly detail sexual assault from a man who offered to help her and provide her shelter. Salau is short sighted and didnt have her glasses, her disability making her less able to protect herself in a skirmish and more vulnerable to assault. She details that she called the police after her assault, but they don’t move to arrest a victim, even though she provides relevant information about her assailant’s home and vehicle. More importantly, no one moves to provide her any sort of care, not a test to confirm sexual assault, safe accommodation for a couple of days while her claims are investigated.
When she goes missing, it is her friends that alert the police, and millions of women, all strangers to Salau but uncomfortably familiar with her experience that come forward to advocate for her, to offer prayers and pressure the police to act. When she is eventually found two weeks after her disappearance, she is mourned globally by women who immortalize her in her, create poems in her honour and share their stories so that her death becomes more than another police report. They also hold the government accountable, forcing them to accelerate their investigations and apprehend her killer, who has now confessed. Salau deserved better, and she didn’t because a system of police negligence, male entitlement, an enabling society and incompetence failed her.
Mere days after Salau’s death was announced, women in Nigeria were forced to reckon with a situation in their own backyard. Ms. Seyitan Babalola had come forward a few weeks before to speak on a rape she had allegedly endured at the hands of a high profile Nigerian celebrity, her claims corroborated by one of the entertainer’s former employees. Ms. Babalola’s story was one of several public reckonings for male Nigerian celebrities, many of whom had misused their influence to behave inappropriately towards women and coerce them into sexual acts. The responses from these celebrities ranged from silence, to apologies, to apathy. The more brazen among them resort to threats of legal retribution and retributive action. It didn’t matter, the women had come forward and with each person, the universality of assault across all social and cultural barriers was reinforced. As conversations gained momentum online and offline, it seemed we were making progress. Then we received reports that after a public announcement from the celebrity’s press team that Ms. Babalola had gone missing.
There were so many parallels between Ms Salau and Ms Babalola’s story that it is not suprisingly her disappearance spurred almost fanatic action. After the news was made public by journalist and activist Kiki Mordi, it quickly came to light that Ms. Babalola had been ‘arrested’ by the Nigerian police on claims of defamation at the request of her alleged assailant’s team. In Nigeria, false accusations of rape are a civil matter and are dealt with in civil courts. There are no grounds for criminal arrest and detainment.
Once it was made clear that this was a gross misuse of law enforcement to intimidate a potential victim, a bail fund of 1.6 million Naira was raised in 18 hours and the challenge was put forward, forcing the Nigerian police to ‘release’ Ms. Babalola. In the full glare of a vigilant public, Ms. Babalola was kidnapped a second time, this time by the celebrity’s manager. She was forced to delete her online presence on Twitter and coerced to release a statement on Twitter that recanted her earlier claims. Further humiliation was meted on her when her account was used to promote the celebrity’s new music. Persistent hounding ensured she was release unharmed and with public loyalties turned against him, a campaign to strip the celebrities of his privileges began.
This story is still unfolding, unlike Salau who was not given a chance for justice and restitution. And it has taken the collective effort of thousands of women united by the singular experience of misogyny manifesting in a myriad of ways to force the progress we have made so far. This situation also exposes the complex web corruption, entitlement and misuse of power that enables misogyny, the silencing of women and the rewarding of men for impunity and violence.
The Nigerian police is a disgrace, and its role in the forced abduction and detainment of Ms. Babalola, a complete perversion of its values of equitable justice for every citizen. Decades of corruption have left law enforcement in Nigeria porous and vindictive, answerable only to wealth and status. Victims of crime and assault have been so disenfranchised by law enforcement that they would much rather lay their cases on social media than on a police counter. When Uwa, a student of the University of Benin was brutally raped and murdered in her church, her parents were asked to pay a bribe to have her case treated with any urgency. When he refused, he was ridiculed and sent away. His experience mirrors the horrifying reality for Nigerians, constantly retraumatized by the Nigerian police after facing injustice.
But we are also complicit. We encourage police brutality when we use them as pawns to exact our petty revenge on our neighbours. We contribute when we refuse to advocate for police reform and a better standard of living for them, when we reward our government officials with second terms in exchange for what can only be described while they line their pockets with our common wealth. We contribute when we discredit women who come forward to speak of their abuse, when we continue to engage with and protect abusers. We model a world where there is no accountability, in our churches, our work places, our schools and our homes.
Toyin Salau was failed across many levels. Her abuse started in her home, and her Nigerian parents aided her abusers and silenced her. They made their home a place of horror for her and protected her abusers even when it caused a rift between them. She passed because all the systems that were supposed to protect her failed her. We did better for Seyitan Babalola, but there is still a huge fight ahead, to abolish the kind of culture that allowed her be victimized and retraumatized in the first place. To create a more equitable world for women, we must all be willing to give up privilege. We must respect that wealth and social status does not preclude us from obeying the law, that we cannot simply silence people we dislike. We must dissociate from people who behave in ways that are contradict the country we are trying desperately to build, we must use all the tools at our disposal to hold them accountable, including public shaming and denying them access to the wealth that affords them influence.
It is achievable, this goal we need to set for ourselves. We have models where it has worked, and we know in what ways we must adapt the system to anticipate our reality. But it is doable and we must do it. Too many lives rely on our resolve.