Nigeria: Ortom and the Wife Beater

Last Sunday, Mrs Ifeyinwa Angbo revealed her battered and bruised face in a Twitter video post. The clip, which also trended on WhatsApp, alleged assault by her husband, Pius Agbo, who works with Channels television. In a swift reaction, the management of Channels released a statement condemning domestic violence and promising to investigate the matter. Barely 24 hours later, however, the story changed when Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State, with members of his Executive Council, intervened by ‘reconciling’ the couple.

Rationalising why he dabbled into the matter, the governor said the Angbos have been married for only six years and they have four kids. “Angbo himself has distinguished himself in journalism and the wife is a medical doctor with Benue State Government at the Teaching Hospital. We felt for a young couple of six years, they must be encouraged to remain married, instead of allowing things to degenerate between them. Some of us are not also innocent,” said Ortom who recalled his own marital experience. “As a young couple, we underwent some of these challenges in our marriage life and that is why when I heard (about) the unfortunate incident, I called the two of them with some of my cabinet members to assist me so that we can mediate and thank God we have done the mediation as older personalities who are more experienced in marriage like myself.”

Also speaking with reporters, Angbo said he had apologised to his wife over the assault, with a promise to mend his ways. “We’ve been in a meeting with the Governor and his cabinet members in the last four hours. They have advised us and spoken to me. I see their wise counsel. Under no circumstances should I have hit my wife. I’m very apologetic for the action and the hurt I brought upon her,” said the repentant husband who added: “I have apologised to her on my knees and I appeal to everybody that this has insulted their sensibility. It was not a deliberate act and I’ve committed to also work on our home to avoid re-occurrence of any domestic issue.”

With the Governor behind the couple as they spoke with the media, Mrs Angbo said she had accepted the apology offered by her husband. “First of all, I sincerely want to thank the Governor of the State, he has really showed that he is a father amidst his busy schedule.” Turning to Ortom, she added: “You’ve made out time to talk to us and advise us. We’ve taken your counsel Sir and going forward, I intend to make my marriage work.”

With the Twitter post, Mrs Angbo drew public attention not only to her marital woes but also to a serious social problem that has plagued our society for decades. After counting the cost, including those imposed by patriarchy, she has chosen to stay in her marriage. That may not sit well with some but they must accept that the woman has made a decision she considers to be in her best interest. And we should respect her choice. The only thing we can hope for is that her errant husband will not beat her again.

Governor Ortom is right in his summation. Every marriage is a work in progress with its own issues. And there is no perfect union. What he forgot though are the lines that should never be crossed, especially in a marriage. Under no circumstances should a man raise his hand against his wife. By bringing the issue of battery and assault into the public space, Mrs Angbo was reporting an alleged crime of gender-based violence. And Ortom failed the test of leadership. He used the instrumentality of government to impose an extra-judicial solution on the couple and by making his intervention public, he unwittingly established an unjust template for resolving domestic violence cases in Benue State.

Let’s be clear. I am not against reconciliation for the couple. But the way the incident has been handled is, to put it mildly, deplorable. Ordinarily, Ortom could have invited the Angbos for a private meeting, asked them to kiss and make up in his presence, and if he liked, follow them to ‘The Other Room’ to witness the sealing of the deal. But by involving members of his cabinet and making a public show of his efforts, the governor is telling the world that domestic violence is not a big deal in his state. More worrisome is that, in her speech, Mrs Angbo repeated the oft-used line by which married women in Nigeria have been conditioned to accept all sorts of abuses from their partners: “I intend to make my marriage work”.

I am sure there are several pressing challenges in Benue that should command the attention of Governor Ortom and members of his executive council more than spending four hours holding a ‘national conference’ over a private domestic problem and turning it into a serious matter of state. Besides, it is instructive that the drama played out at a time the Nigeria Governors Wives Association (NGWA) was holding a policy dialogue against Gender Based Violence (GBV) in Nigeria. At the opening session last week, Wife of the Ekiti State Governor and Chairperson of NGWA–GBV, Erelu Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi lamented that COVID-19–and the attendant restrictions and lockdowns which forced women in abusive relationships to stay with their abusers–has escalated the problem in many homes. I wonder how she feels with the news from Benue Government House.

Although the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act of 2015 was designed essentially to curb and deter gender based violence by sanctioning the commission of such offences, nothing much has changed. Meanwhile, under Section 55 (1) (d) of the Penal Code applicable in the northern part of the country to which Benue belongs, beating a wife for the ‘purpose of correction’ is legal. That’s what makes Ortom’s intervention in the domestic affair of the Angbos so egregious, especially given that Benue is a state where women are routinely abused by their husbands. This despite the fact that the Benue House of Assembly is one of the few state legislatures to have domesticated the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act which he (Ortom) in 2018 signed into law.

