In 1978 Obasanjo’s military government decided to change the national anthem as part of its preparations to hand over power to a democratically elected government after 12 years of military rule and a 3 year civil war. As a true Nigerian man he was offended that the previous anthem was written by two white women, if he could have changed the country’s name coined by another white woman he probably would have. The new anthem was written by 5 men and the music composed by the director of the Nigerian Police Band. Women were not considered good enough for such an important task. The new anthem sounds very masculine and military and the sovereign motherland of the first anthem became the fatherland, with all the character of a fascist sound track. Hitler would have been proud. It sounds ominous, brooding, saturnine, and paternalistic. It announces – women beware, we are a nation of men – men of war.
On 7 September 2017, women from across Nigeria met in Abuja to discuss the need:
- for a platform (NGWomen4Peace) for women to voice their concerns about key issues which negatively impact on us, our children and our families and
- to organise women to promote a stronger sense of ownership and belonging in the country and build our confidence to contribute positively to making a difference to the present alarming trajectory of our country.
#NGWomen4Peace is a movement of women and women’s groups representing all parts of Nigeria concerned with the current state of affairs and focused on ensuring that Nigeria remains a country of peace, prosperity and participation for all.
We have observed the following:
- An increased wave of hate speech and inciting statements,
- An increased spate of violent conflicts around the country, and
- That women, who bear the brunt of the violent conflict, are not consulted when ethnic, religious and political groups publish their statements which threaten the peace and security of Nigerians.
- That despite almost two decades of activism women are still not proportionally represented in politics, peace and security decision making and governance
We acknowledge the efforts of the security sector, the humanitarian community, CSO, religious and traditional authorities and individuals who are trying to manage the problem. We have mobilised to add our voices and assert our rights as citizens, as mothers, as women and as one half of the population of this nation in pursuit of peace, dialogue and deescalation.
We are not begging. We are not asking. We are insisting. We are demanding
DIALOGUE & DEESCALATION
An immediate cessation of all hostilities across the country and a demand for all stake holders and state and non state actors to begin a process of deescalation and dialogue that will include women in proportional representation as active participants, negotiators, referees, observers and peace keepers.
The are numerous violent conflicts ongoing all across the country – in the north east, in north central, in the south east, in the south south, a nation wide conflict nomadic pastoralists and farming communities.
Nigerian women demand that all violence end immediately and all parties and stakeholders begin a process of dialogue. Whatever the demands – restructuring, devolution, inclusion, marginalisation, secession, religious freedom, ethnic protectionism – they can and must be negotiated. We will no longer tolerate the blood of our children be spilled to sustain untenable positions of violent insurrection and dominance in a democratic federation.
No Be Fight. We are a civilised and modern nation. We will dialogue and we must start with immediate deescalation.
We call on Arewa Youths, IPOB, Boko Haram, Oduduwa, Ohaneze, the Federal Government and its agencies.
Increasing women’ s active and full participation in politics, peace and security negotiations, decision making, conflict resolution and peace agreements. There are over 200 MDAs in Nigeria and women must be proportionally included and represented in all. For immediate action –
- The newly formed House of Representatives committee saddled with the responsibility of fostering national unity led by the Deputy Speaker, Hon. Yusuf Sulaiman Lasun should appoint a female representative as its deputy and of the nine other positions at least half should be filled with women.
- Project Steering Committee for the implementation of the 54.5 million euros support project for the North-east inaugurated in August 2017 should have at least 50% female membership, line ministries that are on the committee must nominate women to fill their position.
- The National Judicial Council (NJC) under the chairmanship of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, established a Corruption and Financial Crimes Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO) to monitor judges and courts handling corruption and financial crimes cases in the country. The membership of the committee is almost entirely male, with a lone female representing the NGO sector. We demand a review and women to be immediately take 50% of the membership.
- Immediate implementation of Chapter 2 Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria especially section 14(3) and (4) on Federal character to immediately implement representative inclusion of women in all federal, state and local government agencies and a 50% affirmative action policy.
We will in collaboration with our members and allies over the next 30 days continue to identify and various committees, bodies and institutions where women are not adequately represented and demand inclusion and nominate capable women for inclusion. We will use legal means and judicial process as appropriate and various other means of protest and pressure where appropriate.
Zonal and State Working committees of NGWomen4Peace will also articulate and announce specific demands that will be pursued at the zonal and state level to ensure dialogue, deescalation and inclusion of women and respect for the constitution and rule of law. These plans will be announced in a series of press conferences over the next week.
