Tolu Ogunlesi profiles Busola Dakolo: A picture of bravery (Y!/ Person of the Year 2019 Nominee)

Written by: Tolu Ogunlesi

In 2017, TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year recognition went to “the Silence Breakers” – a diverse array of “voices” (mostly Americans, naturally; and many of them movie stars, from Hollywood) who helped launch the #MeToo movement.

In the age of Social Media, consciousness travels fast. It was inevitable that the shattering of silence would leave no part of the world untouched. In early 2019, Nigeria’s #ArewaMeToo attracted international attention, shining light on the religious and cultural conservatism of Northern Nigeria.

And then came June 2019. Busola Dakolo – photographer, wife, mother, Instagram celebrity – sat down for one of the most gut-wrenching interviews you will ever see, and said that Biodun Fatoyinbo, Pastor of the Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (COZA), raped her twice, when she was a teenage member of his Church, years ago in Ilorin, Kwara State.

It was not the first time Fatoyinbo would be accused by a female ex-member of his Church. While he has never been found guilty or convicted, so far the weight and frequency of the allegations against him have put him in the same category with the Cosbys, Weinsteins, and R-Kellys of this world.

In 2013, a young woman went public with allegations of rape against him. It broke the internet at the time, for a while, and then everything died down. The accuser fell off the radar; the accused grew more successful. There was no investigation, no real attempts to get to the bottom of the story. This is Nigeria, after all.

But 2019 was going to be different. If the allegations of 2013 were a sandstorm, 2019 arrived a fully-formed tsunami.

The accused Pastor had promised a “robust response” to the allegations of 2013 – which never came. In 2019, it was clear that he would have to come with something better.

He threatened a lawsuit. Naturally. But this was not enough to stave off an unprecedented protest march on a Sunday morning at the end of June, outside COZA’s branches in Lagos and Abuja.

In response, the accused announced “a leave of absence from the pulpit.” (It was short-lived, by the way).

Another woman, a former member of the Church, also came forward in an interview to allege she had been raped, and it was reported that there were several other silence-breakers ready to testify as well.

The second half of 2019 has been annus horribilis of sorts for the accused and his Church. COZA’s flagship event, “Seven Days of Glory,” scheduled for July 2019, was cancelled. Attendance dwindled dramatically, at least in the Lagos branch. 2019 was the year in which there was finally some sort of social and reputational ‘price tag’ on association with COZA.

The most compelling evidence of this emerged in December when some of Nigeria’s biggest music stars were compelled to dissociate themselves from the Church. Apparently there had been attempts by persons associated with COZA to deceptively get music stars Davido, Wizkid, and Tiwa Savage to do promotional videos endorsing an upcoming COZA event. The internet multiplied with quips about COZA’s issues with “consent.”

Busola’s brave move had evidently shifted something in the land. Since her interview, the BBC has pulled off a stunning investigative piece into sexual harassment on university campuses in Nigeria and Ghana. I like to think Busola’s bravery provided some inspiration.

But it is necessary to acknowledge something very important: That it cannot have been easy for Busola to have taken the series of decisions that led to the revelations. She was – and still is – in some quarters, the object of victim-shaming and online harassment.

Around the world “silence-breakers” all report similar experiences and feelings: a crippling fear of what might happen to them or their families. Will they be believed? Will they lose future opportunities? Abusers will often threaten them – not just with lawsuits, but with physical hurt as well. (Busola has been the target of police harassment believed to have been engineered by the accused; a lawsuit she filed against him also turned out in his favor).

There is still a long way to go for/in Nigeria, in the quest to smash the conspiracy of sexual abuse and the shell of silence that protects and reinforces it. We must never underestimate the amount of work that lies ahead.

In terms of a credible investigation, it is likely that nothing will ever happen to the accused Pastor. He will continue to try and portray these allegations as attempts to bring down a man of God. (It must also be said that we have not heard the last of this; the years ahead will also likely bring fresh allegations, from more women).

What is not in doubt is that awakening has commenced. There is more, not less, silence-breaking, in our future as a society. And when the story is told, however many the ways in which it will be told, when the credits start rolling Busola Dakolo’s name will appear more than once.

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