Law News
Lingering ripples over anti-rape legislation

The last Senate presided over by Senator David Mark, arguably etched its name in the Guinness Book of Records  when on the last day of its sitting and within a space of ten minutes, it passed 46 bills into law. Nigerians who were left in a quandary as to how such number of bills could be passed into law in a legislative sitting that lasted only a few minutes, were soon proved right when the provisions of the bills began to unfold.

RapeOf all the 46 bills, the one that has attracted the most reactions is unarguably the Sexual Offences Bill 2015 sponsored by Senator Chris Anyanwu who represented Imo East Owerri in the 7th Senate. The passage of the bill may have been influenced by the plethora of sexual abuses in the country.

Rape cases rarely reported

Although rape cases are grossly under-reported, yet the Nigerian media is on daily basis, awash with stories of rape and other forms of sexual defilement. Sometime in January 2014, a private hostel in Ita-Oyila area of Ikenne, Ogun State was shut down over allegations that its proprietor, a 60- year-old man, had canal knowledge of a 12- year-old girl placed under his custody.

The victim who was alleged to be a student of May Flower Secondary School, Ikenne, went to live with the hostel proprietor because her parents could not afford the exorbitant accommodation fee in the school. Vanguard Features, VF, learnt that the supposed custodian had carnal knowledge of the innocent girl on two occasions. Sources claimed that when the girl could no longer cope with the situation, she raised an alarm which attracted neighbours and sympathisers.

The suspect allegedly lured the girl into his bedroom and forcibly had carnal knowledge of her. Unable to contain the trauma, the poor girl was said to have ran to a relative at Ikenne to report the defilement.  In an apparent bid to save the girl from being stigmatised, the matter was swept under the carpet for days until some concerned citizens reported the incident to the Ogun State Police Command which effected the arrest of the man. They also sealed off the private hostel operated by the suspect.

Another bizarre incident occurred on Friday, August 23, 2013 in Niger State. The State Police on that day, arrested a man, Saliu Lawal, 25 for allegedly raping a three-year- old girl who was his next door neighbour. He allegedly lured the kid into the premises of a primary school and raped her.

These two cases are among the numerous incidents of rape that go on in virtually all parts of the country on daily basis. Rape cases are rarely reported due to the extreme social stigma cast on women who have been raped or the fear of being disowned by their families, or subjected to violence.

Flurry of oppositions

The joy that heralded the passage of the anti-rape  bill (as the Sexual Offences Bill is also known), was short-lived when its provisions became public knowledge. The provision that upset most Nigerians is the section dealing with the age of consent to have sex. This provision triggered off a flurry of criticisms against the roposed law.

One of the first to raise objection against the bill was the respected Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, who advised President Muhammadu Buhari not to assent to the bill. He stated that a a nation should not be founded on the sexual exploitation of the fragile and innocent.

“President Buhari – and here I make my first imposition on his presidency – should never place his assent on such a nefarious distraction. Its implications doom the victim to afflictions that churn the stomach even to think of the human toll. Perhaps those legislators think that vaginal fistula is something thought up by arm-chair critics with nothing better to occupy their minds. No matter, let those who profess a genuine concern declare their stand on this,” Soyinka said.

Another rights activist, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, and his wife Funmi, also  raised eyebrows over the age limit set for potential victims by the bill. They alleged that the age limits were inserted wrongly into the original bill. The bill stipulates a life imprisonment for any individual found guilty of rape or sexual intercourse with children under 11 years; 10 years for incest; 10 years for child pornography or a fine of N2 million; and 14 years for sexual abuse, among others.

“But since the obnoxious provision was illegally inserted by the Committee on Judiciary and Legal Matters without approval, the Senate ought to reverse itself and amend the relevant provisions of the Sexual Offences Bill, 2015. Our Law firm has made a request to that effect,” Falana said.

Rape suspects

He declared: ”If the Bill is eventually passed into law with its obnoxious provisions, we shall not hesitate to pray the Federal High Court to strike it down in view of Article 18(3) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (Cap A9) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 which has imposed a duty on the Government of Nigeria to ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and ensure the protection of the rights of the woman and the child, as stipulated in international declarations and conventions.”

The Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team also took a swipe at certain provisions of the bill. The team specifically condemned the sections which sought to make a distinction in the ages of children. Same as the section that sought to give a statutory defence for sexual offences against a child on the grounds of purported deceit by the child, which causes an accused person to believe that the child is above 18, when the act of defiling the child is committed.