We will assess the response to our demands and our strategies for their enforcement over the next 30, 60 and 90 days and continue to adjust our actions to ensure compliance and update the press and our fellow Nigerians on progress towards peace and women’s inclusion in governance, conflict resolution, peace building and decision making.
We live in hope for a better Nigeria where every individual has equal opportunities to be the best they can be for themselves and their communities. Nothing good comes without hard work and sacrifice but we, Nigerian women, declare that we can and must build the country of our dreams without sacrificing the lives of innocents.
We continue to build a critical mass of women and women’s groups in a grand alliance of women waging peace and will launch the White Blouse Campaign for Peace to build women’s solidarity, visibility and support for our movement.
- Iheoma Obibi – Alliances for Africa, Imo State
- Esther Eshiet – After School Centre for Career Development, Akwa Ibom
- Mabel Ikoghode – Girls Power Initiative, Delta State
- Dr. Alice Musa – University of Madugiri, Borno State
- Dr. K. Kwari – University of Madugiri, Borno State
- Ayisha Osori- Self, Kaduna State
- Azeenah Mohamed – Independent, Nassara State
- Patricia Onyekwelu – WILPF Nigeria, Enugu State
- Ifeyinwa Omowole Nigeria Association of Women Journalist, Lagos State
- Ballason Gloria – House of Justice Kaduna State
- Osai Ojigho – Self, Delta State
- Nnenaya Emeremadu – CARA Development Foundation. Imo State
- Jemila Barkindo – Women Peace and Security Network, Adamawa State
- Amy Oyekan Monii Development Consultant, Delta State
- Ify Malo – Clean Tech Hub, Anambra State
- Eleanor Nwadinobi – Gender Expert, Abia State
- Olufunke Baruwa – Nigerian Women Trust Fund, Ekiti State
- Priscilla Achakpa – Women Environment Program, Benue State
- Blessing Usie – Open Society Justice Initiative, Delta State
- Felicia Onibon – Change Managers International Network, Edo State
- Edna Mathews-Njoku – Joel Women Youth Development Initiative, Imo State
- Ndi Kato – NNidari Empowerment Foundation, Kaduna State
- Natasha Akpoti – Builders Hub Foundation, Kogi State
- Lesley Agams – Consultant, Abuja FCT
- Mariam Aldu – Self, Adamawa State
- Amina Salihu, Gender and Security Consultant
- Blessing Duru – Program Manager, Alliances for Africa
- Ogechi Ikeh – Program Officer, Nigerian Feminist Forum
Interview starts at 12.40.
On September 7 2017, women from across Nigeria met in Abuja to discuss the need:
1. for a platform (NGWomen4Peace) for women to voice their concerns about key issues which negatively impact on us, our children and our families and
2. to organise women to promote a stronger sense of ownership and belonging in the country and build our confidence to contribute positively to making a difference to the trajectory of our country.
#NGWomen4Peace is a coalition of women representing all parts of Nigeria concerned with the current state of affairs and focused on ensuring that Nigeria remains a country of peace, prosperity and participation for all.
We have observed the following:
1. An increased wave of hate speech,
2. Numerous inciting statements,
3. Increased spate of violent conflicts around the country,
4. That women, who bear the brunt of the violent conflict, are generally not consulted when ethnic, religious and political groups publish their statements which threaten the peace and security of Nigerians.
We acknowledge the efforts of the security sector, the humanitarian community, CSO, religious and traditional authorities and individuals who are trying to manage the problem.
Our demands are:
1. Zero tolerance for hate speech while promoting and protecting freedom of expression;
2. The engagement of women in governance processes in the public and private sector as well as peace building and conflict resolution platforms.
3. That ethnic, religious and political groups refrain from making blanket statements purporting to represent us without due consultation with us. We want all Nigerians to know that when these provocative statements are being made – these groups are not speaking for Nigerian women
4. That we all work together for a better future for our country by promoting the ideal that we are our brothers and sisters keeper.
We live in hope for a better Nigeria where every individual has equal opportunities to be the best they can be for themselves and their communities. Nothing good comes without hard work and sacrifice but we, Nigerian women, declare that we can and must build the country of our dreams without sacrificing the lives of innocents.
Further activities are being planned and we are open to other women and women’s groups joining us.
