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People calling me lesbian to stop my fight against sexual abuse – Taheer, Sokoto #Arewametoo Movement leader

Leader of #ArewaMeToo Movement in Sokoto State, Sadiya Taheer, was recently accused of spreading LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) rights and reportedly assaulted by the police during a rally in Sokoto on Monday, July 25, 2019. She denies the allegation and narrates her experience with the police in this interview

What prompted #ArewaMeToo Movement, which you lead in Sokoto, to hold a rally recently in the state?

It wasn’t a protest; it was a standstill rally. It was to push for the adoption of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act. The Senate passed it into law in 2015 but it has not yet to be adopted by states. The standstill rally was held in seven other states, making Sokoto the eighth. If the Act is adopted, everybody gets protected because if you actually report a case to a police station; by law, they are supposed to see it through and if it’s a rape case, the person gets imprisoned.

It was reported that you were assaulted by the police during the rally. Is that true?

Yes, I was actually assaulted by the authorities. You know, to hold the rally, we were expected to submit letters to the Department of State Services, police commissioner and the state House of Assembly because we wanted to hold the rally outside the state House of Assembly. We sent the letters and on the day of the rally, we went to the police commissioner so we could get the officers that would be mobilised to protect us but apparently somebody had told the commissioner to waste our time. So he was just basically wasting our time. We were there from 8:30am and didn’t leave until around 10:30am, when the standstill rally had already started. He said we should go ahead, that he had already mobilised his men (to stay with us).

The police commissioner?

His Personal Assistant said they’d mobilised officers to be with us and he showed us the letter that the police commissioner stamped, saying policemen would be there for our protection because we had told them about the threats we had been getting. We went for the standstill rally and the divisional police officer was there. There were about 20 police officers on the ground and I felt it was a good thing.

Then they started driving our people away so I thought I should explain to them that they were our people and the police commissioner had said they were there to protect us. But he said the police commissioner sent him there to ensure that the standstill rally should not hold. So I tried to call the PA (to the police commissioner) because that was not what he told me.

He was asking me if I was recording; that was when I knew something shady was going on. Apparently, they had been told we were trying to promote LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) rights. I don’t know what they did, whatever it was, they told them to prevent the rally and that we were trying to promote LGBTQ rights. So when they said that, I told my people that we should leave as we didn’t want any problem.

So we started walking away from there. We didn’t go with our vehicles because they kept hitting our vehicles when we came out. We folded our banners and all of the 20 police officers or more started coming towards us. I turned around and told my people to calm down because we were not doing anything wrong. The last time I checked, it was not a crime to be walking. They didn’t say anything; they just started destroying our placards.

They asked for our phones and I said ‘why should we give you our phones?’ A police officer wanted to snatch my phone and the banner I was holding and I wouldn’t give them to him; that was when all the officers came around me and were beating me up. Two muscular guys had to get some of the officers off my back because they were beating me up. When one of my guys was filming the whole thing from a distance, they collected the phone and arrested him. From there, I had to go see a doctor and when two of my men went to see what was going on at the police station, why they arrested one of us, they detained both of them.

How many people were detained in all?

They detained three men. They were detained for about six hours.

Did you sustain any injuries?

Yes, on my back. I couldn’t even stand up properly for a whole day; I had to apply lots of ointment. My back and legs still hurt.

You said that you had received threats even before the rally, what kind of threats did you receive?

(Threats) via direct messages on Instagram and Twitter. Also, there were a lot of calls (from people threatening us). I get a lot of calls from people I don’t know telling me they’ll see the end of me, they’ll kill me, they’ll hurt my family, and that if I come outside, they’ll hurt me and do many things to me. They sent thugs to me. I was coming back from the doctor’s office and they sent thugs to hit my car and throw stuff at me. They were calling me a beggar, throwing stuff at me and hitting my car. That’s why I couldn’t even go out with my vehicle.

Does it mean that they were already aware of what you were planning to do before the rally?

