A Review of Oluremi Obasanjo’s Bitter Sweet: My Life with Obasanjo (From The Archives)

December 10, 2008 at 10:25am

OLUREMI OBASANJO: PORTRAIT OF A FEMINIST POSTER GIRL?

By Lesley Gene Agams

A privileged idyllic childhood, a precocious adolescence and a striving dogged socially conscious woman. That is the sense I get of Oluremi Obasanjo from her recently released book Bitter Sweet: My Life with Obasanjo. Although she often comes across as naïve, gullible and coarse there is no masking the raw ambition and sense of achievement lurking covertly like a cunning animal.

Bitter Sweet offers a rare insight into a young girl’s life in pre independence Nigeria. Her story of going off to Lagos with only a female cousin was a surprise, as was her sneaking away from an event in Ibadan to visit her beau’s house. Even more astonishing was her un-chaperoned trip to London to meet Obasanjo before they were even married. It’s rare to hear such honest accounts about young women of that era enjoying such freedom. To hear it told by the social matrons, back in 1950 all girls were on chaperoned lock down till their bride price was paid and rings on their fingers.

Oluremi’s story also offers important insight for the Nigerian women’s movement and victim’s activists all over the world. It provides a rare viewpoint into the psyches of a high profile domestic violence victim and her equally high profile abuser. The question ‘why do victims stay?’ is one of the most contentious in academic and legal literature on violence against women globally. There is no agreement as to the dynamics but there is a growing recognition that victims cannot always exercise agency and walk away. This is a rare portrait of a narcissist, his codependent and their traumatized and troubled offspring.

Here we have the unfiltered voice of a victim and an abuser known all over the world. This isn’t the transcript of a case study interview where the interviewer asks leading questions or a counselor offers culturally biased speculation about the motives behind an anonymous patient’s experience. We have a cultural and social context that provides incredibly rich information. A number of commentators have compared it to a Nollywood script but this is not fiction. Why did Oluremi stay? Why does she still call this man her husband and ‘the only man I have known’?

Her story is significant because of who she was married to, her experience with Obasanjo is the experience of millions of Nigerian women. Thanks to her book we may be able to bring attention to their stories and begin a rational discourse on violence against women and domestic violence, two issues that have failed to enrage the Nigerian public or engage the Nigerian media. Oluremi is just one of the lucky ones. Apollonia Ukpabio endured 25 years of escalating violence till her skull was cracked open with a machete. Miraculously she survived. Her husband is on trial for the attack. Why did she stay? She believed God and church wanted her to protect and defend her marriage no matter what. Others have died.

The challenges of being married to Nigerian elites are especially made obvious in her narrative. It’s the story that does not get told, the male entitlement, the female consent and often the mutual infidelity. It’s really difficult to complain when living a really privileged life in a really poor environment. I know many a Nigerian matron that felt Princess Diana should have put up and shut up. The ‘old school’ belief is that a woman should marry for economic security not love, and if it’s companionship you crave find it with the women and/or your children. The wisdom of the matrons for a woman thinking of leaving her husband is territorial– don’t be foolish, why leave your turf for some other woman to take over? Fight for your matrimonial haven and sanctuary. Oluremi had a lot to fight for.

For me one of the more disquieting revelations of this book is how powerful and rich men are manipulated to accept and expect exploitation through their sexual extravagance. According to Oluremi, Obasanjo’s aunt became one of his ‘pimps’ and weak minded male that he was “he abandoned his Lugard quarters for five days because he didn’t want a divorcee, who was even a mother of two. Later, he gave in and the woman had a child…” I know people like that, they will never go to see a powerful man without ‘an offering’, usually a young pretty girl. The most disgusting personal encounter I recall was a middle aged couple that brought their 15 year old daughter dressed like a hooker to see a certain big man they wanted a favor from. I was there. I’ve often wondered about the ‘powerful’ men that fall for that one.

