You probably don’t know Sugabelly. I don’t know her either. But it is the twitter handle of a Nigerian lady: @sugabelly, who in the wake of the death of former Governor Abubakar Audu of Kogi State felt the urge to go public with her story. My foregrounding her/story as opposed to his/story, is further affirmation of an earlier submission that Audu’s death is “inconclusive” (The Guardian, Nov 27).
As the rest of Nigeria mourned the death of Abubakar Audu and pondered the implications of an inconclusive electoral process, Sugabelly showed up on social media and started celebrating his death. Her message was that the death of the man was good riddance to bad rubbish. “I feel so amazing”, she wrote. “Like God actually answered my prayers… That’s usually how it is. Powerful people rarely remember the people whose lives they destroy.” She alleged that Audu’s sons once gang-raped her- seven of them, when she was an impressionable 17-year old and that Governor Audu used his position as a big man to rubbish her, slammed her with a $2 million libel suit, denied her from getting justice, with his lawyers insisting that “14 years” is the age of consent under the Penal Code in the FCT, and so there is no case. For eight years, her life, she says, has been a nightmare including contemplations of suicide and spells of manic depression. Her frustration is well articulated in her twitter handle and an extended commentary titled “Surviving Mustapha Audu and His Rape Brigade”.
I have heard people proclaim loudly that a traditional proverb says: “the witch cried last night and the child died in the morning” and they have been wondering whether there was some kind of extra-terrestial, meta-physical animus which led to Audu’s sudden death. Howbeit, Sugabelly’s allegation is that of rape. Her protestation made the rounds for a few days largely uncelebrated, but it caught fire last Friday. For days, rape was the subject of discussion on Nigerian twitter. Opinion was divided with some calling Sugabelly, “a whore” and a badly brought up child but soon, the weight tilted heavily in her favour as the reactions panned out to focus on the menace of rape and the devastating effect on persons, families, the victims and society.
One of the sons of Abubakar Audu was soon fingered as the leader of the rape brigade by both Sugabelly and her staunchest supporter, @Echecrates. What happened subsequently is better experienced. A lady tweeting as Zahra – @oakleafbycg – jumped into the fray to defend him – hers was quite a spirited fight that lasted for hours, defending the integrity of her husband. She probably was defending herself too. Her father-in-law was so close to being Governor and he lost it, only for some twitter activists, and a sugabelly (what a name!, by the way) to start suggesting that her husband has a rape case to answer. She is a good woman, isn’t she? I monitored the conversations, and it is difficult to conclude that anyone was successfully convicted for there were persons who raised questions about sugabelly’s identity, her motives and whether she is not just a spoiler, playing a sponsored political game.
The emergent consensus however focused on the menace of rape in our society. Some male commentators seeking to genderize the discussion also pointed out that they were once raped too, but the pervasive impression was that young girls are more often the victims. I noted that there was very little talk about marital rape, which is ordinarily a major issue in the West, but which will be considered absurd by Africans. There were some suggestions about rapists being put to death in line with the still untested Violence Against Persons Act, but as is the case with twitter, 140-word interventions do not necessarily a honest thinker nor an intellectual make. It creates an illusion though, the illusion that someone whose reasoning is below 140 words is a mega-man of knowledge and insights.
Nonetheless, the matter between sugabelly and the Audu sons deserves a little more probing. I am tempted to commend sugabelly for throwing up the subject, but the real problem with rape in our society lies in the inadequacy of both legal and social responses. Both the law and the society stigmatise rape, and wrong-foot the victim. The relevant sections of the law in Nigeria today more or less ridicule the victim, and usually, the victim is female. The biggest challenge for decades has been this manner in which the law humiliates the female victim: the procedure requires examination by a medical doctor and in open court, proving actual penetration up to the labia majora. That is a tough call for victims and families, and so, many cases end up unreported. Besides, the criminal justice system peopled by phallocentric officials is wont to dismiss any woman reporting rape: in Nigeria, it would be ridiculous indeed for a married woman or a girlfriend to report being raped by her husband or fiancée. From the policeman at the station to the presiding judge, if it gets to that stage, the case may die a natural death in the vortex of misogyny.