Of course, because we were trying to mobilise people for the rally.

So what happened to the approval letter you said the police commissioner’s PA showed to you?

We have it. We have all of them. They all gave us approval for it (the rally) but somehow things changed. That’s why I’m saying it’s either he (police commissioner) was paid or was told we were trying to promote LGTBQ rights.

The police in the state said the commissioner didn’t approve it and that he was the only one in the state with the power to approve such…

On Sunday (day before the rally), I called the police because we were getting a lot of threats and the rally was supposed to hold on Monday, but they didn’t pick up. When the threats got really heavy, on the morning of Monday, by 6am, I called the PA to the commissioner to say when we gave them the letter, they acknowledged it and said we should come back and get policemen. The PA said the commissioner was not around initially but was back, so we could come and get the approval and the policemen.

So we went to the office by 8:30am on Monday but the commissioner was not yet in. When he came in, his PA gave him the letter. He stamped the letter and gave us approval. I saw the letter. He said we should get the letter to the Deputy Commissioner Operations’ office so he could give us officers. We took it to the DC Operations’ office but he was with the police commissioner. So we had to go to the commissioner’s office again. That was when they started playing us. At that point, I actually didn’t realise that there was something fishy going on because it looked legit and they said they had mobilised policemen for us. That was why I was bold to approach the policemen (during the rally).

The Sokoto Sultanate Council has accused your group of spreading LGBTQ ideas and you of being a lesbian. Are you a lesbian?

That is absolutely false. Someone from the sultanate council called me on Sunday (before the rally). I don’t even want to believe that person was from the sultanate council. He called and said there were some things they heard about our movement and that he wanted to know what it was about. The explanation I gave to him is what I am giving to you. In fact, I challenged him to go to #ArewaMeToo page and show me anything that promoted any other cause – not just LGBTQ – that was not about abuse. I would want to see it. So he couldn’t; obviously, there were none. I told him what the rally was about and he said it was a very good thing.

But he was also told we didn’t do it the right way because we didn’t tell the police commissioner but I said we did that. But apparently, the guy wasn’t calling to hear what we had to say; he was calling to find out whether we had the backing of the authorities. Immediately I finished speaking to him and told him we actually had the right backing and had sent out letters, the DSS called me. They said they wanted to find out more about our movement because they got a call from someone in a place of authority, who told them that the movement was about promoting LGTBQ in Sokoto. So I had to explain to the DSS that what they were told was wrong. I said if we wanted to promote LGTBQ rights, it would make no sense to start from Sokoto because there were other states that were less conservative like Lagos where we could start. I said it was a plot to divert people’s attention from the real focus – the VAPP Act.

If you think about it, a lot of these people, their siblings, their aunties, their uncles are people that are abusers. They abuse their power because we have seen abuse of power. So they are abusers and if this Act is adopted by the state, it won’t be in their favour because most of them will be in jail. So I understand the backlash and I understand where they are coming from but it’s also very ignorant to say that we shouldn’t talk about it. So the DSS said they understood that it was a rumour and that we had their support. I’d like to think that even after all of these things, the DSS wasn’t bought. I feel that they weren’t in support because they did not come out.

Are you saying all the stories about LGBTQ and lesbianism were made up?

It’s defamation of character by these people harassing me; they are circulating pictures on Facebook and WhatsApp groups, saying I’m the one trying to promote LGBTQ in Sokoto. In fact, when a special adviser to the state governor on issues concerning youths called me, he said he heard it was about the promotion of LGBTQ and I explained everything to him. I said we were trying to eradicate violence and were doing it because there were lots of Almajiris (street urchins) being raped.

I also spoke to one Almajiri that was raped by three mallams (teachers) every night. The man said it was a good cause.

