The Nigeria Police Force is not exactly known for its gender-sensitivity, so why was the Gender Unit created and what was your primary mission?
I would give credit to the former Inspector General of Police, Mr. Solomon Arase, who was very passionate – who still is passionate – about gender and the anomalies within the system. He and my boss, Mero Adebalogun, came together and decided that there were lots of cases coming in, which police were handling as domestic issues and it wasn’t yielding any positive results. Cases like abuse, domestic abuse, gender-based violence, child prostitution, child slavery – a lot of issues – and they would just chuck them aside because they involved women and children. He needed to do something at the top so that it would trickle down, so he now decided to create a gender office in the Nigeria Police Force. It’s the first of its kind in Nigeria. We have offices in every command at the state and the zonal level and we also liaise with the normal State CIDs so that there’s no gap. We realised that after doing that, we were still having issues because most people in the police force didn’t know about gender. We were being accused of putting domestic issues ahead of other issues. So there was a signal that was released that ordered that the Gender Desk offices should be created in Command. We also had help from Ford Foundation; they actually gave us a grant to start the gender unit, so that was quite effective. We trained some officers and here we are today. That was probably about five years ago.
What have been your challenges?
Quite frankly, a lot of the complainants think you’re a magician. They believe that you can make their problems go away and forget that we deal with the criminal aspect of those issues they bring to us. Like sometimes some of them feel we have the power to dissolve marriages, we have the power to force the spouse to bring back children, but these are all civil issues and they have to go to the courts to file for such. Some of them, maybe because they want their husbands to take their children and them abroad, they come in with spurious complaints. Some of the victims think we’re miracle workers and they don’t know that we have a timeline in which to do our jobs. But there’s a process. We have to come in, we have to investigate, we have to call the suspect and ask him or her what happened, and find a lasting solution. Most oftentimes we are expected to proffer advice and I don’t think we should, because we’re not trained; we’re not life support coaches. But because we’re over-zealous sometimes, we also have a problem. We tend to forget and we become nurses and doctors instead of police. But the funny part is that you cannot do this job and not get emotionally involved.
Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) is the new thing in Nigeria and it is like people don’t think they’ve ever heard about it, but it’s been happening from time immemorial. Long before we were given birth to, violence against women and children – and sometimes men – has been perpetuated. So now because there’s a name attached to it, people think it’s a new concept. And cultural practices do not help. Some men feel because they have married a woman she is their property, so they can do whatever they want to do with her. They’ll beat her and will even say that it is normal. So when you come to try to educate these people, you can see the shock on their faces. Sometimes even when you’re trying to talk to them, they’ll be bold to your face saying, “After all what have I done, she’s my….” So you have to sit them down and you say, “Ok, do you know about…”
So, it’s not your job to arrest these people?
We do arrest them, most oftentimes it is a criminal complaint so what we do first, because of the peculiar elements surrounding it, we put a call across to you and we ask you to come to our office. Sometimes we have some very stubborn ones, they don’t want to come and they’ll insult you and they say “how can you interfere in my life, in my marriage? It’s my personal business.” Those you are forced to go and arrest and detain them because they need to understand the gravity of what they have done. So when you arrest them you put them in detention for 24 hours and then we go to the courts to get a warrant of remand to be able to keep them for a period of time longer than 24 hours. I think basically that’s really what we do. We carry out arrests, we make enquiries, and then we liaise with social welfare, with NGOs and with shelters because sometimes it’s not convenient for the women or the children or the men to go back to that environment again.
So what is the system of social welfare and shelters and how does it function in Abuja?
It does function, oh yes it does. At one point we had issues in terms of the scope of our jobs and who was supposed to do what and how we are supposed to work. We used to have this erroneous belief that we can keep a found child or a lady or woman in distress running away from domestic violence, but it is wrong. They had to educate us that there is social welfare under the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and that’s their job. They have social workers who are being paid, they’re being given allocations, and they have trained personnel handling such issues. If we’re doing their job, we’ve stopped policing and have now entered into social work and that’s not our forte. So now after we’ve done the necessary investigation and determine that this person needs shelter and immediate accommodation, we call them in. They’re in every area council. In the commands we also have the Juvenile Women and Children (JWC) unit, and they’re being made functional now. When they gave us the [Ford Foundation] grant we used part of it to train them so we could work together and the job would flow easily.
You were at the African Feminist Forum last April, so I assume that you’re comfortable with the label feminist. How would you say that your approach to gender equity is different from the way other people might be doing it?