All families are dysfunctional and some may seem more dysfunctional than others but it seems too much of a coincidence that Obasanjo’s narcissistic, high risk behavior and mood swings only emerged after the civil war. Could he have been suffering from post traumatic stress disorder? This is not uncommon in soldiers, even Nigerian soldiers. I handled a divorce case a while back, the husband, an armed forces man, had just returned from an active mission and was exhibiting classic symptoms of PTSD. The administration couldn’t offer him any help. He refused to admit he had a problem, his wife did not know how to handle it, his marriage collapsed under the strain. He reacted pretty much the way Obasanjo did, contesting custody, refusing to pay child support and becoming increasingly abusive; contemporary Okonkwo figures, tormented, paranoid and insecure, things falling apart around them.

All that being said there is a lot that makes me uncomfortable about this book, it’s no master piece but its not meant to be. I found Oluremi’s total lack of self consciousness very disturbing, she seems to be saying of course I slapped that girl and of course I bit that woman and of course I made embarrassing scenes and even fought a truck full of soldiers, like it’s all normal. I found that eerie. The scene on page 66 where she attacks Mowo Sofowora, like a frenzied mother hen and then having fended off the interloper, clucks protectively around her chicks is totally dissonating and disturbing. All narrated like it’s totally normal, there is no moral debate as to the appropriateness of action. She is not the only female (or male) I know that considers her response to this sort of ‘provocation’ perfectly normal and unquestionably right. I find that frightening and sad.

Even more disturbing evidence of a venal, anachronistic world view was her calling Murtala’s ADC the day after she was informed of her child’s death and being morbidly counseled to see the incident as some sort of answer to her prayers to be back in Obasanjo’s house. Just access to this ‘big powerful man’ who happened to be the-father-of-her-children-who-he-had-custody of had become a goal. Her disappointment and resentment towards her sister in law who precipitated her hasty ouster five days later seemed to coldly over shadow her grief at losing a child. Her insecurity is overwhelming; she is willing to forgive Obasanjo the death of her child but not his sister. Her apparent devotion to him despite everything borders on an obsession. Is she a cold ruthless woman or the traumatized victim of a narcissist?

Then there was the bizarre description of their courtship, she presents herself as a passive and entitled recipient of Obasanjo’s courting. He wrote her letters, sent her books and gifts and eventually she said yes. Surely that’s not the whole story. What exactly did the shoeless son of a village drunk say to the spoilt railway master’s precocious daughter that convinced her that Obasanjo was worth waiting seven years for? It’s obvious he was a man on the fast track to power but Oluremi’s narrative while indicating that does not provide any insight into the motivation for any of his actions. Why did he want to study geology? Why did he change his mind for a military career? Is she absolving herself of all responsibility or did she really not know? Or is she just not telling? Loyal to the bitter end?

Whatever her motives for staying or for telling her story now Oluremi did not deserve the treatment she received from her husband. No man or woman deserves abuse and violence, and all women deserve the right to say to the man they married ‘I can’t live with you anymore’ and still be humanely treated with their children as Nigerian citizens protected by a constitution. We need to stop the abuse. We need to break the cycle of violence.

I have reaffirmed or learnt a number of things from reading this gripping account of lives interrupted;

1. There is an urgent need to review the Matrimonial Causes Act and extend its jurisdiction to women married under customary law; it is an archaic piece of legislation that offers little protection to women considering divorce or separation and their children. The customary law systems that the majorities of woman have access to in Nigeria are heavily biased against women and make seeking separation or divorce traumatic and humiliating.
2. We desperately need to introduce parenting skills to our education curricula. Children are often at greatest risk of long term harm and damage from their parent’s ignorance. Teaching children parenting skills is as important as teaching them to say no, zip up, life skills or whatever else we choose to call sex education. Teaching them religion is not enough.
3. The Nigerian armed forces need to increase their transition support for veterans returning from war, especially the psychological support they provide. Wars are dehumanizing and brutalizing, veterans and their family members need assistance re-integrating after prolonged exposure to the violence and brutality of armed conflict and barracks life.
4. Nigerian media need to learn how to write more sensitively about women and women’s issues. Most of media commentators including female commentators brushed aside her story and condemned her for telling it. Stark testimony to how such tragedies can play out to an inevitably sad outcome while hidden in plain view.

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Interim Child Custody Order Under Matrimonial Causes Act in Nigeria

Section 71 of the Matrimonial Causes Act is clear that the ‘courts shall regard the interests of the children as the paramount consideration when awarding custody of children in a matrimonial cause under the MCA.

This is supported by extensive case law.