Iheoma Obibi – Alliances for Africa, Imo State
Esther Eshiet – After School Centre for Career Development, Akwa Ibom
Mabel Ikoghode – Girls Power Initiative, Delta State
Dr. Alice Musa – University of Madugiri, Borno State
Dr. K. Kwari – University of Madugiri, Borno State
Ayisha Osori- Self, Kogi State
Azeenah Mohamed – Independent, Nassara State
Patricia Onyekwelu – WILPF Nigeria, Enugu State
Ifeyinwa Omowole Nigeria Association of Women Journalist, Lagos State
Ballason Gloria – House of Justice Kaduna State
Osai Ojigho – Self, Delta State
Nnenaya Emeremadu – CARA Development Foundation. Imo State
Jemila Barkindo – Women Peace and Security Network, Borno State
Amy Oyekan Monii Development Consultant, Delta State
Ify Malo – Clean Tech Hub, Anambra State
Eleanor Nwadinobi – Gender Expert, Abia State
Olufunke Baruwa – Nigerian Women Trust Fund, Ekiti State
Priscilla Achakpa – Women Environment Program, Benue State
Blessing Usie – Open Society Justice Initiative, Delta State
Felicia Onibon – Change Managers International Network, Edo State
Edna Mathews-Njoku – Joel Women Youth Development Initiative, Imo State
Ndi Kato – NNidari Empowerment Foundation, Kaduna State
Natasha Akpoti – Builders Hub Foundation, Kogi State
Lesley Agams – Consultant, Abuja FCT
Mariam Marwa – Abdu – Women and Children’s Rights and Empowerment Foundation, Adamawa State
Blessing Duru – Program Manager, Alliances for Africa
Ogechi Ikeh – Program Officer, Nigerian Feminist Forum
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.
Having had a day to decompress and a day to catch up on dull routine office matters I can sit back and reflect on the past few days. Ahhhh…what a life! What a rat race. Rushing from pillar to post as my old folks back home would say.
First of all I am moving to Ghana as soon as possible. They took the pill, and now it all seems possible in Ghana in a way it does not in Nigeria. There is a confidence in the air; the desperation of Naija, that hard hungry prowling menacing edge, is absent.
I never could define it before.
There are about 23 million people in Ghana, we last elected a fellow there in 1995, that was 13 years ago, by Ashoka’s formula there should be about 20-26 social entrepreneurs at different stages of their life cycles just waiting for me to find them.
When I got to Ashoka fellow L’s house on my first day the power was out in her neighborhood. She kept on apologizing and saying ‘This sort of thing does not happen here; they tell us if there is going to be an outage’. Turns out there was a breakdown. No body in the neigborhood had a generator. They quickly ran out of candles at the local stores.
There was no lock on my bedroom door, not even a door handle actually. Now that was freaky. I know I sometimes I forget to lock my door at night but to not even be able to close it! And the gates didn’t have padlocks and the door opened to the outside. Eventually I shrugged and went to bed, this is Ghana I guess. Since I’m writing this now I didn’t get attacked by robbers or pyschos.
On the drive to Lucia’s office in the morninng I couldn’t help but notice Guaranty Trust Bank ‘s billboards everywhere, they were the largest on the streets, offering 4 types of VISA credit cards. I bank with them in Naija. I’m still trying to activate my MASTERCARD debit card almost 6 months later.
They even offered a students credit card. I remember some customer service clones at my Naija branch takling down to a teenage student that came to open an account. They were totally unhelpful, I think they sent her away. I remember telling Maya about it.
I find it a bit disturbing to see 21st century Nigerian bank workers, they tend to look like a witches at a murder inc convention or vultures at a feast maybe. Their painted on faces and their conservative uniforms inspire pity not confidence. At least when I worked ever so briefly for a bank we still expressed some individuality of personality and style.
I had scheduled 4 two hour interviews; one called to reschedule for Saturday morning. The first 2 went great then my hostess took me home and over fed me. Yes that’s right she held a gun to my head and made me clean my plate. Thankfully I had an extra 2 hours before my next interview. I took a power nap in her very comfortable armchair.
Site visit on Saturday took me into the market, where ‘the people’ are. The crowds were overwhelming but valiantly I waded through the press of humanity to get to the drug store where I would be shown this great new idea in action. People kept on dumping into me or me into them, I slung my laptop bag in front of me and marveled that no where else in Africa have I felt so comfortable lugging around a laptop.
