Gender-Based Violence has become a painful fallout of the Nigerian government’s efforts to quell a secessionist bid by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in the South East states of Nigeria.
Gladys Eleanya, 56, was gunned down on 24 May 2021, caught in a crossfire between Nigerian security operatives and members of the secessionist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) operating in Nigeria’s south-east state of Imo.
According to her daughter, Ugomma, Mrs Eleanya had sat up at 7 a.m. that fateful day from where she slept with her four grandchildren on a piece of cloth spread on the floor in their cramped two-bedroom apartment in Orji, Owerri North Local Government Area.
She dressed the children up and took a bus with them to their school, 20 minutes away. Later, she returned home to her chores and then cooked the maize pap (locally called akamu or ogi) she had prepared the night before. That assignment had delayed her from going to her shop until 1 p.m.
“When she got there (her shop), she received a call from the children’s headmistress to come and pick them up because there was shooting around the school,” a neighbour who witnessed the episode told Ugomma.
Shortly after Mrs Eleanya dropped the call, soldiers chased some IPOB members who had attacked the divisional police headquarters in the area, into her street.
As the security officials and the members of the outlawed group engaged in a gun duel, some of the stray bullets pierced through the aluminium and wood wall of Mrs Eleanya’s shop, hitting her finger, arm and the side of her abdomen. She died before she was taken to a hospital.
Mrs Eleanya is one of at least 210 people documented by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) to have been killed in 2021 in the protracted violence as security forces tried to suppress the separatist group in south-east Nigeria.
IPOB is seeking the secession of the Igbo ethnic group from Nigeria. A federal court proscribed it as a terrorist organisation in 2017.
In December 2020, the group formed the Eastern Security Network, a paramilitary organisation it said would protect local farmers from migrant cattle herders seeking to graze their farmlands. But the unit has attacked and been attacked by security forces.
After the arrest and forced return of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, from Kenya to Nigeria, and his arraignment for treason, IPOB declared a sit-at-home holiday in the region every Monday and on every day Mr Kanu appears in court. This was to force the Nigerian government to release him. This worsened the crisis in the zone as security personnel, the separatist group and residents have been victims of a war that seems to have no end.
Recent data from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigerian Security Tracker stated that at least 287 people were killed in the conflict between January and May 24 in 2022. At least 50 of the victims are from Imo State, which has the second highest number of deaths from the conflict.
Raped at home
While Mrs Eleanya died, Ifeoma, 11 (real name withheld to protect her identity), an orphan, considers herself lucky to have survived it, even though she has an ongoing battle for justice. She is one of the girls who have suffered sexual abuse due to the sit-at-home order imposed on residents in the state.
A collaborative publication by the Canadian government and ActionAid Nigeria on the impact of insecurity on Nigerian women and girls in 12 states of Nigeria showed that women and girls like Gladys and Ifeoma “suffer horrendous violence and abuse that increases mortality rate and vulnerability to exploitation, due to the violence.”
Ifeoma was raped on a Monday morning in October 2021, a sit-at-home day. Her guardian, Mrs Blessing had decided to take the risk of opening her shop and left her alone at home.
“It did not occur to me that she was at risk,” Mrs Blessing said with a long sigh.
Shortly after she left home, a male neighbour in his 30s, fondly called ‘Brother Papa’, called Ifeoma to buy N100 ($0.26) worth of airtime for him. But it was a ploy by the man to get the minor into his room.
“When I returned, I stood at the door to give him the airtime, then he dragged me inside, locked the door and lay on top of me. He said he would kill me if I told my mother,” Ifeoma narrated.
According to Emeka Ohuruogu, the Programme Officer of Honourbirth Foundation, an NGO that focuses on gender-based issues, the restriction on movement has caused the loss of jobs for men and boys in the region, which puts women and girls at risk of rape and gender violence, particularly on sit-at-home days.
The sexual violation continued until one day when Mrs Blessing noticed a whitish substance coming from Ifeoma’s vagina while she was asleep. During questioning, the minor exposed the perpetrator.
Unhealed scars as government keeps mum
Mrs Eleanya’s daughter and Ifeoma’s guardians still seek justice for the harm caused to their loved ones.
Outrage from civil society groups forced the state government to respond to the death of Mrs Eleanya. A week after the incident, Chioma Uzodimma, the wife of the state governor, invited the deceased’s daughter, Ugomma, to the Government House to sympathise with her.
After a splash of pictures on social media and news platforms and a press statement indicating she helped the family of the victim, the governor’s wife gave her N50,000 and assured her she would support her business. However, Ugomma says the governor’s wife was yet to keep her promise despite constant follow-ups.
“I learned she uploaded my picture on Facebook through neighbours who saw it and congratulated me for it. After the burial, I tried to reach her but she did not respond. They did not even care or listen to me,” she recounted, tears rolling down her cheeks.
When Ugomma visited the Government House later, she was turned back by security officials at the gate.
PREMIUM TIMES contacted the Chief Press Secretary of the governor, Nwachukwu Oguike, to follow up on the promise made by the first lady. He directed the reporter to the Commissioner for Women Affairs and Vulnerable Groups, Nkechi Ugwu.
