Blessing Otunla’s unclad body was found in a brackish ditch in Iddo village, Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, on Sunday, May 23, 2021. Her death drew a spectacle of inquiry and anger.
Blessing’s sister -who did not want her name mentioned- called her “a very ambitious lady.” She could not hide her pain when she described to HumAngle how she learnt of Blessing’s grisly murder.
“My phone was dead on that Saturday morning. A lot of people had tried to reach me because they knew I’m in Abuja. When I turned my phone on to receive a call from one of my cousins that Blessing’s body was found in a gutter in Iddo, I didn’t believe it because I didn’t know she came to Abuja until I saw pictures of her dead body,” she told HumAngle in a distressed tone.
Blessing, 24, recently graduated from the University of Abuja as an English major and had travelled from Ibadan, Oyo state, Southwest Nigeria, on Saturday, May 22, to collect her bachelor’s degree certificate.
When she was found unclad and dead in the ditch the next day, widespread outrage was reignited across the country over another case of gender-based violence.
Many believed she was raped and then brutally bludgeoned to death because of the status of her corpse. An autopsy report is yet to be out; “investigation is still ongoing,” Mariam Yusuf, police spokesperson in Abuja told HumAngle on Friday afternoon, May 28.
It was exactly 21 days after the rape-and-murder of Iniobong Umoren, a job seeker sparked national outrage over violence against women and girls in the country.
Iniobong, 26, a Philosophy graduate of the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, South-south Nigeria, who had gone for a job interview on April 29 in the same state, could not be reached by her friend Umoh Uduak, living in Lagos, Southwest Nigeria. Umoh turned to Twitter for help over a ‘friend’s disappearance.’
On May 2, Iniobong was found dead after a search team from the police and locals had tracked her to her last destination, the interview venue—a decrepit building along Airport road, Uyo, the state capital.
“I’m lost on what to say and I wish I could rewind time. I honestly wish it turned out differently, that you’d be found alive and would tell me everything that happened. Sadly, your life was cut short by monsters called humans. Rest in peace,” Umoh tweeted.
Following a national backlash and intense calls for justice online, police announced they had arrested Uduak Akpan, the supposed interviewer, who later confessed to raping and killing Iniobong “in self-defence.”
In the heat of the horrific crime, a report by Newswire suggested that Akpan did not act alone but might have belonged to an organ-harvesting syndicate. The police, however, rejected the report.
An epidemic of gender-based violence
A national survey by NOI found that every three girls living in Nigeria had experienced at least one form of sexual assault by the time they reach age 25, with approximately 70 percent reporting more than one incident.
The culture of violence against women in Nigeria, analysts say, can be traced to cultural malpractices of a deeply patriarchal society that devalues crimes against women.
Blessing and Iniobong’s deaths point to what analysts call an epidemic of sexual and gender-based violence, with many of them going underreported. They echo past horrific events.
The year 2020 was punctuated by brutal crimes against young girls and women in Nigeria.
Between Jan. and May 2020, a total of 717 rape incidents were recorded in the country and 799 suspects were arrested for the crimes, according to Mohammed Adamu, the immediate former Inspector General of Police (IGP).
On May 27, 2020, Vera Uwaila Omozuwa, a 22-year-old microbiology student of University of Benin was raped and found in a pool of blood, unconscious. Barely 24 hours later, Uwa died.
The incident followed a string of disturbing rape and murder reports in the country. On June 3, Barakat Bello, an 18-year-old student of Science Laboratory Technology (SLT), Federal College of Animal Health and Production, Ibadan was raped and stabbed to death at Akinyele Kara Market along old Oyo Road, Ibadan, Oyo State, southwest Nigeria.
The same day, a 17-year-old girl was also gang-raped in Ekiti State, also a southwestern state.
The incidents brought a furious response from Nigerians on social media. The hashtags #JusticeforUwa, #JusticeforJennifer, #JusticeforBarakat, #WeAreTired, trended on the Nigerian internet space with celebrities calling for justice and politicians promising tougher actions to protect women and girls from predators.
Reacting to the series of these rape-and-murder cases that trailed the pandemic year, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said his administration would fight gender-based violence and make sure the perpetrators of the heinous crimes were brought to justice.
“I wish to assure all our women of this administration’s determination to fight Gender-Based Violence through the instrumentality of the law and awareness creation,” Buhari said.
“The Police are pursuing these cases with a view to bringing perpetrators of these heinous crimes to swift justice,” he added.
Despite the increase in activism against violence against women, frustration at the state’s failure to address the issue seriously continues to flare up.
Tobi Ayodele, a women’s right advocate, says Nigeria is far from ensuring the safety of women and girls because of the systemic failings of the country’s criminal justice system, which rarely prosecutes cases.
In 2017, 2,200 cases of rape and indecent assault were reported but there was no conviction, according to data from the National Bureau of statistics.
“The trended cases led to the digital and physical protest that compelled the state governors to declare a nationwide #StateofEmergencyonGBV. Some states are yet to domesticate the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act 2015 while public institutions in States that have domesticated the VAPP Act are doing little to nothing to implement it,” Ayodele told HumAngle in an interview.
“We are far from ensuring safety for women and girls in Nigeria honestly because the area of accountability and providing justice is very low.”
She also believes the prevalence of sexual violence against women is rooted in Nigeria’s judicial system that is being notoriously backlogged, with millions of cases stuck in overburdened courts.
“We need the judicial system to work for us. We need the government in the representation of the police to ensure the safety of women and girls,” Ayodele said.
“Sexual assault/harassment cases should not be swept under the rug. Every office should be accountable for providing legal and safety services.”
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