I didn’t read a local newspaper till the last day, I’m not sure why, Lucia had them delivered at breakfast every morning but on Sunday after a long brisk walk and a cold shower I took one to read. The Daily Mirror had frontline stories of female gospel singers and their marriage troubles.
I was astounded reading the stories, they were woman friendly! They did not condemn these women for not enduring abuse and unhappiness! They did not say or imply that these were selfish women undeserving of heaven and the fruits of wedded bliss that endureth. A father was actually quoted as saying he was happy his daughters marriage was over.
I brought the paper back as a souvenir even though I used it to wrap the ‘black pepper’ sauce that Lucia had made for me. (Delicious!) Framing it might be extreme; one of our candidates this year that is creating exclusive communication platfroms for women to discuss politics and current affairs from their prespective starting in Ghana.
I remember my total frustration when I lived in south east Nigeria and wrote for a local newspaper. I wanted to write articles to inspire and sensitize women. The publisher/editor wanted me to cover the worst and best dressed at social events. I had one regular reader that I know of (she told me she looked forward to my column). She was a professor at the local university.
Another candidate (this time a Nigerian) is using humor in popular lingo, slang and even pidgin English to inform the people about thier legal rights. A lot of them don’t know that …your landlord can’t kick you out on the street without due process or that you can’t be arrested or searched without a warrant or that they can’t sack you becuase you are HIV positive.
Perhaps these candidates can collaborate. Perhaps I can inspire and sensitize in a style accessible to the many. Perhaps we can all acknowldege in deed and word that the majority in the developing world do not hold college or university degrees without treating them like simpletons. Perhaps we can change the world. As a matter of fact, YES WE CAN!
My heart is a going pitter patter reading the letter again, reliving it all. No. My heart is racing like a jack hammer! Remembering. A sexual assault. By my manager. Samuel Musa. While working at Oxfam GB.
That was in August 2010. I wrote the letter below to Barbara Stocking in desperation more than a year later.
Just like I searched desperately for legal support in Nigeria and when I couldn’t find any I went to search the UK in 2012. I spoke to so many lawyers. Every last one of them asked me whether I had worked in the UK.
“I was based in Abuja. The only time I came to the UK was for that country directors conference where the assault happened.”
And they all said –
“Sorry. You’re not eligible to appear before the UK employment tribunal.”
Eventually I found a UK lawyer that said she might have been able to help me but….
…we were already just days away from the statute of limitations for sexual assault. There was no way she could prepare and file the paper work in time.
I let it go then. Focused on putting myself back together again. It wasn’t the first time that man woman palaver (as we euphemistically call it in Nigeria) had terminated my job.
So this is the letter I wrote to Barbara Stocking after they confirmed my termination, as I was facing the loss of my home – after losing my job, my dad, my cat, my dog, my self esteem, my confidence.
I stumbled across it looking for something else all together and it all just came back. I’d pushed the whole incident to the far recesses of my mind. (My therapist gonna have something to say about that.) At first I cringed thinking maybe I was whining in the letter but as I read it I started to feel kinda good. I wrote from my heart. I spoke my truth. That’s all. Nothing to be ashamed of.
April 28, 2012
It’s over a year now since I left your employ. I don’t know if you even noticed. Oxfam GB is such a big place. I don’t imagine you could possibly keep up with all your employees and I wasn’t there long enough. It wasn’t till my orientation at Oxford office in August 2010, almost 10 months after I started working for you that I actually started to understand the organization and my role. One important lesson I take away from my experience at Oxfam GB is to orient employees quickly, capably and to install controls to make sure the system works.
But that’s not why I write you. I’m writing to you because I believe the woman I met in August 2010 is a just, fair and above all compassionate person. There was nothing fair, just or compassionate about the way I was summarily dismissed from Oxfam GB in November 2010 or the way I was treated during my subsequent appeal. I tried so hard to reach Penny Lawrence. I remember her telling us during the orientation that she was always available to help and advice us with our problems and issues. She never spoke to me.
The 2 week visit in August 2010, my first to the UK was also where my trouble started. My line manager Mr. Samuel Musa, deputy regional director for West Africa at the time sexually assaulted me in his hotel room. Worried that my job, my working relationships and Oxfam GBs reputation could be in jeopardy, I didn’t listen to advice of friends to report the incident to the police. Instead I went to Martin Knops to treat my own pain and trauma and on his advice reported the incident to Catherine Layton then in the Human Resource department. I told her I was reporting ‘just in case’ Samuel tried to victimize me I wanted someone to know..
