#metoo

The Young Women Leading Nigeria's #MeToo Revolution

The movement has reached Africa's largest country after a prominent pastor was accused of rape.

by Aanu Adeoye
17 July 2019, 10:24am

Women march during a protest against gender-based discrimination raids on women by the Nigerian Police. Photo: KOLA SULAIMON/AFP/Getty Images. 

"Touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm," is a popular biblical verse from Psalm 105:15 that is widely quoted in churches across Nigeria. As with most things in the Bible – and Nigeria – the passage's meaning is subject to personal interpretation. If you're a pastor, the line can be extremely useful when looking for a divine right to shield yourself from facing any punishments for your actions. God's anointed, as you surely are, cannot be questioned. It's a canvas statement that keeps the clergy as some of, if not the, most powerful people in Africa's most populous country.

So when news broke on the 28th of June that Busola Dakolo, a celebrity photographer and wife of popular musician Timi Dakolo, had accused Biodun Fatoyinbo, head pastor of one of Nigeria's largest Pentecostal churches, the Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (Coza), of raping her when she was a teenager, you can understand why most people expected things to turn out the way they always do – uproar on social media, followed by a shrug and life just moving on. Fatoyinbo had already been accused of "abuse and manipulation" six years ago by a former church worker, and beyond the Church promising a "robust reply" that never came, nothing happened.

In her interview, Dakolo claimed he groomed her by giving her books after she joined his then-prayer group, encouraging to participate in church and eventually visiting her at her parents' home. She said the assault happened twice, first at her home and a week later on the bonnet of his Mercedes. The allegations were vivid and graphic, and captured the attention of the nation in a way previous allegations failed to. Fatoyinbo – who has been dubbed the "Gucci Pastor" for his taste in fashion and cars – is one of Nigeria's most popular religious leaders, with a massive social media following. His church is a magnet for young people looking for a more youth-focused church experience.

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Photo courtesy of Jekein Lato-Unah.

Jekein Lato-Unah, a 22-year-old final year law student at the University of Lagos, tells me that she was enraged when she learned of the allegations. She was angered that these weren't the first accusations against Fatoyinbo, and frustrated because the Church in Nigeria has a history of covering up its sins.

"We can't keep letting things like this go on," said Lato-Unah, who works at Stand To End Rape Initiative, an NGO supporting victims of sexual abuse. "Even if in the long run nothing is really achieved, we need to make our stance known publicly that this is not okay."

And so she began organising on Twitter and WhatsApp. In less than 48 hours, Lato-Unah's seemingly quixotic idea had come to life with the help of friends and strangers. Hundreds of people turned up at simultaneous protests at two branches of the pastor's church in Abuja and Lagos in what felt like a watershed moment. Churches are an important part of Nigeria's social fabric, and there has simply never been protests of this scale against any church.

The protests made local and international news, and in a surprising turn of events, Fatoyinbo announced he was taking a leave of absence from the church. He still denies the allegations and says he is "absolutely innocent".

Lato-Unah is not alone. Young women in Nigeria are spearheading various initiatives to combat what they say is a scourge of sexual abuse in the country. Through social media, many women and girls, and a rising number of men, are speaking out against historical sexual abuses and the culture of silence that consistently protects the powerful. The numbers back up their claim. According to UNICEF, one in four Nigerian girls are victims of sexual violence by 18.

Nigeria is a paradoxical society. It is a country where sexual relationships are front and centre in music and film and advertisements, but talking about sex is seen as a taboo – a sin almost. At the same time, the population is exploding. It's a country that prioritises silence and being seen as proper and respectful over broaching uncomfortable topics that are important to its growth. But thanks to the internet, young women in the country now dare to speak openly and confront abusers. The global #MeToo movement has, belatedly, reached Africa's largest nation and the dominoes are beginning to fall.

Of all Nigeria's regions, the northern Hausa area arguably provides the harshest environment for women. It is an ultraconservative and mostly Muslim society where religious doctrines are used by male leaders to justify the subjugation of women. Rates of child marriages are sky high, and women and girls have been kidnapped by the terror group Boko Haram as pawns in its fight against the Nigerian state.

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Photo courtesy of Jekein Lato-Unah.