In a paper, ‘Prevalence of Domestic Violence Against Married Women’, published in the Journal of Community Medicine and Primary Healthcare, seven researchers selected their case studies from ‘Oiji ward, a rural setting in Benue State, North Central Nigeria’ where 258 female inhabitants, representing 67.2% of the target sample “had experienced domestic violence of different types, ranging from physical assaults to emotional/mental torture.” The Journal of Research & Method in Education also conducted a detailed study on the “causes of violence among couples in Makurdi metropolis of Benue State, Nigeria” in which nagging, sexual deprivation, dishonesty, infidelity and neglect of responsibility “emerged as the top five common causes of violence.”

From ‘Cultural Practices and Domestic Violence Against Women: A Managerial Perspective Within Makurdi Metropolis, Benue State’ to several other reports, there must be a reason why academics look towards the state over which Ortom governs when examining incidences of domestic violence. “Nigerian law and custom categorises a woman as an object who is not quite human… Violence against women is entrenched in the family, institutionalized by the social structure and driven by patriarchal arrangement, or class/gender stratification,” according to the Societies Without Borders journal in a study conducted in Guma and Makurdi local government areas of Benue State. “Violence is a common practice that seems to be accepted by men as normal in order to keep the women under control. Batterers fail to see this as an act worth bringing before the law,” the report concluded.

Under this prevailing cultural background and milieu, the actions of the governor of Benue State should not surprise us. But he has done a great disservice to our society by the cynical manner he handled a very serious social problem. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is prevalent in Nigeria because when abused, women seek closure by sharing their sordid experiences with third parties such as family elders, religious clerics and traditional/political leaders. But they hardly ever get justice. The patriarchal nature of our society ensures that these women are usually counselled to find accommodation with their abusers, especially where children are involved.

While not hoping for a reoccurrence of violence in the home of the Angbos, available studies indicate that continued abuse is possible, if not probable, once it has begun and is not addressed medically as a concerted effort. We have no knowledge about whether Mr and Mrs Angbo were counselled to subject themselves to psychological assessment or treatment, as should happen in cases of domestic violence. Besides, certain pertinent questions arise: Would Ortom be present to protect Ifeyinwa should violence emerge within their home in future? Does the entire scenario not present an intimidating picture for the woman in terms of the involvement of state authority? What does the Governor and his cabinet think are the implications of addressing domestic violence in such a ‘celebratory’ manner? Is assault no longer a crime in Benue, whether in or out of marriage? How can the governor send an unequivocal signal to gender-based abusers in his state that they must stop harming women and girls?

I am well aware that the fear of being ostracized and the general lack of sympathy for divorced women have contributed immensely to the growth of domestic violence in Nigerian homes. Many of our parents have endured this situation. Unfortunately, the prevalent culture of stigmatization and cajoling the wife to return to the batterer, without addressing the deep-seated issues that continue to disrupt family life so violently, has only led to worse situations and even death, in some cases. So when a Governor uses his official position to endorse the notion that a woman in an abusive relationship should “make her marriage work”, he does enormous damage to the general wellbeing of our society. Perpetuating the notion that women should assume responsibility for making their marriage work, inadvertently absolving husbands of their concomitant duty of love, support and care, is what has led us to the current unfortunate situation.

The best antidote to the recurrence of harmful cultural practices is to subject all infractions to the due process of law. As the embodiment of the secular essence of a state governed by law, Ortom should not have gotten involved in a domestic matter that ought to attract criminal prosecution. Ultimately, we can only continue to urge people in leadership positions to ensure that their actions are guided by the overall public good. No matter the status of the culprit or how glamorous their jobs are, in this day and age, ‘Ortom Formula’ should never become the template for resolving cases of wife battery anywhere in Nigeria.

Still on ‘Sex for Grades’

“On a personal note, I remember that my own wife, Feyisikemi (Nee Egunjobi), now late, who graduated with a B.Sc. (Hons.) from this same Obafemi Awolowo University in the late ’80s suffered the same thing in the hands of one of her lecturers. Complaint to the departmental and faculty authorities were treated with complete nonchalance. It took the intervention of the Students Union to eventually save her from the randy lecturer. In this well researched book, Olusegun Adeniyi has taken the issue of sexual exploitation and harassment of students in our higher institutions from something barely whispered about to public consciousness”–Adeyinka Olumide-Fusika, SAN. Interested readers can now get their copy of the book on Amazon:


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