I realize now I should have made that report for a number of reasons. After all it wasn’t sexual harassment I was reporting. I was reporting a crime; sexual assault is after all a criminal offence. Of course all of us worked for Oxfam. Neither Catherine nor Martin suggested I report to the police. Catherine actually advised I speak to Samuel. Which I did. Eventually. It was almost a month later before I was able to talk to him on the phone about it. I told Catherine about the call. Because I had asked for assurance during the call and he didn’t give any I followed up with an email. He ignored it.
It had taken a whole lot of effort on my part to talk to him about it in the first place. I wasn’t comfortable raising the issue with him again. I did discuss with Catherine how we could address institutional sexual harassment. I’ve seen and experienced a lot of behavior in Oxfam GB’s Africa offices that would easily qualify for sexual harassment in the west and UK. I wasn’t the only victim. I felt that as Oxfam GB’s gender lead in West Africa I could have a wider institutional impact on the matter instead of making it all about me. I also didn’t want to be the lone female shouting ‘rape’. I had a lot of confused feelings.
Of course I was deeply traumatized by the experience. It was difficult working with Samuel after that. I had flash backs every time I saw an email from him, or had to speak with him on the phone and when I saw him late September in Dakar. I tried to be brave and strong but I was really uncomfortable and jumpy. Still with Catherine’s question about whether he knew his attention was unwanted ringing in my head I reiterated to him again I did not want his attention and asked for assurance he would never try to ‘make a pass at me’ again. But he didn’t make a pass at me the first time, it wasn’t a seduction or a wooing or ongoing sexual harassment at work; it was a traumatic and unexpected physical attack.
I ignored my pain and stepped up my efforts at work with some idea that if I just did my best my job would be safe. With 20/20 hind sight I see my mistake. There is no way I could have spoken to him about the incident in the terms that I did that he could do other than try to get rid of me as soon as possible. Anything else would have been literally working under the threat of an imminent report from me. Still I hoped, this was Oxfam GB after all, an international humanitarian agency with rules, surely I was safe.
On November 23, 2010, a Wednesday, Samuel Musa arrived Abuja from Dakar and handed me a letter summarily terminating my contract without reason. He gave me 2 days notice to vacate the office premises and immediately repossessed all Oxfam GB equipment including laptop and handsets making it difficult for me to reach anybody within the organization. My employment contract governed by Nigerian Law says that summary dismissal is in accordance with internal guidelines. Under these guidelines I am entitled to a weeks’ notice that I am being considered for summary dismissal. Under Nigerian law I am entitled to two weeks’ notice.
The law wasn’t upmost on my mind when I received the letter of termination. I was distraught that I was about to lose my job at the hands of the man who had sexually assaulted me less than 3 months before. I was in no emotional state for the appeal and under too much emotional distress by then to focus on that. The entire process became a sexual harassment investigation rather than an appeal of my wrongful termination. At the end of the emotionally devastating process where I had to re-live my assault again I was informed there was no corroboration to my allegations of sexual assault and my dismissal was in accordance with Nigerian law. That’s all.
Kathleen McGarva who handled my sexual assault complaint and my appeal (I wonder if that was proper?) decided that the email I wrote to Samuel and my correspondence with Catherine Layton and Martin Knops were not sufficient corroboration of my story and chose to accept Samuel’s version of the story which had even less corroboration than mine. He admitted I was in his room but unsurprisingly denied the course of events or that we went up together. He further claimed he ignored my email because he didn’t know what I was talking about. After denying my appeal Katherine said Oxfam GB would talk to him to find out how he could have handled the situation better. That sounded a lot like I was the lying trouble maker.
In April 2011 I finally wrote Katherine asking about the outcome of that exercise with Samuel. Was he punished? Was he queried? Was he reprimanded? I received her response on April 6, 2011 a Wednesday and was considering my reaction to send the following Monday when I was informed on Saturday April 9, 2011 my father died. I never did get a chance to react to Katherine’s last email after that news.
Katherine’s April email suggested that Oxfam GB were not interested in getting rid of a sexual predator in their employ much less how his actions had affected me or what I was going through personally. Oxfam GB seemed more interested in protecting themselves and I was the villain not the victim but it happened to me so I know what happened. In August 2011 I came to the UK and filed a criminal incident report with the Thames Valley Police accusing Samuel Musa of criminal sexual assault. They believed me but needed corroborating evidence to successfully prosecute. They also said if I had reported earlier there could have requested the hotels CCTV footage for corroboration. Still there is an incident report and number that it may serve as evidence should anyone else report Samuel for a similar thing.
