LOUD WHISPERS: In Dire Need of Scapegoats

In November 2018, I wrote an article about the death of Ochanya Ogbanje after many years of abuse at the hands of her Uncle, his son, and her Aunt who acted as an enabler. Due to the huge outcry when it happened, I had hoped that Ochanya would get justice and her death would not be in vain. It was expected the Uncle and his son would be held responsible for what happened to the poor girl. On April 28th 2022, the Makurdi Magistrate Court dismissed all charges against Messrs Ogbuja senior and junior. However, Mrs Ogbuja was sentenced on the same day by a Federal High Court in Makurdi for negligence. All this is sad, confusing and infuriating. Ogbuja junior has been on the run and this judgement makes him a free man who was running away from nothing after all. There should definitely be an appeal, this case is one too many instances of blood on the hands of many. Four years later, we are still in dire need of scapegoats. Ochanya is still in dire need of justice. And thousands of Ochanyas continue to suffer while we fail them over and over.  This is the article I wrote back then.

The tragic story of Ochanya Ogbanje, the thirteen-year-old girl who passed away recently after years of sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle and his son, is something straight out of a Nollywood movie. One of the reasons why Nollywood (whether the English-speaking or local language sectors) resonates so well with people in our communities, is how real the storytelling is perceived to be. What Nollywood productions lack in qualitative production, they make up for in the sheer quantity of the dramatic stories they tell about how people experience class, poverty, gender, power and exploitation. The story of girls like Ochanya has been told in one local production or the other over and over. Poor children are farmed out to more prosperous family members based in the city all the time. Young girls are sexually abused by male members of the family all the time. When these vulnerable young victims try to speak up, they are ignored or silenced all the time. When women’s rights organisations or human rights bodies try to draw attention to the endemic culture of impunity that has taken root in our society, particularly as it relates to the issue of rape and sexual violence, people politely listen, nod or shake their heads, and then walk away – all the time.

I am sure people care about the girls who are abused by their wicked guardians. I believe that there are those who are outraged about what is happening. Yet, a sense of helplessness seems to have overwhelmed many of us because we think we cannot stop or change what is happening. So, we all get caught in a vicious cycle of denial and collusion. The unspeakable sexual abuse that Ochanya suffered at the hands of her uncle and his son that led to her death seems to have sparked a fire that I pray will not die out soon. At last, there is enough anger and outrage in the land. People are now screaming “Enough!”

Sadly, Ochanya’s story is not an isolated case. As long as poor people keep pushing their children into the hands of unscrupulous relatives or friends, there will always be tales of violence and abuse. This means we have hundreds of thousands of girls at risk. There are hardly any safeguards to protect them. Even where we have laws in place, it is hard to enforce them. The Ochanyas of this world are failed at every turn. Let us take a look at the fate of Ochanya and that of other girls like her:

Parents: Ochanya’s parents failed to provide the required care for their own child due to poverty. Poverty is not a crime, but negligence is. Although this does not apply yet to the Ochanya case, we have seen instances whereby family members discourage the victims from pressing charges in exchange for financial compensation. I hope reasonable people close to the Ogbanje family will advise them to perish the thought.

Guardians: In Ochanya’s case, this was her Aunt, Felicia Ochiga-Ogbuja, who took Ochanya into her home and when the abuse of her ward began, she saw no evil, heard no evil and spoke no evil. Incest is not new in our communities, but it has always been a taboo. Ochanya was a child, a girl living in her Aunt’s house with fewer rights than the family dog. Ochanya’s uncle-in-law, Andrew Ogbuja, was supposed to be a father to her, and as if this was not bad enough, his son, Victor, who was meant to be an older, protective brother, was the first of the duo to abuse the poor girl.

Teachers: In several instances, the teachers themselves are the culprits. A lot of the abuse of young girls in schools these days is perpetrated by teachers.

The Police: In spite of awareness that has been raised in the police force and the training of many police officers on these issues, reporting a sexual crime to the police is considered to be very undesirable due to the lack of professionalism and empathy. Even in cases where police are supportive, they cave in to pressure from families or powerful acquaintances of suspects who want to “settle” the case before it goes to court. The public outcry that followed the initial release of Andrew Ogbujaled to his re-arrest by the police. Otherwise, he would have kept on enjoying the benefits of being an untouchable local champion.

Friends: It is not clear from the reports about Ochanya’s experiences whether she confided in any friends. She was probably too young or isolated to have anyone to confide in. Older women who are victims of abuse often talk to their friends, and the kind of support system they end up with depends on the wisdom and courage of the friends they have. A dead friend hears no wails or sighs of regret.

We are in dire need of scapegoats to be made an example of. If I had my way, the people standing trial for rape, culpable homicide, negligence, obstruction of justice and so on would include Mr Andrew Ogbuja, Mr Victor Ogbuja, Mrs Felicia Ochiga-Ogbuja and if they are ever tempted to agree to a “settlement”, the Ogbanje parents. Any elders, clergy, politicians and the like, who try to obstruct justice, in this case, should be arrested and made an example of. According to recent reports, Ogbuja father and son were arrested, released and re-arrested. I have not heard of Madam Felicia’s arrest. She is also responsible for the fate of her late niece because she did nothing when she raised the issue of her torment with her. I hate it when we have to say the same thing over and over again. We keep lamenting the sexual violence in our communities, now of pandemic proportions, and we feel so helpless because of the impunity that has infested all our institutions. That is how it is possible for people to be saints during the day and demons in their homes when no one is looking.

We have to stop sharing space with predators, we need to take them on before they gain more power and strength. Let all of us be vigilant. Let us listen to our children and investigate their stories. Nine times out of ten, they are telling the truth. Last week, a case of sexual abuse of a minor was brought to my attention. The perpetrator (caught red-handed) is in police custody. I cannot say more than that for now since the case is being dealt with. Just that I am watching everyone involved like a hawk and rubbing my hands in anticipation of a scapegoat. Rest in peace Ochanya. Only God can forgive all those who failed you. 

The essay In Dire Need of Scapegoats’ is in ‘Where is Your Wrapper?’ Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, published by PRESTIGE, Farafina books, October 2020.

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is the First Lady of Ekiti State, and she can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

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