SOS: Nigeria’s legal system is still behind in protecting victims of sexual assault

In July 2012, news media widely reported the death by sexual molestation of wealthy businessman, Uroko Onoja. He is reported to have been killed by 5 of his six wives who felt sexually neglected after he showed continued preference for his 6th and youngest wife. The culprits were charged with manslaughter upon arraignment, which is the higher crime of the multiple crimes they were charged with. They were not charged with rape because of the limiting nature of Nigeria’s legal definition of rape as at that time.

A 2018 case between appellant, Maj. Bello Magaji and the Nigerian Army as respondent involving what court ruling documents describe as “the beastly, barbaric and bizarre offence of sodomy.” Four victims, one of whom is a minor at just 17 years, got justice for sodomy and not the rape that they suffered. Victim testimony clearly laid out a case of nonconsensual intercourse under the influence, not to mention the statutory rape of a 17-year-old by someone much older and higher in rank.

Justice, like everything else in the modern world, can only be served on existing structures.

The Nigerian legal system in its definition of rape until the introduction of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP) was not inclusive of the myriad ways sexual violations can occur. It is especially exclusive of the sexual violation of men like Uroko Unoja.

For victims like those in the case of Maj. Magaji, the conversation is mired in Nigeria’s cultural abhorrence of homosexuality, such that even when victims get justice they are forever painted in a cast of shame. 

Muzammil (M, 27), knows this first hand. Sexually assaulted at 13 by a neighbour who was caught in the act and handed over to the police to face the legal repercussion of his crime, he still feels seen as the boy who was ‘sodomised,’ but in his words, that is the least of it.

“It has been 14 years since and to this day my interactions with anyone who is in the know of the case when it happened remains off. It is not just that they look on with pity, it is also this guardedness they interact with. Their body language seems to suggest they are waiting for when I too will be caught molesting other children. Hurt people hurt people after all, I don’t blame them but it takes a toll on my confidence. I find myself wondering if maybe deep down I am a potential molester and just don’t know it yet.”

The perpetrator got off with a fine on a technicality. Sodomy couldn’t be proven because there was no penetration. Being caught pants down with an erection, his victim in the same state and helpless, a competent legal system should be able to indict on charges of statutory rape.

When we speak of the sexual violence of men – which is a conversation that is only just gaining ground, we tend to forget the structural deficiencies that make it hard to get anywhere with finding lasting solutions.

One of the key things the VAPP Act, which is yet to be domesticated by 23 of 36 states in the federation, did was expanding the legal meaning of rape. The new definition emphasised ‘consent’ for one, but more than that, it closed a seemingly innocuous loophole that had time and again excluded male victims from obtaining justice by simply replacing the pronouns ‘she/her’ with ‘person’. 

The VAPP Act still leaves much to be desired in its lack of clearer inclusion of the way – through non-consensual mounting, that men can be molested without their being penetrated.

Perhaps, if we spend more time trying to come up with better ways to protect boys without conflating sexual abuse with consensual intercourse between grown men, we will make better progress. We owe that much to victims like Muzammil.

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