Power, sexual abuse and the (im)possibility of justice

Earlier this year, Yahya Jammeh, the former Gambian president who ruled the country for twenty-two years as a dictator, was accused of carrying out a series of rapes and sexual assaults while in office. The accusations were made by three women, including a former Gambian beauty queen, Fatou Jallow, who said the ex-president injected her in the arm before raping her, and a fourth woman, who said she came within a whisker of being assaulted by the ex-president.

Miss Jallow’s and the other women’s accusations were part of a wider climate of widespread abuses which characterised the twenty-two years that Jammeh was in power and during which the country witnessed forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detentions.

Jammeh’s sexual predation is part of a pattern of power abuse across the world in which many leaders are implicated, including a lot of moral authorities such as religious leaders and others in different positions of power. It is part of the various turpitudes of modern society, no doubt, but what makes rape and other forms of sexual assault particularly acute and of much sociological interest is how it illustrates certain dimensions of power relations between the sexes and between a category of people with less social power and those with greater social power—those in position of authority.

In this arrangement, sex, alongside other forms of unsolicited advances, is often wielded as an instrument of control, exploitation and violence. This is particularly so in the relationship between people wielding political and religious power and their subjects or followers, and between teachers and learners. Like Jammeh, many religious leaders have been accused of using their power and position to inflict sexual violence on the people in their care, the people over whom they have some control.

In Nigeria, around the time that Jammeh’s story of sexual assault and rape came to the open, a popular Nigerian photographer and wife of Timi Dakolo (a well-known Nigerian pop-star), Busola Dakolo, granted a televised interview in which she said she had been raped twice by her pastor when she was a teenager.

The pastor in question was the sleek Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo of Commonwealth of Zion Assembly, one of Nigeria’s Pentecostal megachurches with branches across five cities and a distinctly ‘prosperity’ vision that is reflected in the pastor’s flashy lifestyle. It was not the first time Pastor Fatoyinbo, whose ostentatious lifestyle and suavity had earned him the sobriquet ‘Gucci Pastor,’ had been embroiled in controversy, including accusations of extra-marital affairs and membership of a secret cult.

In 2013, he was at the centre of a salacious story involving Ese Walter, a radio personality and blogger, who said he had seduced her into having an affair with him.

Following Busola Dakolo’s accusation, a second woman, who did not reveal her face while being interviewed, came forward and also alleged that the Pastor had raped her while she was babysitting his children. Stories of rape and sexual exploitation by pastors soon began to circulate on social media, sparking another round of #MeToo movement, a movement that had begun in February and tagged #ArewaMeToo after Khadijah Adamu, a 24-year-old pharmacist in Kano, narrated on Twitter how she had endured horrific abuses at the hands of her ex-boyfriend and almost died in the process.

Fakhriyyah Hashim, an entrepreneur and development worker who had been moved by the story, had created the hastag #ArewaMeToo and it had instantly caught on and had encouraged many women who had been abused to come out and speak up about their sufferings.

Then stories of sexual abuse by University lecturers took the centre stage just as media excitement about the Fatoyinbo affair began to cool down. It began—or, shall we say, resurrected—with the release of a BBC investigative report which documents instances of sexual harassment of female students by professors at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, and Legon, Ghana.

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Resurrected because the BBC report followed hard on the heels of a major scandal involving a professor at Obafemi Awolowo University and a female student. The case was a cause célèbre and the professor, who is now cooling his heels in prison, was made an objective lesson while the incident helped in further breaking the traditional silence that had always surrounded such matters. Professor Akindele’s misadventure, and now the BBC Sex-for-Grade documentary, had caused quite a stir in the ivory tower and most universities in Nigeria and elsewhere have been forced to adopt different proactive measures to keep a tight rein on sexual harassment.

People had been roused to fever pitch—especially on social media—by the drama of the BBC report, and while there has been a predictable backlash from those who wanted proof—in the cases involving Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo and other clerics—there is little doubt now that sexual offenders are more likely to be held to account than they had ever been made to do in the past; the silence around sexual abuse is giving way to debates among the moral majority and many culprits are being shamed publicly.

It is, however, confounding that anyone would side with sex offenders and blame the victims. Unfortunately, that has been the case, especially since Mrs Dakolo chose to tell the world what she suffered in the hands of a Man of God. In a recent article in The New York Times, written by Julie Turkewitz, two interview respondents are quoted as saying, in response to Busola Dakolo’s allegations, “He [Pastor Fatoyinbo] didn’t do it” and that “The lady [Busola Dakolo] is a liar.”

In seeking to disprove and discredit Mrs Dakolo and other victims of sexual violence, many in the Naija commentariat have been shifting the blame to victims, a strategy that recurs with predictable regularity in a patriarchal landscape like as ours, and rather than admit that the will to dominate and control is at the root of many cases of sexual assault, these enablers of patriarchal violence are quick to point at how the dressing and appearances of victims are to blame.

Things get more shocking when such blames come from official quarters, such as the recent defence by a government official of police raid on nightclubs in Abuja in which the women arrested were raped and sexually assaulted by the police. Like the police and many other Naija commentaries who justified their action and views based on the ‘provocative’ dressing of the women—among other misogynistic reasons—the said government official had, to add insult to injury, denied that the women were assaulted and raped and, using her office as Acting Secretary to the FCT Social Development Secretariat (SDS), ordered the arrest of more women, including ‘nursing mothers,’ many of whom ‘were raped, assaulted, kidnapped and unlawfully detained in filthy conditions.’ Hajiya Safiya Umar, the government official, does not see the irony in arresting fellow women in the name of a prudish interpretation of morality while hiding behind the Abuja Environmental Protection Board to pursue an agenda that is anything but moral.