I said if those people had evidence that we were promoting LGBTQ under #Arewametoo Movement, they should present it and we’d obviously present ours. He said okay, he’d get back to me. This guy got back to me and said: ‘Sadiya, I understand what you are trying to do but they don’t understand it, even when I explained it to them. It’s safer if you don’t upset our culture and religion; just leave it like that and don’t hold the rally.’ I felt like ‘so it’s safer for people to continue to get raped? Is that what you’re saying?’

I was like our religion doesn’t support people being molested and feeling unsafe in their community. Our religion doesn’t promote violence at all and that is what we are trying to do. You guys should be on our side because we are not doing anything wrong. The culture of silence is what we are trying to stop; you guys are so used to being underdogs and not doing anything. If you don’t have money in this country, especially in Sokoto State, you take whatever happens to you. That’s what we are trying to stop. In fact, I had someone call one of the people that started spreading the rumour.

The person was asking him how he knew the rally was about LGBTQ and the person said they actually knew it was not about LGBTQ but that we were people saying women should stand up to say that they had been raped or were being raped, which he considered as insane and not our culture. He felt if women should start speaking up about rape cases, where would it end; they would start being disobedient. Since they could not allow that, they had to defame my character to prevent us from holding the rally. I was shocked by what he said.

You are a woman from a conservative region taking on some cultural beliefs that have been endured for so long, aren’t you afraid for your life considering some of the threats you have received?

Yes, I’m actually very much afraid for my life but you know what, somebody has to do it. If not, how does it ever end? One ignorant person told me that there were no rape cases in Sokoto State or substantial enough for us to hold a rally or even speak about it. I live in this town and have stayed in this town for so long. I was born and brought up here and before the age of 18, I was sexually abused; I was never raped but I was sexually abused in this state. And this case is not peculiar to me, it’s the same story many others will tell you, but the culture of silence is so embedded in us.

It’s the culture of ‘nobody is going to do anything about it’. It has been the way of life for so many years. It’s very annoying and frustrating that nobody is doing anything about it so I felt if nobody was doing anything about it, I should do something about it. Forget about me, I actually have some privileges. Think about the Almajiri people that leave their villages and come here to learn. They run errands for these mallams (teachers), and at night, the mallams take turns to rape them. I’ve seen a lot of boys that this has happened to. It’s a menace in our community and yes, I’m very much scared for my life. I’m scared for my family too because everybody is trying to say “oh please, don’t disrupt the culture”.

Are you married?

No.

What kind of reaction have you been getting from your relations?

I’ve been getting massive support from my family members; they all know that these people are just trying to shut me up but you know they are my parents and my siblings, so they are also worried about my well-being. The threats I’ve been getting are so massive and these people can do anything because they have the backing of the government. If you could actually tell an officer to assault a civilian, then there’s nothing that you can’t do.

It is understood that you’ve also been critical of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration; do you think that could have played a role in all of this?

I really don’t know. I doubt it. I’m a very average person; I don’t think my opinions really matter. As much as I’m not the biggest fan of his administration, I don’t think it has anything to do with it.

You said you were abused before you were even 18, was that one of the things that pushed you to be passionate about this?

I think it does have something to do with it but it’s not completely the reason. I think I’m madder about the silence culture: people not being able to voice out even when they want to.

Was your abuser brought to justice?

There was no justice; there have never been justice. Justice never comes to the average person in Nigeria. Actually they are all still alive.

Not one person?

Yes, not one person. They are all still alive but I don’t want to put their names out there.

What’s your next line of action? Are you going back to the streets?

We are definitely going to re-strategise and go back because we are not going to keep shut. They know what they are doing. We are going to re-strategise because defamation of character is involved. They’ve smeared my name so much that everybody now thinks I’m a lesbian and in Sokoto State, it’s a very big thing. People wouldn’t want to take you seriously or want to hear anything that comes out of your mouth again. We are going to obviously deal with that first and then re-strategise and see how we can continue this cause, but no, we are not backing down.

Are you planning to sue the people you think are responsible for the character defamation?

Yes, definitely we are going to seek legal action.

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