The Supreme Court in WILLIAMS V WILLIAMS (1987) LPELR-8050 set out the principles on which custody is decided clearly;

“(1) Where in any proceedings before any court the custody or upbringing of a minor is in question, the court in deciding the question shall regard the welfare of the minor as the first and paramount consideration and shall not take into consideration whether from any other point of view the claim of the father in respect of such custody is superior to that of the mother or the claim of the mother is superior to that of the father.

In Nwosu v. Nwosu (2012) 8 NWLR Pt 1301 – the court of appeal further held –

On the right of parents over custody of children of a marriage

The Court held both parties have equal rights in matters of custody of the children. In other words a mother has equal rights with the father over the children. In the instant case the appellant had equal legal interest in the children of the marriage and a right to protect that legal interest.

On Equal Rights of parents over custody of the children of the marriage

In regard to custody or upbringing of a minor a mother shall have the same rights and authority as the law allows the father and the rights and authority of the mother and the father shall be equal and exercisable by either with out the other.

One of the questions that the court of appeal considered was whether or not the appellant (mother) had a right to take the children away from the matrimonial home before a formal order of custody made by a court of competent jurisdiction to determine the issue of custody.

The respondent (father) had asked an Owerri High Court to declare his wife did not have the right to remove the children from their school and relocate then elsewhere without a prior order of the court. The court of first instance sought to compel the mother to return the children till a determination of custody.

The mother appealed the judgement and her appeal was upheld. The court cited the previous Supreme Court ruling in Williams v. Williams (1987) that held both parents have the same right to custody of children pending a custody hearing.

“The law would be an ass indeed if a parent who has inherent legal interest in the children can’t do something to protect the children before the law can take its course” said Ogunwumiju JCA in his lead judgement in Nwosu v. Nwosu.

The court upheld a mother’s right to remove herself and her children from the matrimonial home in the event of  breakdown of the marriage, threat or fear violence and maintaining status quo ante bellum pending matrimonial proceedings.

Counsel for the respondent (father) went on to argue the children of the marriage were of ‘Igbo extraction’ and their father ‘rich and willing to have them around’. The court held that “the reasons given by the learned trial judge in arriving at the conclusion that the appellant (mother) had no legal right to take the children from the matrimonial home were unconstitutional”

“I have no hesitation in arriving at the conclusion that these declarations of the rights of the parents in relation to these children were based on a wrong premise which is that the rights of a very rich father are superior to the rights of the less affluent mother who is from a different tribe. There is discrimination on the basis of tribe, sex and financial means.” – Ogunwumiju JCA

In Tabansi v. Tabansi (2009) 12 NWLR Pt 1155 the lead judgement of the Court of Appeal delivered by Alagao JCA held that

“Except the conduct of the wife is morally reprehensible it is better in an estranged marriage for the child of the marriage, more so if that child is a girl of tender age to be left in the care and custody of the wife.”

A party to matrimonial proceedings can simultaneously file an ex parte motion for interim custody when filing a petition under the MCA under Order 14 Rule 23 (1)(c) which provides that;

23(1) “Where proceedings for ancillary relief have been instituted  seeking an order with respect to the custody, guardianship, welfare, advancement or education of a child of the marriage pending the disposal of proceedings , the court may in a case of urgency, hear the proceedings, and make an order in the proceedings, ex parte.”

When filing an ex parte motion (which basically means that the applicant is asking the court to make a ruling without notifying the respondent, the other party in the matter) support it with an affidavit of urgency and also file a motion on notice with the same requests and arguments that will be served on the respondent while the interim order is in effect. And interim order will last for 7 days and within that time the court will want to invite the respondent to come and give his or her side of the story too. If the interim order lapses before the motion on notice is heard or decided the applicant’s lawyer can and should make a further oral application to the court to extend the life of the interim order.

This interim order will provide the legal basis for the applicant to retain custody of the children pending hearing of the motion on notice which will decide custody pending the resolution of the substantive suit which may be for divorce, nullity or judicial separation. The interim order will them be served together with the notice of petition and the motion on notice on the respondent.

Once an order is secured give the applicant the original copy and they can move with the children without fear of the other party taking them away or causing other mischief (like reporting to police they were kidnapped as some parents erroneously do) The applicant can prevent the respondent, the other party in the suit from taking the children forcibly away from him or her and should that party do so they will be in contempt of a court order.

