Bayo Olupohunda

In Nigeria, we all seem to suffer collective amnesia. We are a country that sweeps under the carpet sensitive national issues that should dominate national discourse and provoke outrage in every one of us. We delight in championing the cause of others while we treat ours as unimportant. Even when our collective loss brings us together as a people, it is often brief as we soon move on to other things.

For long, the country has suffered many tragic chapters. These moments of national tragedies which have often presented the opportunities to teach and learn the lessons of unity have been lost on the altar of politics. Since Independence, we have experienced many tragic experiences that have threatened our national co-existence. At independence, a series of avoidable political feuds culminated in the murder of  countess Igbo indigenes in northern Nigeria. A few years later, the country spiralled into a civil war that led to millions of death. Several years since our country fought the civil war and other ethnic and religious violence that have threatened our nationhood, we have refused to learn the lessons of history. Sadly too, there is a deliberate and conscious effort being made to erase the memories of our past.

It appears our leaders do not want the future generation to know about those important epochs that shaped our history and define us as a people.  But our failure to learn the lessons of our historical past has come back to haunt us because we continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.  Philosopher and essayist, George Santayana, once wrote that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Now, because our leaders have failed to address the crisis nationhood that has been a perpetual feature of our national life, it has become a recurring decimal. As a result, we are still a nation divided along ethnic, religious and primordial lines.

Injustice pervades the land.

When police officers commit extrajudicial killings, we complain for a while, and the police authorities will engage in endless investigations that lead to nowhere and we move until another citizen is shot. There have been many acts of injustice in this country. In Jos since 1999, ethnic clashes between the indigenous Berom and Fulani settlers have led to thousands of death, yet no one has been brought to book. In recent times, Nigerians have been treated to the gory tales of violence, killing and bloodshed by Fulani herdsmen who continue to murder innocent people across the country. In many rural communities today, life is no longer safe as fratricidal conflicts continue to take lives with impunity.

Yet, in all of the killings, no one has been prosecuted. In recent years too, many international reports have documented how our security forces have committed acts of violence against the Nigerian people. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have continued to highlight the acts of violence committed by the police and the army as well as paramilitary forces. For example, recently, Amnesty International released a report that documented how police officers randomly commit rape in police stations in the country. The practice is known as sex-for-bail. Another recent report revealed horrendous acts of violence by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. While the police have continued to deny, these are obvious truths known to many Nigerians who have been victims of brutality our police are known for. The usual response by the government is to deny that this violence ever took place. Nigerians know the acts of injustice committed in places like Odi and Zaki Biam. These and other state-sponsored massacres shocked the nation.

I have laid a long background for this piece to underscore why the alleged sex abuse and exploitation of women and girls at the Internally Displaced Persons’ camps said to have been perpetrated by our security agents and camp officials must not become another statistic in the long line of injustice that has seared our conscience as a nation. Human Rights Watch recently released a report of alleged sex abuse in the IDP camps. The women and girls are the victims of Boko Haram terror war in the North-East. The camps are spread across all the North-East states ravaged by Boko Haram. To make matters worse, the HRW also reported that as a result of the sexual abuse, the victims have been infected with the deadly HIV/AIDS virus.

The spread is said to be endemic in many IDP camps. Human Rights Watch states in its report, “Government officials and other authorities in Nigeria have raped and sexually exploited women and girls displaced by the conflict with Boko Haram. The government is not doing enough to protect displaced women and girls and ensure that they have access to basic rights and services or to sanction the abusers, who include camp leaders, vigilante groups, policemen, and soldiers.

Women and girls abused by members of the security forces and vigilante groups – civilian self-defence groups working with government forces in the fight against Boko Haram – told Human Rights Watch they felt powerless and feared retaliation if they reported the abuse. A 17-year-old girl said that just over a year after she fled the frequent Boko Haram attacks in Dikwa, a town 56 miles west of Maiduguri, a policeman approached her for “friendship” in the camp, and then he raped her.

The allegation is unfortunate and also a reflection of how low we have sunk as a nation when the security forces that are meant to protect the victims of Boko Haram have turned around to be their abusers. But it is not surprising and new, Nigerian security forces have been routinely accused of sexual violence.

It is gladdening though that President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered an investigation into the disturbing allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in the IDP camps. In the wake of the report, the President ordered the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, to constitute an investigative panel.

It is also a welcome development that the IGP has set up a panel to look into the allegations. But I fear that this exercise may lead to nowhere given the time lapse and lack of political will to punish offenders in the past. One is not even sure the media attention to the enquiry was necessary. I also suspect that by the time the panel starts sitting, useful evidence would have been destroyed.

Nonetheless, there are questions begging for answers. Why did the government not begin a clandestine investigation into the allegations of sex abuse first? Why did Human Rights Watch not submit its report in private and secure government’s understanding to begin a secret investigation? The idea should have been to surprise the perpetrators and catch them in the act. Now, how are we sure the abusers will not attempt to intimidate, harm and even kill their victims to prevent them from giving evidence? Will they stand by and watch the victims point them out as the abusers to the investigative panel? I think the process from publicly announcing the report by HRW and the constituting of the panel was faulty. I hope important evidence would not have been destroyed before the investigation commences. But we must commend the government for constituting the panel. The Boko Haram victims must not be allowed to suffer twice.

Twitter: @bayoolupohunda

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