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Three days ago the Federal High Court, Abuja delivered a historic ruling in a case that effectively served as a proxy for a wider issue of the rights of sex workers in Nigeria and the activities of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board. In her ruling on the case between sixteen female victims of the notorious Abuja raids and a number of government and security agencies involved in the raids, Justice Binta Nyarko ruled in favour of the women, stating that their arrest and detention was a violation of their constitutional rights.
Following NewsWireNGR’s groundbreaking investigative dive into the activities of the AEPB under the leadership of Hajiya Safiya Umar, this ruling sparked celebration in many quarters. While the subsequent functions of the AEPB and the Social Development Service (SDS) under Hajiya Safiya are unknown for now (as is the status of Hajiya Safiya herself), this seems to be as close to justice as could have been hoped for.
The major implication of this ruling of course, is that Abuja is now a significantly safer place to exist as a young woman, but there are several other interesting things to pick out from the ruling. Here is a cliff notes version of the ruling and how it changes things for sex workers, security agencies, government agencies and women in general in Nigeria.
Ruling Expressly Forbids AEPB From Carrying Out Raids
In the investigative story from October 2019, I outlined how the AEPB under Hajiya Safiya’s guidance invaded clubs, hotels, bars and even open spaces, arresting every young woman in sight and subjecting them to sexual assault, robbery and extortion under the guise of “fighting prostitution.” Justice Nyarko has firmly, unequivocally and unambiguously put a pin in this whole business of invading private establishments and residences to search for alleged prostitutes.
In her ruling, she quoted Section 37 of the 1999 Constitution which reads, “The privacy of citizens, their homes, correspondence, telephone conversations and telegraphic communications is hereby guaranteed and protected.” This is an important point because it provides very important case law precedent that establishes the express illegality of a Hajiya Safiya-style raid in future. Barring non-implementation by the Executive, this judgment has once and for all slammed the door shut on the type of scenarios that the ladies in my story found themselves in.
The Judge did not rule on the Legality of Sex Work in Nigeria
In Court, the women lawyer, Bamidele Jacobs, argued that sex work was not specifically a crime in Nigeria . Unlike what was reported in the immediate aftermath of the ruling, the ruling does not in fact touch on the issue of whether sex work is legal in Nigeria or not.
Jacob argued that sec work was not specifically a crime in Nigeria – Justice Nyako said the women rights under the constitution had been violated following the invasion. Jacob during an in interview with the BBC said he was thinking of appealing against the ruling in order to get the court to make a pronouncement that sex work was not against the law
The entirety of the case was in fact, focused on the legality or lack thereof of the AEPB’s regular raids targeting young women profiled as sex workers. The only reliefs sought by the complainants according to the ruling were a series of declarations confirming that the AEPB’s tactics including home invasion, expropriation of personal property, indecent searches and physical assault were illegal and unconstitutional.
Justice Nyarko’s actual verdict was actually very brief – these activities are illegal and unconstitutional, hence the complainants are entitled to some compensation. Whether or not another case will come out of this one providing potentially valuable case law to test the legality of arresting women for even confirmed sex work remains to be seen.
Ruling Affirms That Constitution Overrides Contradictory Laws
Something that has caused a great deal of confusion in cases involving officially sanctioned misbehaviour is the apparent legal backing for such misdemeanours. Whether it is police terrorising young men or sexually assaulting young women, the constant recurring justification is typically some obscure clause in the Act that set up the agency or public service responsible.
Technically, as we all learned in high school Civic Knowledge, a codified constitution like Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution ranks supreme over any other law or ordinance that may be enacted. In other words, when there is a clash between the constitution and an agency’s enabling Act, the constitution should always win on paper. In practise however, getting an overzealous, power-hungry police constable to see the finer points of such legal argument in the middle of an illegal arrest or detention is easier said than done.
Justice Nyako’s ruling ends this ambiguity once and for all, reaffirming that wherever there is a contradiction between two legislations, the general legislation such as in the AEPB’s enabling Act must give way to the specific such as in the Constitution.