The anti-rape bill stipulated a punishment of life imprisonment for any individual found guilty of rape or sexual intercourse with a child and 14 years imprisonment for sexual abuse. Speaking for the Group, the Permanent Secretary and Solicitor General of Lagos State, Mr Lawal Pedro, SAN, said the team identified certain sections it wants amended or cancelled from the bill.

The identified provisions, according to Pedro, are inconsistent with the provisions of Section 1 of the Child Rights Act which provided that “in every action concerning a child, the best interest of the child shall be the primary consideration”. The Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team also requested for the ejection from the bill, the provisions of Section 9 which introduced the offence of gang rape, observing that prosecution under the Section may be problematic.

More criticisms

Parents, teachers, activists, religious and community leaders have also expressed dissatisfaction with the age of consent provision in the Bill.  A social commentator and past President, Nigerian Bar Association NBA, Ikeja Branch Mr. Monday Onyekachi Ubani, questioned the passage of the bill and called on Mr President to examine it properly before signing it into law.

According to Ubani, the Bill if signed by Mr President will defy the international standard code of law which puts the sexual consent age at 18.  ‘’Are you sure such a Bill was passed by the Senate? I doubt it   because it will go against international standard code which puts the age of consent at 18.But if Nigeria should decide to lower it to 11, I wonder what we are aiming at?” he said.

Corroborating Ubani’s view,  the helmsman of Humanity Foundation for Peace and Development, Mr Adenigba Henry said the Bill failed to examine certain factors about child development.

He argued that the health status and other factors were not put into consideration before the age of consent was arrived at. ‘’I think Nigeria is just stepping into a democratic development and we expect a more concrete polity to be put in place to give us exactly what we need. The Bill shows how primitive the government is. If the sexual age is pegged at 11, are they saying a child should be married out at such age?

Every child has the right to survival, development, protection and participation. When they were promulgating that law, did they invite children to participate in such discussion? Was a survey or research carried out to give them (the children) a voice before passing the law?’’ he queried.

Henry argued that children should have been consulted before the passage of the Bill to know what exactly they want as regards sexuality. He noted that it is wrong to push this kind of law down people’s throat. ‘’If they only take a look at the Northern states and feel a child should be married out at the age of 11, what happens to those in the South West and South East parts of the country.

This should be determined by many factors-  the structure, morphology, stature and experience. Mostly in the North, children are married out at a tender age when the body morphology cannot cope and this affects the state of health of such children. Are they putting their health into consideration or they are being forced or coerced?’’

Under-aged marriages

The distinguishing aspect of the age of consent laws is that the person below the minimum age is regarded as the victim, and their sex partner as the offender. In the Northern parts of Nigeria, children are usually married out at a tender age. Not much is known about why some elderly men prefer to marry children but such decisions are always frowned at in Nigeria.

A classical case played out about five years ago, when a senator and former governor of Zamfara State, Nigeria, Ahmed Sani Yerima got married to a 14-year-old Egyptian girl. The controversy generated by the marriage prompted officials of the National Agency for Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and other Related Matters, NAPTIP, to wade into the mater. The Yerima case is one among several cases of under- aged children being given out in marriage to persons who could be their grandpas.

Sponsor of bill justifies its passage

Justifying the Bill, its sponsor,   Mrs  Chris Anyanwu, stated that when implemented, it would mitigate the sufferings of parents by reducing their fear of what happens to their children in their absence – at schools, in the play grounds, in the neighbourhoods, and in religious spaces. In an open letter to allay the fears of Prof Soyinka, the respected journalist/senator described the Nobel Laureate’s opposition to the Bill as one borne out of misinformation.

“You have been misled by the misinformation circulated by someone who could not read or comprehend a legal draft; someone who did not have the patience to read through a proposal, see what was recommended and what was finally accepted. You were misled by someone who deliberately distorted the content of one of the most profound bills ever passed by the Nigerian legislature, scandalised the proponent and the institution for reasons that you and I may not know,” she said.

Mrs. Anyanwu said by passing the bill, the 7th Senate had kept faith with the people of Nigeria by providing the cover of protection under which Nigerian children can live normal lives of fulfillment without fear. “By your robust advocacy against the bill preventing sexual abuses of children, you foreclose the future of children in this society,” the former Senator said.

In her reaction, the Lagos State Cordinator of Child Protection Network, Ngozi Ekwerike-Okora, said issues relating to the Bill should not be over-flogged. ‘’ I was in a meeting when you sent a text message about the Bill and I shared the text with the house but one of the judges present at the meeting advised we should not over-flog the issue yet because it will not work,’’ she said.

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