Can The Attorney General Of Nigeria Open An Inquiry Into Sugabelly’s Charges Against Mohammed Audu?

The Nigerian Law of Trafficking & How It May Apply to @Sugabelly

It would be interesting to read up on the precedents but I think that Audu and his pals can be prosecuted under this Act –

 

TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS (PROHIBITION) ENFORCEMENT & ADMINISTRATION ACT 2015

Section 13 (1) All acts of human trafficking are prohibited in Nigeria
(2) Any person who recruits, transports, transfers, harbours or receives another person by means of –
threat or use of force or other forms of coercion abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or position of vulnerability; or
giving or receiving payments or benefits to achieve the consent of the person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation of that person…

commits and offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than two year sand a fine of not less than NGN250,000.00

13 (5) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in the definition of trafficking in persons in this act shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in the definition has been used.

Section 15 Any person who –

(a) by use of deception,coercion, debt bondage or any other means, induces any person under the age of 18 years to go from one place to another to do any act with the intent that such person may be or knowing that it is likely that the person will be forced or seduce into illicit intercourse with another person – is liable on conviction to imprisonment for 5 years and a fine of NGN500,000

Section 16 (1) Any person that procures or recruits any other person under the age of 18 years to be subjected to prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation with himself, any person or persons, either in Nigeria or anywhere else commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less that 7 years and a fine of not less than NGN1,000,000.

 

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What is Grooming? And How Does It Concern @sugabelly? How Does It Concern Us?

The topic of the moment in Nigeria has been the ‘rape’ of @sugabelly. This is the full story here.

Many have questioned why she stayed, why she kept going back and why she didn’t tell someone. Some have questioned if it was ‘rape’.

The story bore great similarities to a story I read of the UK men that routinely groomed young girls for sex slavery, exploitation and prostitution. Read it here.

Sugabelly’s case seems to be a classic case of grooming for abuse.

“Grooming is a tactic of overcoming the survivor’s defenses by slowly desensitizing his or her natural reaction to abusive behaviors. The most commonly recognized context is when pedophiles use it on children and their parents, but the technique is also used in other contexts, such as confidence scams or commercial sex work. Grooming works by mixing positive behaviors with elements of abuse. At the beginning, all behaviors are positive. Slowly, abusive elements are added in amounts that surprise the survivor to an extent, but do not push alarm to a high level. Overtime, the inappropriate comes to feel normal. Because the primary aggressor’s real goal isn’t understood by the survivor, he or she often misses the harmful implication and dismisses the internal signals of alarm that do arise.

“For most of the relationship, the survivor may be eager to experience the sense of specialness and push to see the primary aggressor. This may contribute to later guilt and shame when frank abuse is occurring. Because of the staged and confusing progression, the survivor may not at the end understand that the primary aggressor has been the sole instigator. The survivor might erroneously believe that there has been a mutual progression. This is largely responsible for the tragic, well-known reluctance of survivors to report abuse.”

 

I am convinced that these men are still abusing other young vulnerable women. Even if Sugabelly isn’t pressing charges, they should be investigated. I’m sure they can be prosecuted under the NAPTIP or the new VAPP Bill. It really is time to do something.

Things We Learn Along The Way About Ourselves

Sometimes you come cross something that brushes up against a tender spot somewhere in you. It might be someone talking about being violently rejected by his lover and asking you for help.

He says he is depressed and suicidal.  You tell him that what he needs to do to start feeling better – exercise, get out with people, appreciate that you will hurt, stay busy, love your work and try try try not to get in touch with your abusive ex-lover.

You explain that love is its own addiction, you tell him about seretonin. You explain that love is an obsession and all about dopamine.

You would know, after all you are going through your own recovery.

Still you know the words are flat, you hurt and he hurts and all both of you want to do is scream and rail against someone or something. But you don’t, you implode.

Your feelings are too intense to express. They would make a melodrama look mild. But you need to do something with them. Energy needs to be dispersed.

May be a good time to take up boxing? Or karate? What a cliche.

Why is it never that easy?