I’m sure I wasn’t his first sexual assault and maybe not his last. Maybe he has been sexually exploiting women he managed? It is interesting that the Africa leadership teams have so few women. It was curious that Samuel resigned abruptly shortly after the police investigators visited the Oxfam GB offices. It may have been a coincidence. Did somebody else report him? What could HR have done differently? The fact that there was even a hint of criminal sexual assault in which the preponderance of evidence, thin though it was nevertheless was on my side should have raised enough doubt to make him justify his reasons for summary dismissal.
After my experience with Oxfam GB I really didn’t want to work for any other organization. This is not the first time I have had to make a career move or lose a job because of man woman trouble as we call it euphemistically in Nigeria. I had thought that I would be safe working with an international organization that had rules about such things. I have been sadly disappointed, in the time since my dismissal I have met and spoken to almost a dozen women with similar experiences. Male managers at INGOs are getting away with sexual abuse in the workplace, women are wrongfully losing jobs, some get stuck in court for years and exhaust their savings, others just don’t want to talk about it in public, still others are too busy trying to make ends meet to fight a foreign Goliath.
I’m a lawyer by training. I opened a small law firm instead of getting another job in the international development field. My 1 year experience at Oxfam GB was exhausting both emotionally and physically. I figure that being my own boss will reduce my vulnerability to sexual assault in the workplace. My practice focuses exclusively on women’s right and expanding legal protection from violence through litigation and legal precedent. I’m building a social enterprise to sustain the practice and my reputation as a writer. Kathleen was right; Oxfam GB didn’t break any Nigerian laws. I was the one that sent that legal opinion on Nigerian labor law to Samuel in October 2010.
Still I found the internal procedure for summary termination on Oxfam GB site confusing. My contract says internal procedure will apply in dismissal yet the site refers back to ‘local laws’. Meanwhile, my contract already says Nigerian law applies. Without knowing the in house rules for summary dismissal that clause of the contract is misleading. When I read it while negotiating my employment terms I reasonably thought it meant rules other than Nigerian law applied. I thought I was protected from unfair or wrongful dismissal and sexual victimization a common enough fear in Nigeria under our poorly applied and interpreted laws. Apparently I was wrong.
Why am I writing to you now?
An executive coach and consultant I worked with advised me to write to you personally and let you and Oxfam GB know exactly what is going on with me before proceeding with any further action. He is optimistic that Oxfam GB will do the right thing. I am hopeful that you Barbara will. I feel I was bullied by a big bad corporation, except Oxfam GB is supposed to be a ‘humanitarian’ organization, one of the ‘good guys’. How could they preach global love and charity and leave me out in the cold like this? Are Oxfam’s values just corporate jargon? I still wonder how I can possibly engage in a legal battle with a corporate behemoth like Oxfam GB that has more money and more lawyers than I can ever hope to. I’m intimidated from even trying but feel the injustice keenly.
I’m sitting in the eye of a hurricane right now. I have suffered terribly because of the assault and even more during and after the loss of my job. I’ve lost almost everything because of Samuel Musa and Oxfam GBs actions; my job, my health insurance, my father, who was my dependant and couldn’t continue diabetes treatment after I lost my health insurance and now I am about to lose my home. My small law practice is young and growing but even that is under threat.
If Catherine Layton, or Martin Knops or any other Oxfam GB employee had advised me to report to the police as soon as I described a sexual assault there may have been CCTV footage showing us arriving and me leaving his room and maybe corroboration of my ‘allegations’. There may have been witnesses available for trained questioning by the police. Dozens of Oxfam GB people were in the lobby that night when we left. Samuel Musa himself would have been available for the police to interrogate. If Samuel Musa had not been allowed to dismiss me without reason after sexually assaulting me I may still have my father, my house, my cat and my life.
I am writing this to you now because I was grievously injured by your employees and former employee’s actions and summarily and wrongfully dismissed without reason from my position as CD Nigeria programs and I feel that Oxfam GB my employers did not do enough to protect me or prevent the injury and subsequent suffering. It has taken me this long and many hours of consultation with lawyers and counselors to get here. While I’m still suffering the fall out of that injury, emotional, physical and financial, I finally have the mental and legal clarity to seek the rdress I believe that I deserve.