For me, I work in a male-oriented environment and I work with people who do not believe in gender, or they do not know what the meaning of gender equality – as for feminism? Don’t go there! (Laughs) They see you like a dragon and they go, “Eh? No wonder why you’re so fierce!” They don’t understand. I’m a police officer and most oftentimes there’s this distrust for police officers so I have to go out of my way to make sure that I show that I’m a feminist. I support the cause and interest of women and if anything happens to any woman, I’ll take it very personally. But it’s not been easy. I had to de-radicalise myself a bit so that I’ll be able to influence my colleagues and my place of work. You know, people have misconstrued feminist groups. We hardly know them, but we have different names for them. When we went for the [African Feminist] Forum in Zimbabwe, people thought it would just be single women or LGBTI women, but there were lots of married women, influential women. And I was like, “Okay! So this is what it is!” It was an eye-opener for me and it gave me a lot of courage to be able to come out and be a feminist in the open, not hidden. It’s like coming out of the closet, seriously.
So which strategies have you found to be most successful when you’re trying to get your colleagues to think about gender equality or really rethink the way they approach gender equality?
You know because we are Africans, we use practical experiences. So I go, “So what about if it was your sister or if it was your mother?” Their mothers? Don’t even go there! They all say, “God forbid!” so then I educate them and I say, “See, every woman is your sister, is your mother. You don’t even know what your sister is going through right now. But, if you call her and ask her, and you have an understanding of what it is to be female, what it is to be a woman, she’ll open up to you.” Most oftentimes I give them pamphlets, I give them materials and we engage each other in arguments. Sometimes if you come to my office, we’re shouting on top of our voices and we’re talking about rights, rights, rights, rights. And I tell them, “As a police officer you do not have an excuse to say you are not aware of a right or the Constitution.” Thank God they are forward-thinking men. We’ve had one or two people who have come into the department with archaic notions, but thankfully two of them left. One stayed and I’ll proudly say he’s now a male feminist. Meninist? (Laughs) – I don’t know what word to use.
How do you think something like the Gender Hub would help your department, or even the police force as a whole?
It would help because, to our greatest surprise, most people do not know about the gender desk. It’s usually the word of an acquaintance or somebody who has gone there and has experienced our reception firsthand who will then tell others, “Oh go there.” We have a bureaucracy and a hierarchy, so I cannot say, “Oh, Gender Hub should do this.” But once in a while it wouldn’t be bad for us to get some exposure. We’ve been encouraged to talk about the gender unit and what we do, and if possible to get our friends to tweet about it. It wouldn’t hurt if we had a little bit of announcement on Gender Hub that there’s such a thing. We need do need training and retraining; we need to know how to handle gender issues, and we need to know how to handle evidence… there’s still a lot of missing gaps.
With the creation of the Gender Desk, do you see any changes in the Nigeria Police Force, or in society as a whole?
Yes I do. Right now we have police officers that are also perpetrators of violence and it’s been so easy for their wives come and report them, and we take action. That speaks of confidence in the system, you know.
Measures have also been put in place to try and give us equal opportunities. Before, there were some certain jobs that they felt were only for men, and sometimes they felt that you couldn’t be the head of a unit or department because you are a woman. But now you see women joining the mobile police force, going on beats, going on arrests and a lot of things. For me it’s very slow, but it’s a process that has begun, and hopefully, we pray it should catch like wildfire.
The imbalance between the number of male polices officers to female officers is still a serious issue, but in the last recruitment they made sure that there were more women. Now you see female officers being appointed as assistant Inspector General of Police, commissioners of command, which you did not have before. And let me just say, most of these women are feminists. They took their stance and where men stood, they stood taller. So I think it’s how you present yourself and your capabilities out there in the open. If you hide them and say, “My rank is this and this boss’s rank is up there,” then you won’t get anywhere. A lot needs to be done, but it’s working, truly it’s working.
So then what would you say a gender-equitable Nigeria police would look like?
I would say 30 percent of the workforce would be female, because I don’t think it is up to five or 10 percent right now. People have this conception about certain jobs and the way the economy is, most people don’t want to work for the police. We’re not well paid, and we work long hours, so you don’t see a lot of women gunning for the police. They’d rather go to the air force, the navy or customs and immigration. They also believe that most police officers are uneducated and brash. So when they meet a few of us like me, everybody gets shocked, most oftentimes I have to remove my ID card to show that I’m actually a police officer. They ask, “Do you love your job?” I say, “Of course I love my job. If I did not, I would not be here.” There are other places, other opportunities, but when I think about it, I stay put where I am because I believe that I can make a change no matter how small. If I can impact on an individual, I am happy. It doesn’t have to be 10 or 15 people, no. I know that one person is going to go and spread the gospel somewhere, so for me, that’s enough. Hopefully, if we change mindsets and show people that the police is worth working for, maybe more women won’t hesitate to apply.