You wonder whether its better to leave well enough alone. Let him go solve his own problem. You got plenty of your won to deal with. Whether you should be in this field in the first place considering your personal history.

You decided to work with violence victims and survivors because you were a survivor. As a child you witnessed spousal abuse so horrific you came home one day to find your mother lying in a pool of blood and your father calmly mopping up her blood. It was so bad you called the police once. You got beaten up that night and the phone was disconnected the next day.

It felt grown up and powerful to be able to say you would never let it happen to anyone else. But it did happen, everyday. And after a while you found yourself running to hide like you did once upon a time and you realised you were still a victim.

Till one day you make the association.

Nature is what makes you love the way you love, nurture makes you love who you love. 

So you help him anyway because you know what its like – to lack and not have, to want and not receive, to search and not find, to be down with no one offering you a hand up, to be scared and not have anyone to turn to, to be misunderstood and alone.

And you feel a deep gratitude for the opportunity to grow a little bit more.

Surviving Sexual Assault, Loss of Employment, Disillusionment & BINGO Corporate Crap

The past three years have been one hell of a ride. I’ve been to hell and back. I wish I had read this WSJ article three years ago but I just came across it last week. It says it can take up to two years to recover from a divorce or loss of job and I didn’t only lose my job, I was sexually assaulted on the job. If I’d known it would take this long to recover I would have worked through my pain and distress more mindfully, felt less like a freak, worried less about what was wrong with me and not blamed myself so much for what happened.

I’m only just recovering from what happened to me at Oxfam GB. I didn’t take time to tend to the scared me, the frightened me, the traumatized me, because I’ve had a lifetime of experience with abuse and I know you can’t let it take over your life. So I pushed away the pain and disappointment, buried it in daily routines, silenced my anger in constructive action, all the while thinking to myself – I shouldn’t have gone to his hotel room with him, I shouldn’t have sat down to have a drink with him, I shouldn’t have even smiled at him.

When I gave away my dog and asked my best friends sister to take in my cat I tried not to think of the wrong that had been done to me because if I didn’t want to start crying over spilled milk, the milk would still be on the floor and I would never stop crying.  When I packed up all my prized and favorite possessions and put them in storage because I couldn’t pay the rent anymore I tried not to curse the man who made this happen. I was strong, I took responsibility, it’s what I’ve been taught to do since I could make sense of the world; pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.

Still I couldn’t help thinking; I should have gone straight to the police, I should have filed a formal complaint immediately, I should have put my wellbeing before my concerns for Oxfam’s reputation, I shouldn’t have called him and demanded an apology because really what else would he do after that except get rid of me. Let me hang over HIS career at Oxfam like an isosceles sword?

When I watched my sons move out of our house all I could think of was that I should have done more to protect my job because my job gave them protection and they depended on me. Sometimes I would hate the man that did this to me with so much passion but what’s that – hate? He’s there with his family in his house, at his job and I’m out in the cold and my world is falling apart around me and I don’t know how to stop it. My hate can’t touch him. It was but small comfort that he resigned abruptly a year later when the police started and investigation and questioned Oxfam.

I could have used the severance pay they gave me to bring a court action against him and Oxfam and everybody else that made me feel so powerless and helpless and out of control but my father died just when I was about to start something. He was a dependent under the health insurance policy they made me take in place of the private one I had before so when I lost the job I lost my health insurance. He died of complications from diabetes because I couldn’t afford his drugs any longer and what was left of my severance went towards that expensive burial for him. The village people would have it no other way.

Besides, every lawyer I spoke to claimed jurisdiction was a problem. At the time of the incident you worked in Abuja, he worked in Dakar, the assault happened in Oxford, England.  I didn’t qualify to go before the employment tribunal in the UK, the Nigerian Labor law offered little remedy and whether I filed legal action in Nigeria, Senegal or UK it would be expensive, serving everyone involved would be a logistics nightmare and a financial investment I just couldn’t afford.

I still remember a conversation I had with a Nigerian lady who had taken a German BINGO to court for sexual discrimination and unlawful termination of contract in Nigeria. She had been in court for 5 years. When she came to me she was struggling to take care of her children and could no longer afford the legal fees. She came looking for legal assistance. Little did I know at the time that I would find myself in a similar quandary a few months down the line.