Fakhrriyyah Hashim, 26, is trying to lift the veil of silence in the region through the #ArewaMeToo movement that began on Twitter earlier this year. "Arewa" is the Hausa word for "north". Hashim coined the hashtag after another woman shared her abusive experience with a former partner, and it gained traction when a powerful aide to a government minister was accused of sexually assaulting minors – allegations he denies. From there, the movement took off and there was a torrent of stories from women with similar experiences.

"In an ultraconservative society like northern Nigeria, the idea of sexual violence was only talked about under wraps," Hashim told me. "It has never been talked about on such a public scale. Of course, there were people who saw it as an attack on northern society and the culture itself. They wanted the conversation to be had more privately. But then people already understood that social media can be a safe space. The hashtag felt like a place to talk about their experiences."

In a country as diverse and split into so many regions as Nigeria, it's no surprise to see different regions tackle shared problems in their own ways to reach the same goals. Beyond naming and shaming abusers on social media, Lato-Unah and Hashim's initiatives have created specific tools for women to use. From providing shelter and mental health support to assigning lawyers to take up these cases and filing reports with the police.

"We let women know that rapists rape, regardless of what you're wearing or doing," Lato-Unah explained. "We try to assure them they're safe and we'll help them to the best of our abilities. We let them know there's a community of women looking to fight for them."

The work of calling out abusers isn't without risks. Maryam Awaisu, Hashim's co-director at #ArewaMeToo, was arrested at her office by men of Nigeria's notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) after the top aide that allegedly assaulted minors filed a defamation petition.

SARS, which has been accused of extrajudicial killings and torture of suspects in their custody, has no jurisdiction over such matters. But that did not deter them from making their way from Abuja to Kaduna, a six-hour round trip to Nigeria's north, to arrest Awaisu. Amnesty International Nigeria led the push for her release, and she was released on the same day. But the episode shows just how skewed Nigeria’s legal system is in favour of the powerful.

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Photo: KOLA SULAIMON/AFP/Getty Images

The global #MeToo movement has sparked a number of court cases. Harvey Weinstein is on trial. South Korea's charismatic pastor Lee Jae-rock was sentenced to 15 years in jail last year for raping eight of his female followers over the years. It’s not perfect, but there is some legal recourse for the aggrieved.

The reality is different here. Nigeria's justice system is slow and does not particularly lend itself towards justice, especially for people without means. The numbers are hard to find but rape convictions are generally low and the punishment hardly fits the crime, activists say.

"At the core of what helps protect gender-based violence is the fact is that the justice system doesn’t really work if you’re not in a powerful position," Hashim said. "A lot of the victims of these abuses are not in elitist circles. When you’re not, the law doesn’t work for you."

Hashim's organisation is trying to lobby legislators and the police to strengthen their response to women who report sexual violence. "It becomes easier for victims to report if there's an effective response," she said. "The more they report and perpetrators are nabbed, the more you will see a reduction in sexual violence, because a broken system allows for anarchy."

Lato-Unah also recognises the need for young women to work in tandem with people in authority, particularly women, but has been left disappointed by the lack of support. "They know it's a crisis," she said of female politicians. "But it doesn’t affect them because they’re secure and whatever they do is for optics.”

With a lack of support from older generations before them and a dysfunctional justice system, Nigeria's young women are taking it upon themselves to speak out for their own generation and those coming behind them.

Ebele Molua, 25, works with secondary school students to educate them about sex and consent through her We Will Not Be Silenced initiative. She says the movement began after realising the culture of abuse festered in schools, and it was important to stop it early.

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Photo: KOLA SULAIMON/AFP/Getty Images

The initiative is starting to bear fruit with girls opening up about their experiences and boys being taught to respect boundaries, Molua said. But there has been pushback from some parents who are reticent about their children learning about sex. "Your child knows about sex, you just don’t know they know," Molua tells these parents.

"How about we help them be safe and make wiser decisions? Some parents have just completely shut it down and that's something that has to be addressed, and we haven't figured out how we're going to do that."

These women have given up a lot of time and personal resources to lead this movement. Hashim turned down a lucrative finance job in Lagos to stay in the north and fight for #ArewaMeToo, while Lato-Unah and Molua are balancing a degree and a job in public relations respectively to inspire women to rid Nigeria of its highest rates of sexual violence.

It's gruelling work, but as Lato-Unah says, "You can’t win every fight. The point is you try.”

@aanuadeoye