I hope this letter speaks to the humane part of you and not just the corporate goddess. I only seek justice, for myself and for my silent, disempowered or disenchanted African sisters. We are also a humanitarian cause. We’re also humankind. Barbara please show me that we are safe working for foreign agencies, even the BINGO’s and that the same rules that protect our female colleagues in head office will protect us in our work spaces scattered in the dark spots for gender rights on the continent too. Do not unilaterally listen to our kinsmen who fill your senior leadership positions in Africa and tell you African women will lie against them about rape or sexual assault or sexual harassment in the workplace because that is the excuse our men give for not tightening rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment laws.
I was a good employee; innovative, result oriented, driven, participatory, nurturing and above all ethical. I was one of few in the region that understood the implementation of the SMS. I was planning a fast track career development in the sector. I was systematically rooting out graft and corruption in the Nigerian program. I was also under systematic attack by the forces of graft and corruption. I wasn’t only working for you, I was also working for my country, for your donors and especially those little old English ladies that have a standing order with their bank to deduct GBP20 every month from their pension check and send to Oxfam GB, even if they are no longer your biggest contributors. I don’t deserve this. It feels so terribly wrong to be dismissed so nonchalantly and left so broken and devastated.
I appeal to you Barbara as the Chief Executive of Oxfam GB with whom all decisions finally rest for some sort of justice, relief, closure, damages and permission to move on. I hope you consider my appeal with wisdom and compassion.
I look forward to hearing from you. In the meantime I remain;
Lesley Gene Agams Esq.
This was her reply
Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 10:32 AM
Thank you for your letter of 28th April 2012 concerning your period of employment with Oxfam GB.
I was aware of the circumstances surrounding your departure from Oxfam and am deeply saddened to hear how you now feel, and that you attribute this to the way that Oxfam handled your complaint. As you are aware, Oxfam is very concerned about gender inequality and committed to putting poor women’s rights at the heart of what we do. With this in mind I can assure you that Oxfam did take your complaint seriously and followed internal procedures carefully to fully investigate the points that you raised. Unfortunately , like the police, we found that there was insufficient evidence to corroborate your allegation of events that had taken place, some 3 months earlier. The allegation of sexual assault is an issue which we take very seriously and although we could not find evidence to confirm that the assault did take place, the matter was followed up and appropriate action was taken in line with our procedures. I appreciate that you were disappointed by these findings.
I understand that you did speak to both Catherine Layton (HR Adviser) and Martin Knops (Oxfam’s Counsellor) about events that took place whilst you were in the UK. At the time you did not categorise them as a criminal offence of sexual assault but as an ‘incident in a hotel room where you refused to have sex with your manager’ and indeed had asked to speak to them both ‘in confidence’. This confidentiality was maintained by them both as you had requested. Had you allowed Catherine to take this forward on your behalf as one of the options she suggested to you at the time, or indeed expressed it in the more serious language that you are now using, then the situation may have been different. This was the decision that you made at the time and I feel that it is not appropriate of you now to blame them for respecting your request for confidentiality.
With regard to your termination of employment from Oxfam, I am aware that you raised an appeal against this in line with our procedures. The appeal was heard by Kathleen McGarva, the Deputy International Director, and she was satisfied that the termination of your contract complied with the law in Nigeria which is the law that governed your contract of employment and that the termination was not due to sexual victimisation from a senior manager of staff. Kathleen is an experienced senior manager in Oxfam, based in Oxford who had no prior knowledge or involvement of this matter. I am satisfied that she considered your case very carefully in a fair and transparent manner when reaching her conclusion.
I am satisfied that that Oxfam has acted fairly in fully investigating your complaints and allegations and your request for damages is not appropriate.
Thank you for writing to me about bringing this to my attention. I do wish you the very best for your future.
Chief Executive, Oxfam GB
Maybe she was right, maybe it was all my fault. Except I’m pretty damn sure I DID describe it as a sexual assault, EXACTLY as it happened, in very vivid detail too, to both Martin and Catherine. Whatever could have given them the idea that is was an ‘incident in a hotel room where you refused to have sex with your manager’? (How sleazy does that even sound? Ugh!) Now they would have me second guessing myself!
I thought I was really over it. Just a couple weeks ago I was telling my friend that I had finally recovered from it all except the jack hammering of my heart says maybe not.
How do I feel about it now? I still feel angry. And powerless.
“Honour you anger” Martin Knops said to me all those years ago.