Culture is a major barrier: the search for virgins at the bridal chamber by African families is a long dead custom, but few families can stand the stigma of taking as wife, a woman who has been raped, and whose indignity has been broadcast. Female victims are therefore reluctant to seek legal redress, first because of social stigma, and that is why there are very few convictions despite the regular incidence of rape. Any woman that is labeled a rape victim stands the risk of not getting a husband: families of prospective suitors will latch on to that evidence as if it a mark of leprosy, and urge their sons to steer clear, creating for the woman’s family an undeserved dilemma. Despite the wave of modernity in our land, tradition remains resilient and marriage, going to a man’s house, is still, quite sadly, considered a woman’s ultimate achievement.
This is probably why, in due course, the accused also showed up in the conversation releasing e-mail exchanges between him and Sugabelly, and going as far as revealing her true identity and painting her as a “whore,” a liar and an opportunist. Parents, keep an eye on your sons and daughters! The family, the most important social unit, has a role to play. Both male and female children should be brought up to respect ethical values and the rights of other human beings to dignity. The inferiorization of the female gender often begins in the home, and there are too many cultural paradigms sustaining an objectionable model of parenting, which must change. Too many parents, too busy trying to make survival possible, have abdicated responsibility and it is society that is hurt as a result.
The solution also lies in legal reform: the laws on rape must become more progressive and enlightened. The statutes have been in urgent need of review for long; they must provide the necessary deterrence and not ridicule the victim; even the Violence Against Persons Act (2015) does not fully correct the mischief in the Criminal and Penal Codes.
There is also a trend now that must be addressed, namely the objectification of women for profit or other purposes. The most recent illustration I find is the battle being waged on twitter and instagram by @blossomnnodim, who has since changed to @blossomozurumba (good luck to the man who is responsible for this blossoming), as she takes on a TBWA power charger advert, which instead of promoting the subject focuses on a woman’s biological gifts. Blossom objects to this but she has since been accused of witch-hunting and idleness. Her critics miss the point. The objectification of women in popular culture erodes the dignity of women. But the worse of it all, is that women themselves promote this negative effect. Nigeria has been lucky in locking into global trends on all fronts, but in a global village, we have not been successful in retaining local standards as a bulwark against negative, imperial cultural influences.
Social media, for example, is dominated by images of sexual libertinism; even our young ladies who are now role models on the basis of concrete accomplishments help to foster this image. I am making this point delicately; my concern is that we have too many Nigerian female role models who are busy trying to be like Amber Rose, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Rita Ora, Miles Cyrus, Blac Chyna – if you know what I mean, all those foreign cultural icons whose lifestyles commodify women. Our own equivalents are all over social media: pretty girls who are perpetually showing cleavages, wearing body tights that accentuate curves, some even boast that they won’t wear bras and pants and that illicit sex is cool: that is how this self-denigration has grown all the way down, creating a sexual tension even among the uneducated wannabes. I am not victimizing the victim, knowing fully well that there is that human rights border of freedom of choice and expression; still, new cultural realities should command certain limits.
Sugabelly may not get the sugar of contentment that she seeks, but let her be consoled that she has ignited a debate that may shed more light on the dilemma of rape, and/or sex with a minor (Penal Code or not), and the sad manner in which our society continues to produce children and adults who behave badly. Let us also hope that sooner or later, the sleeping Abubakar Audu will be allowed to lie, by his sons and the girl they allegedly raped. It is not Audu that is on trial, it is his sons: sons of big men who go overboard with their life of privilege, and of course, Sugabelly- the overtly impressionable young girl- who are all still alive to be called to account, if not in regular court, but now, in the court of public opinion.