Sex and Nigerian Politics

by Okey Ndibe

The reason Dominique Strauss-Kahn isn’t the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund today, and is highly unlikely to feature in France’s forthcoming presidential elections, is that he’s accused of sexually assaulting a Guinea-born maid at Sofitel, an expensive hotel in New York City.

Apprised of the attack, US law enforcement officers entered a Paris-bound flight, arrested and then booked Mr. Strauss-Kahn. The French presidential prospect has proclaimed his innocence since his arrest, and his lawyers have stated that whatever transpired between him and the Guinean woman was consensual.

Despite these protestations and assertions, the Frenchman handed in his resignation from his IMF post on May 18, a few days after his arrest. He spent a few days in New York’s toughest prison before a judge set very stiff bail conditions. His riches and fame notwithstanding, he has been cast by many legal experts as the underdog in the soon-to-commence trial.

Whether Mr. Strauss-Kahn committed the sex crimes alleged against him, or is the victim of some sinister conspiracy that’s part of the intrigue of French presidential politics – which is what much of the French public believes – isn’t my concern here. On that score, I’m willing to say, let’s wait and see how the trial turns out.

My immediate interest, and the focus of this piece, is the likely outcome of a similar case if a poor hotel maid had accused a famous, wealthy or powerful Nigerian man of groping or raping her. Imagine, for a second, a hotel cleaner going to a Nigerian police station to report that some male member of the federal cabinet had forced her into sex.

In that event, it’s safe to bet that the man would never have been arrested by the Nigerian police. No Nigerian police officer would have the temerity to step into the first class section of a flight and escort the accused minister out of the plane. First of all, who born dat woman? Second, de policeman dey craze?

Here are the likely scenarios. The assaulted woman’s friends would tell her that the minister’s sexual predation means that God has buttered her bread. A whole minister come like you? Ah, you can get many blessings from him oh! They would tell her to milk the man for as much cash as he’s willing to drop for her. The friends would advise the woman to ask the man if he would help get her – or some other relative – a job in his ministry. Or some contract.

If the woman confided in her relatives, and expressed her intention to report the assault to the police, they would want to know who cursed her with madness. Don’t you know that no man would ever marry you if your shame is revealed? Some relatives would ask her to leave everything to God. The more opportunistic would suggest that she go back to the man, willingly offer him more of what he took by force, and then beg the man to bless her with a contract or two.

Let’s say the woman is crazy enough to take her woe to the police. That would be, quite simply, the gravest mistake of her life. She would be taunted and teased, and then locked up for daring to accuse “a whole minister” of forcing himself on “a nonentity like you.” Her allegation would be deemed proof of sexual fantasy on her part. The police would surmise that she wants something, and she is desperate for it! Chances are that, in detention, she would be turned into a sex slave by an endless relay of male officers.

If the woman, crazier yet, caused the story of her rape to be published in a newspaper (even though few, if any, Nigerian news editor would pay mind to her grief), the accused minister would wax with righteous indignation, proclaim himself blissfully married and faithful to his wife, accuse some nameless political foes of sponsoring the report “calculated to impugn my good name and reputation.” He’d then marshal the machinery of state power to arrest his female accuser.

Once in detention, the woman would be forced to recant and – to compound her self-debasement – confess that, indeed, she had been put up to it by some of the minister’s enemies. In the meantime, her relatives would buy space in newspapers to apologize to the affronted minister on her behalf. The traditional rulers from the woman’s local government area would drop everything and troop to pay courtesy visits to the minister. These “royal fathers” would plead with the accused to remember that the accuser is like his own daughter, that she’s too young to realize the implications of her fabrications.

At any rate, the last thing that would happen would be that the woman’s narrative of sexual assault is taken seriously, or that the accused minister is ever questioned in any meaningful way. As for prosecuting the alleged perpetrator of a sexual crime – forget about it!

For me, Strauss-Kahn’s experience illuminates the way in which women remain both oppressed and silenced in Nigeria and many other African countries. Yes, the degradation of women still occurs in many countries in the world, including European, Asian and North American ones. This is the kind of shibboleth some Nigerian apologists love. Talk about corruption in Nigeria, and they quickly remind you that there’s also corruption in the US and elsewhere. They never pause to reflect on an important difference, namely, that corrupt elements are caught, tried and jailed in many parts of the world. In Nigeria, by contrast, the most corrupt citizens receive de facto immunity from prosecution. Better than that, they enjoy first dipping rights to national honors and other forms of social recognition.

The same is true when it comes to crimes of sexual predation. That Mr. Strauss-Kahn is a millionaire, popular presidential candidate, author, and IMF boss did not impress the police officers who extricated him from a flight. Would Nigerian law enforcement have led the man out of a plane to answer to charges of raping a Nigerian maid at a Nigerian hotel? Perish the thought!

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