Remember Obiamaka

(image sourced from pulse.ng)

Obiamaka Orakwue was 14 years old on the night of July 10th when she left her brothers watching TV in the living room of her parents’ home and went to bed. For most fourteen-year-olds, the world is just starting to take shape. They are in the beginning of the questioning phase, sifting through old and new ideas to begin to decide what their own values and convictions are. Fourteen is a promising year, with childhood firmly in the past and the uncomfortable but eagerly awaited adolescence finally offering some small freedoms. Fourteen is an exciting year, full of promise and potential.

Obiamaka was the last of five children, the baby of the house who was getting ready to start her senior secondary education. She went to bed early because she had school in the morning; school, with all of its intrigues and pressures, all of its conflicts between systems and self, all of the tensions between the present and the future. At school, Obiamaka was described as responsible and quiet, respectful and unassuming. But that night, Obiamaka went to bed and never got the chance to wake up again.

The loss of a young child — regardless of the manner of death — is a perversion of what we understand as the order of life. But to suddenly lose your child to a violent and violating death within the confines of your own home, in a bedroom just a few feet away from where you yourself lay sleeping, is an indescribable horror. For Obiamaka’s mother, the shock and grief of finding her baby raped and killed in her bed manifested itself as a bodily revolt against the violation of the safety of her home and the life of her child. She was forced to spend several weeks in the hospital, and after being discharged, could not spend the night in her home anymore. Meanwhile, it is impossible to tell if Obiamaka’s father was always a sombre, stoic man, or if his daughter’s death and the manner of it produced those features in him.

As the news of Obiamaka’s death spread — peppered with details both factual and fictional — some outrage followed it. Sexual violence is far too common in Nigeria, but the facts of this particular case reminded the public just how pervasive it is. This gang rape followed by murder which took place in the victim’s home illustrated just how illusory safety can be for women and girls in this country. According to the myths perpetrated by gender-based violence apologists, Obiamaka should not have been targeted for this type of sexualised violence.

Her schoolmates described her as a good student who spent a lot of her time either in church or in the home her parents owned. Her family was fairly well off, she had never been romantically linked to any boys, and her neighbours agreed she was a respectful child. Judging by the all too popularly-held idea that women and girls can protect themselves by staying at home, being respectable and virtuous, and keeping their social lives as small as possible, Obiamaka should never have been harmed, speak much less of being killed. And yet she was.

Going over the nature and location of the crime committed against Obiamaka, a layman would imagine it as an open and shut case. The Nigerian Police Force and judicial system could have shown their commitment to ensuring justice for all Nigerians, to the protection of the rights of women and girls, and to the eradication of sexualised violence by acting swiftly and efficiently. Instead, Obiamaka’s case never saw even one suspect being named, speak much less of arrests or a trial.

The Police force’s visit to the crime scene was delayed, there was little questioning done in the neighbourhood, and their communication with the family about steps taken left much to be desired. Mr Orakwue, his face a mask of pain, shared his surprise and confusion at the response of the police. “I am so disappointed. They killed our child and nobody is doing anything, nobody cares, they are acting like it was a chicken that was killed. They cannot even expose the people that did it, the police cannot even tell us “this is a suspect.”

“I met the former Commissioner of Police and the Divisional Police Officer when the case happened. Before we knew it, the case was transferred to [the] Anti-Kidnapping [unit] in Surulere. Since then they have not done any follow up. They only conducted one visit to this house and every time we try to complain or find out what is happening they say they don’t know because the people in charge have been transferred. But from what we can see they have not done any investigation at all. They said they wanted to use the phone the boys stole from my daughter to trace some suspects, but nobody has been arrested. When we go there, they make promises. But once we leave, nothing happens. We have told them we are ready to cooperate with any investigation. When will they start investigating?”

Unfortunately, despite being deeply disappointing, the inaction of the Nigerian Police Force is unsurprising. The impunity with which violence is carried out against women and girls in Nigeria comes from a tacit understanding that there are few, if any, consequences for such acts. Civil society organisations like Stand to End Rape Initiative (STER) face an uphill and often unrewarding battle in trying to support victims and survivors to seek justice. Sadly, the indifference of the institutions whose responsibility it is to safeguard the lives of children like Obiamaka is the rule, rather than the exception.

Between August and December 2017, STER Initiative submitted three petitions to the office of the Commissioner of Police, to no effect. Visits by their team to the State Command in Panti, Yaba, the Police station in Abule Ado where Obiamaka’s family lives, and the Anti-Kidnapping squad in Surulere all yielded no evidence of progress. No one seemed equipped to answer any questions, no one knew where the case files were, no one had any idea what steps, if any, were being taken.

It is clear that Nigeria has a long way to go before it can convince anyone that it actually cares about the lives and safety of its women and girls. Whether the victims are 26 unidentified children trafficked into sexual slavery or one girl in her home, the lack of regard is the same. In the case of Lotanna, the graphic designer and blogger who came forward about the sexual and psychological violence she suffered at the hands of a prominent political family, the horrifying consensus was that she had no case because she chose to date the man who spearheaded her abuse. Nigerians were open in their disregard of her because she was a ‘fallen woman’, never mind that she was a child when the abuse began.

However, Obiamaka was every bit the type of girl Nigerians claim to care about protecting, the type of girl Nigerians claim deserves to be safe because of her goodness, the type of girl Nigerians invoke to silence other victims of sexual violence. Yet, this child went from her bed to her grave almost six months ago, and the sound of her family’s pain has been drowned out by the fruitless, voyeuristic outrage of a disingenuous public — and worse, by the silence of the institutions whose responsibility it is to ensure justice for her.

If we were a people capable of feeling shame, we would be ashamed. Every person with a role to play in ensuring justice for the Orakwue family and their lost child ought to hang their heads, offer deep and heartfelt apologies, and commit to rectifying this gross indictment of our society. After all, if children cannot be safe from violence, and if we cannot deter abusers from violating children in their own homes, have we not failed completely? What claim do we have to decency, or even to civilisation? How low are we willing to sink to show women and girls that their lives do not matter in this godforsaken country?

In honour of the 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women and girls worldwide, the Nigerian government lit up the Abuja city gate in an eye-numbing orange. But what good are blinding orange lights while a 14 year old child lies in the darkness of a grave and the people who put her there can look forward to a merry and unencumbered Christmas? What is the Orawkue family supposed to do with orange lights, knowing that their baby has been killed and nobody seems to care? What kind of society is it that watches its children suffer violence of all kinds and does nothing about it, just because they are girls?

Nigeria desperately needs to do better by its women and girls. I believe a good place to start is by ensuring justice for Obiamaka Orawkue.