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Nigerian social media and the sexual assault debate: Matters arising

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Nigerian social media and the sexual assault debate: Matters arising

by Gboyega Bamgboye

It is funny when we accuse people of letting emotions influence their opinion, as if it that is something we can easily control. Humans are not robots and therefore are susceptible to sentiments, especially when discussing controversial matters. We ask people to put themselves in the victim’s position, then argue such persons should form a view devoid of emotion. What I am saying is, we should approach every debate, especially on social media, with the expectation that people will always bring sentiments into the discussion, and that our own views are not completely devoid of emotion, no matter how strongly we deny it.

I think about this whenever I consider the debate on Nigerian social media over sexual assault claims by different women and the very important issue of burden of proof. The #MeToo movement here in the US has helped shine the light on decades of sexual abuse, and it is a big relief that the time of reckoning for these men has come.

What I have never agreed with is the seeming consensus especially on cable TV shows that every allegation of sexual assault by a woman should be believed without questions. Mika Brzezinski, co-host of the popular morning political show Morning Joe was one of the first people to champion this assertion. That was until Mark Halperin, a popular political pundit and regular guest on the show, was accused, credibly, by several women of sexual abuse spanning decades. Thereafter she began to hold a more nuanced approach to such matters.

Another thing to note is that in the US, before any reputable newspaper publishes sexual assault allegation stories, serious investigations are carried out, sometimes for months; there are multiple corroborating sources for such stories, timelines are checked and the accuser is interviewed multiple times to ensure consistency. Finally, and for me almost as important as the allegations, the accused is informed of the allegations and given a chance to respond. That response forms part of the published article.

I mention these two angles because they both form the substance of my disillusionment with the current debate around sexual assault claims in Nigeria and the right of the accused to defend himself. There is no need to mention specific examples because that distracts from a larger point. Every sexual assault allegation on social media (and they are mostly made on social media first and, in most cases, only) follow the same script: a lady says she was sexually (or almost sexually) assaulted by a guy, there is outpouring of grief for her and condemnation for the accused. The accused (if he is lucky to have online presence) refutes the allegations and states his own version of the story. A few people look at his story, check the lady’s version again and think “wait, this might warrant a second look”. That is where all hell is let loose. Anyone who dares raises questions about the lady’s story is rebuked and labeled “a rape apologist”, “an anti-feminist” and in extreme cases “a rapist”, since only a rapist can dare believe the words of an accused rapist, however plausible his story is. Everyone is expected to conform to a predetermined consensus: every sexual assault allegation is true and the accused is deemed guilty without any chance of having his day in the court of public opinion.

There is also the emotional blackmail used by people who try to personalize the case to you. We had this debate in a Whatsapp groups a few days ago and a lady, in response to people questioning an allegation of attempted assault, said something like “one day it might be your sister, your wife or your daughter”. My response was a simple “one day, a rape allegation might be made against your husband, your brother or your son”. Would you then be wrong to hear their version of the story and compare with the accuser’s before deciding on what seems more plausible?

There have been decades of abuse suffered by women in the hands of men, powerful and small, that we are currently in a good place where women finally feel liberated to confront their accusers and relieve themselves of a long-carried burden. But where there is a problem is when an accuser or her sympathizers think she ought not to be asked questions. No, I am not talking about the “why didn’t you report on time?” type questions, even if i believe it is a legit one. But where there are apparent inconsistencies in her story (as should be expected – a victim cannot be expected to have a video recorder in her head while she is trying to escape from an assault) or where the accused offers a rebuttal, then questions ought to be asked of both sides, and answered. It does not necessarily mean she is lying, but it is important to have a story that is as close as possible to what actually happened. Asking questions might even help the victim remember details that strengthen her case. What we currently have is that one side looks for holes in the alleged victim’s story while the other side reads the accused’s rebuttal looking for lies.

One needs to ask what the whole point of this debate is, because that perhaps is what will help us understand why people seem dogmatic about their positions. What do we really want from this debate? Do we want justice or revenge? Based on the comments I see online, especially from emergency feminists, it is easy to settle on the latter. It is difficult for me not to get agitated about this. The maxim “better a guilty person escapes than one innocent suffers” seems to have been replaced, at least in allegations of sexual harassment, by “better an innocent suffers than a guilty escapes”. There have been enough instances of false rape accusations around the world that have sent innocent men to jail that should make us pause and at least listen to what the accused has to say. To insist otherwise would take us through a very slippery slope which I believe people realize but simply don’t care about.

Having watched women suffer for so long before finally being given the chance to be heard and believed, it is understandable that people who raise questions are sometimes seen as those who do not like the new-found position of strength for women. But we need to be sure we are not overcompensating.

Finally, the legal angle. Shouldn’t it concern us that everyone deems it important to take these allegations to social media first before reporting such matters to the authorities, especially if the incident happened recently? Again, what is the point: justice or revenge? Because if it is justice we want, then as useless as you may think the Police Force is, it remains the only available route to obtain justice. Inasmuch as sharing these incidents on social media has its own benefits, we must get to a point where we encourage victims to report crimes to law enforcement agencies.

Whatever we decide to do, we must be careful not to subscribe to the mob mentality we see every day on social media. Majority does not equal truth. Actual or attempted sexual assault victims deserve to be heard and their abusers punished and excoriated. However, an accused deserves his day in court, or, since social media is a court of public opinion, the accused deserves a right of reply if he believes he has been unfairly accused.  In fact, in cases where an accused does not have social media presence, legitimate questions should still be asked if there are apparent contradictions in such allegations – it is what makes us a sane society.

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