At the core of most stories of sexual abuse is power: power to control, power to dominate, power, in short, to conquer. Power, in the classical Weberian definition of the term, is about ‘the possibility of imposing one’s will upon the behaviour of other persons,’ and when sex is involved in that possibility, the outcome—for the party with less social power—is violence. This is particularly the case where power is exercised by 1) political actors, 2) moral authorities such as pastors and other types of religious leaders, and 3) instructors/establishment leaders in institutions such as schools and other formal structures.

Despotic leaders like Yahya Jammeh, with their tight control of instruments of coercion, often prey on the vulnerable in their domain—especially young women. Using a series of subterfuge and enticements, many young Gambian women were entrapped and sexually abused by Jammeh.

According to Human Rights Watch which interviewed some of these women, the women alleged that the former president “forced or coerced young women into having sex with him. Some were put on the state payroll and worked at State House as so-called ‘protocol girls.’” The girls were given cash and gifts and promised scholarships and other privileges.

This is a tactic that is often employed by lecherous despots, and while their illicit sexual activities may not include rape, it is often the case that they routinely involve gross abuse of power and use of public funds and state institutions.

.A case in point, with regard to Nigeria, is a recent claim that Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, “basically created an entire ministry–the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development–which had never existed before, for his mistress, Sadiya Umar Farouq, who also brazenly stole and resold food donated to internally displaced.

To my knowledge, this story has not been refuted by the presidency, and if we place it against many other similar stories of sex and power across time and space, Muhammadu Buhari should be regarded as one of those political leaders that are totally without moral scruples.

Unlike political leaders, religious leaders are better suited to the designation of moral authorities because of their position as a source of guidance. However, as is frequently the case where sex is involved, many of them oftentimes prove to be morally reprehensible in conduct.

As we have seen in the several stories of sexual harassment by religious authorities, the crux of the matter is about the abuse of professional powers and position while the tactic often includes grooming the victim carefully and methodically before the actual incident of abuse. This was the situation that played out between Busola Dakolo and Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo; it was about power relation—an imbalance of power between a teenage congregant and a Pastor who is regarded as a ‘living symbol of God (and who) possesses all the attendant powers related to representing the power and authority of God.’ In such a situation, the hapless congregant becomes an easy prey.

With instructors in schools and other institutions of learning, the scenario is somewhat similar to what obtains in the relationship between clerics and their sexually abused members. The BBC Sex-for-Grade video is a cringe-worthy spectacle which throws into sharp relief a problem that has reached an epidemic proportion in higher institutions across West Africa.

But sexual harassment—especially of undergraduate female students—by University lecturers, as bad as it is, is only symptomatic of a wider malaise in the educational sector, especially in Nigeria. There are other problems, most of them linked to other dysfunctions within the Nigerian society at large.

However, as far as the Universities are concerned, it is fair to aver that the problem of sexual abuse, which is our preoccupation in this article, can also be explained in terms of power relations: in terms of the imbalance of power between female students and their male lecturers.

In this arrangement, we know who has more power and who can act from a position of power. Chinua Achebe once observed that ‘the Nigerian intellectual is not committed to the intellect but to two things: status and stomach. And if there’s any danger that he might suffer official displeasure or lose his job, he would prefer to turn a blind eye to what is happening around him.’

We now know that many of these intellectuals are also committed to licentious and other objectionable immoral behaviours. One commonplace argument that is often advanced by certain of our moral purists and apologists for sexual harassment is that victims are often to blame because of their ‘provocative’ dressing and other ‘untenable conducts’ (including the rather bizarre accusation that female students are the ones harassing their lecturers!).

Strait-laced hypocrites and lacking a capacity for understanding and appreciating human freedom and rights, their reasoning is clouded by a patriarchal mindset that views the world only through macho lenses. They are the advocates of strict dress code on campus, and like Hajiya Safiya Umar, they have no qualms about punishing victims of sexual abuse rather than their abusers.

It is not many times that victims of sexual abuse get redress or justice. This is especially true where their abuser has more social power than them. There are countless examples that can be cited to buttress this claim, but we will bring this article to a close with just a passing reference to what has recently become of the Busola Dakolo versus Biodun Fatoyinbo story.

After making her story public, Mrs Dakolo had approached the courts to seek justice. Last week, a judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Bwari Division, Oathman Musa, had dismissed the rape allegation against Pastor Fatoyinbo on the grounds that it was ‘statute-barred because it happened decades ago.’

Although Mrs Dakolo’s lawyer has vowed to appeal the judgement, it is not exactly clear if justice would be served. What is clear, however, is that people with more social power (whether they be politicians, lecturers or clerics) will continue to exploit others with less social power through sexual abuse and other forms of violence as long as justice is subordinated to technicalities of the law or narrow-minded attitude to sexual freedom remains the norm in society.

Dr. Abayomi Ogunsanya, a freelance journalist and scholar, writes from Dublin, Republic of Ireland.

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