For a very long time I was angry at Oxfam and all the people I worked with there that couldn’t end the conversation fast enough the minute I mentioned the sexual assault. I wonder why they were so ready to listen to him when he said I deserved summary dismissal for a minor oversight that I wasn’t even aware of but wouldn’t give me the time of day when I told them my more serious allegations even when I had your witnesses, the in house shrink and the HR lady I reported to after the incident who corroborated my story.

The shrink didn’t offer me any post traumatic counselling, He just said ‘honor your anger’ but I wasn’t feeling angry then. I was hurt, confused, scared and ashamed but not angry, not yet. The anger would come later and most of it was self-directed at first.  I was also afraid of losing my job, now I find it ironic how my greatest fear came true and became my reality. I found my anger when I realized that I had lost my job because I wouldn’t let this man have sex with me and insisted he apologize for even trying. I found my anger when I realized that Oxfam was more concerned with covering up the matter than protecting me despite the evidence.

Oxfam has stone walled me for the past three years, all my attempts to get them to reconsider the evidence have been rejected. Even the shrink I first reported to has ignored my calls for help, the robotic lawyers can’t get creative and see beyond the jurisdiction issues and the statute of limitations on sexual assaults in England expires today. I have done my best – I’ve spoken to lawyers at home and abroad. I’ve swallowed my pride and my embarrassment, told complete strangers about the most intimate assault a woman can experience again and again, I have sought support from ngo’s and from individuals. Some turn away in embarrassment, some wish me good luck. some said they would help me if they could but…

Meanwhile I continue to hear horrific stories of sexual abuse, harassment and rape from other local hire women in international development.  I considered a broader campaign to bring the matter into the open but no one wants to talk about it publicly. They have husbands and boyfriends and children and careers and lives and they just want to move on as best they can. Why can’t I just let it go it and move on like they seem to have done? Why does the injustice of it gnaw at the pit of my stomach till I want to puke and shake my fist at Man, God and the Universe?

Its taken me a long time to talk about what happened to me, at first I thought it was okay and expected people to react with outrage and support but when I noticed the embarrassment on people’s faces when I mentioned why or how I was fired I stopped talking about it. I’m grateful to all the people who have in one way or the other sympathized with me or spoken out in the past few months because the silence was killing me.  It reinforced my shame and my isolation and my loneliness. I felt like I was shouting wolf, like I was the only one this ever happened to and therefore surely it was my fault or I was imagining things. Or I was just crazy.

I must thank Chika Oduah for her powerful and informative write up.  She says my post about my assault gave her the courage to speak about her experience; her post has given me the courage to feel and share my feelings. I notice is how arid my words were when I wrote them as if the events happened to someone else, as if it were just a matter of fact. It’s how I deal with scary emotions and experiences, I either trivialize them or I sanitize them. Being a lawyer helps – cut to the objective facts please.

I don’t miss the job, I hated working for Oxfam from the get go, they do more good for their egos and their pockets than they do for the poor third world people they claim to help with all those tax free dollars and pounds they collect from the unsuspecting masses in the west. I don’t even miss the colleagues I worked with, not one of them reached out to support or even sympathize when I told them what happened, they shut me off like a poisoned water spout, acted like they were afraid I would taint them and put their own jobs at risk and I don’t blame them or even hold it against them.

What I miss, no, what I missed was more personal; my  sense of self-worth, my confidence, my health, my love of life, my faith in people, my integrity.  But it’s not what they take away, it’s what they leave behind like one TV ad in England says; the anxiety, the mistrust, the self-doubts, the anger, the pessimism, the disillusionment; it’s been a long time coming but I can finally honestly say – they never took anything away from me.  I’m still who I was before this happened, who I always been – I’m a feisty survivor.

Its three years later and I have survived; without a job, without a home, without my children around me, without my dog, without my cat and without the comfort and safety of familiar surroundings. I have survived! Nietzsche was right – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No one can take that from me.  Writing has been my solace these past three years and I have rediscovered my talent and my passion for it; words have power, my words have power and I will continue to speak out against sexual harassment in the work place, Oxfam and the man that did this to me, not out of anger or self-pity or even regret but from a place of power, from a place of certainty that injustice is wrong, from a place where I can say with pride – I survived!