But after Ms Ugwu had listened to the questions, she told the reporter to call her later because she was at a meeting. The commissioner did not respond to subsequent calls, texts and WhatsApp messages.
Government officials frustrate GBV prosecution
In Ifeoma’s case, youths in the area who had gotten wind of the incident surrounded the home of the alleged rapist, beat him thoroughly and took him to the police station.
But Mrs Blessing said because the deputy superintendent of police allegedly wanted to release the suspect because they were from the same state, they got the case transferred through the help of a friend to another police station in Umuguma where the suspect, Brother Papa, was detained.
The police then took the case to a magistrate’s court in Ihiagwa, which remanded the suspect in prison. In January 2022, the court transferred the case to the state high court.
The police erred in taking the cases to the magistrate’s court instead of directly to the state high court, a human rights lawyer, Kingdom Okere, told PREMIUM TIMES. According to him, this “deliberate” technique is called ‘holding charge’. It breeds corruption because it requires the family of the alleged victim to bribe the police and court officials before the case is transferred to the state high court while the suspect would be awaiting trial until released several years later.
A similar scenario was seen in Ifeoma’s case. After the ruling from the magistrate, the lawyer was supposed to give the case file to the court registrar who then transfers it to the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP). The office is meant to give legal advice and create a slot for the case to be heard at the state high court. Amid these processes, Ifeoma said her family was constantly asked to pay bribes but it refused.
“I didn’t ask, but courtesy demands that they give me something for transportation. As a police officer and practising lawyer for the federal government, no one is making provision for my transportation,” Magnus Dikeocha, Ifeoma’s counsel, said.
After further digging, the reporter discovered that the case was in the state’s DPP office. The victim’s family told PREMIUM TIMES that the police lawyer had referred them to the state DPP office, where they were told they needed to pay for the case to be referred to the state high court.
The process requires the DPP’s office to present the case file to the High Court which sets hearing dates. Litigants are not supposed to pay for this service — referring the case file to the court. However, in Ifeoma’s case, her family was allegedly asked by the DPP’s office to pay for the case to be referred to the High Court.
When the family said it did not have the money, it said the office told them to come back when they got the money. An official at the DPP’s office gave them a piece of paper with the name of the individual to whom they would pay the money if they wanted their matter forwarded to the high court. On the paper was the name Uchenna Iwuchukwu.
PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter assumed the identity of a relative who wanted to pay on behalf of the family. Ms Iwuchukwu confirmed that the case file was at the DPP’s office. She sent her account details to the reporter and asked for N15,000 ($36) to forward the case to the state high court, get a date for the matter to be heard, and cater for transportation for another DPP official who was to deliver the case file to the high court.
Reacting to these instances, Kingdom Okere, the human rights lawyer, accused the officials of “frustrating prosecution” and advised the survivor’s family to petition the National Human Rights Commission, State Attorney-General, the Inspector-General of Police and the Nigerian Bar Association to report the parties that requested bribes.
Response to help women and girls face setbacks
While women and girls like Mrs Eleanya and Ifeoma are affected by the crisis, responses to rescue them from troubled situations face significant challenges.
Honourbirth Foundation, a civic group that has been monitoring both cases, lamented that its activities have been disrupted by the security situation in the state. The Programme Officer, Mr Ohuruogu, said the usual sensitisation of women and girls has been met with low attendance, particularly on Mondays or during court sittings of the IPOB leader, Mr Kanu, because “their safety is not guaranteed.”
Also, the NGO usually carries out Gender Based Violence (GBV) rescue operations in the 27 local government areas of Imo. But due to the violent crimes in the state, they can no longer operate in 13 of the local government areas. The humanitarian worker cited peculiar instances of militarisation, kidnappings and conflicts in places like Okigwe, Aboh Mbaise, Oguta, and Orlu local government areas.
The insurgency in the South-east region began with a crisis in the Orlu area of Imo State, which has now become a hotspot, characterised by violent clashes between the ESN fighters and the security officials.
Mr Ohuruogu said some police stations where the NGO refers GBV cases like in Orji, Umuguma, Izombe, and Imbitole have been destroyed. This slowed down the response to help survivors and arrest sexual offenders.
The Ugumuma Police Station, where Ifeoma’s case was transferred, was bombed in March by the outlawed group and two officers on duty were killed. When the reporter visited the facility, the structure had been renovated but the carcasses of the cars were still on the premises. The deputy superintendent of police in charge of the station refused to be interviewed.
The police station in Orji, where Ugomma, whose mother was killed in the crossfire resides, is equally under lock and key after it was attacked in 2021.
Mr Ohuruogu said the police are now reluctant to do the jobs they used to do freely. “The survivors suffer and we are not able to deliver the dividends of justice to these people,” he said.
In October 2021, the Nigerian government said members of the outlawed group had attacked at least 164 police facilities across several states.
While GBV support systems are dwindling due to the secessionist crisis, Mrs Eleanya’s daughter, Ugomma, and Ifeoma plead for financial support and justice. They also want normalcy to be restored in the troubled Imo State.
This article was produced as part of the WA GBV Reporting Fellowship with support from the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and through the support of the Ford Foundation and Premium Times.