ADELANI ADEPEGBA examines how allegations of sexual misconduct against public officers are treated in Nigeria
For the three years that James Entwistle has been in the country as the United States’ Ambassador to Nigeria, he has never been known to court controversies. But his now famous letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, has further fouled the national atmosphere which was dense with offensive details of how the national treasury was looted by politicians in cahoots with military officers.
The Ambassador, in a letter dated June 9, 2016, addressed to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, alleged that three members of the House, Mohammed Garba Gololo (All Progressives Congress, Bauchi), Samuel Ikon (Peoples Democratic Party, Akwa Ibom) and Mark Gbillah (APC, Benue) had, on a recent visit to the US for the International Visitor Leadership Programme, brought disrepute to the parliament by soliciting for sex from prostitutes and grabbing a hotel housekeeper in a bid to rape her.
The affected lawmakers have denied all the allegations and threatened to sue the ambassador and the US Government for “character defamation and a calculated attempt to ridicule the National Assembly.” In its response, the House leadership simply set up a panel to probe the alleged crimes.
Entwistle who is about concluding his tour of duty in Nigeria, seems to have timed his bombshell to explode as he was about leaving the country. To demonstrate how seriously it viewed the case, the US mission in Nigeria had cancelled the visas issued to the lawmakers, barring them from future trips to the United States. To deepen the controversy, the US embassy has refused to speak further on the envoy’s letter.
Many commentators believe Entwistle could not have made the allegations of sexual misconduct public if they had not been investigated and established by American law enforcement agencies. Though, the onus is on the American government to prove the allegations against the lawmakers, Nigerians find it curious that the affected lawmakers did not raise the issue or express ‘righteous indignation’ when they got back to Nigeria from the US. Perhaps, they elected to abide by the maxim, ‘whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ They were obviously mistaken because the alleged misconduct happened in Cleveland, Ohio, which has a different culture and values altogether.
Many have called for the recall of the lawmakers by their constituents, if they failed to resign. While such calls are valid, they are not legally binding. Gololo, Ikon and Gbillah would probably have resigned if they feel whatever was left of their integrity deserved to be protected, but they have chosen to stick to their guns and carry on as if nothing is amiss.
What happens in other climes
Reports of similar incidents from around the world indicate that accused lawmakers usually face criminal trial where they get to prove their innocence. In some cases, accused lawmakers merely face criminal investigation which may not progress to trial if the allegations could not be proved. An accused public official may also face suspension from office even when he has not been declared guilty by a court of law. Some, however, elect to resign their positions.
In an action with no precedent in Vermont, United States, the state Senate voted in January, 2016 to suspend a lawmaker who faces criminal sex charges that could send him to prison for life. Sen. Norman McAllister, a County Republican, was arrested outside the Statehouse and arraigned the next day on three counts of felony sexual assault and three counts of misdemeanour prohibited acts.
Prosecutors said McAllister sexually assaulted two women who were tenants and employees on his Highgate dairy farm and solicited a third for sex. One of his accusers worked for him at the Statehouse as an assistant. McAllister, 64, has maintained his innocence and rejected calls for his resignation.
McAllister, the longest-serving GOP speaker in Vermont, was also accused of paying hush money to cover up his sexual misconduct with a male student. Senators said that in suspending the lawmaker, they relied on legal analysis by Senate Secretary, John Bloomer, and on the Legislature’s legal staff. They pointed to instances in California in 2014, when two senators were suspended while facing corruption charges and a third was suspended after a conviction for voter fraud.
Senators who backed McAllister’s removal said his presence and subsequent media attention over the criminal case were interfering with Senate business. They also said the Senate had a responsibility to guard against sexual harassment in and around the chamber.
Senate Majority Leader, Philip Baruth, said other public officials, including teachers and police officers, usually were suspended from their jobs while criminal or abuse-of-power charges were pending against them.
“If a senator is criminally charged with assaulting just this sort of person, someone in a service capacity in the Statehouse, do we allow that senator to wield that same power over those who are in our care and have been entrusted to us?” Baruth asked.
In May, 2016, a French lawmaker, Denis Baupin, who was accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault, resigned as vice-president of the lower house of parliament, but did not resign from the house.
Baupin who denied any misconduct, explained that he resigned his position to be able to defend himself. Four women had accused him of sexual misconduct, including Sandrine Rousseau, spokeswoman of the green party, EELV, who said Baupin put his hands on her breasts and tried to kiss her by force in 2011.
Another lawmaker, Isabelle Attard said she suffered “almost daily” harassment through explicit text messages in 2012 and 2013. Following the accusations, the Paris prosecutor announced a criminal investigation against Baupin.
After years of glossing over sexual misconduct by senior officers, the US military has stepped up investigations of high-ranking officers for sexual assault, according to a Washington Post report, which observed that the armed forces had ended its traditional deference toward senior leaders as it cracked down on sex crimes.
Since September, 2015, the military has court-martialled or filed sexual assault charges against four colonels from the Air Force, Army and Marines. In addition, a Navy captain was found guilty of abusive sexual contact during an administrative hearing.
Historically, the report added, it has been extremely rare for senior military officers to face courts-martial. “Leaders suspected of wrongdoing are usually dealt with behind the scenes, with offenders receiving private reprimands or removal from command with a minimum of public explanation,” the newspaper noted.
That has gradually changed as the Defence Department — under pressure from Congress and the White House decided to address sexual misconduct in the military. During the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2015, 116 officers of all stripes were court-martialled, discharged or received some sort of punishment after they were criminally investigated for sexual assault. That was more than double the number from three years earlier, according to Defence Department figures.
Analysts call for further investigation by security agencies
A security analyst, Max Gbanite, called for further investigation into the allegation, which he said could be true, stressing that the US government has nothing to gain by defaming the lawmakers.
According to him, the only reason the lawmakers were not arrested during their stay in the US was because they were carrying diplomatic passports which gave them protection from arrest and prosecution.
Gbanite stated that under the US law, the complainants could file a civil suit against Nigeria because the lawmakers came to US as Nigeria’s representatives, noting that the US court would easily grant them a lot of money as punitive damages, stressing that it was important that the speaker investigate the allegations further and take disciplinary action against the lawmakers, if found wanting.
Gbanite said, “The US Ambassador cannot create a story; this is not the first time Nigerian lawmakers are travelling for one seminar, conference or course, and all those times, nobody has deemed it necessary to bring any complaints against any member of the house or senate.
“Why would the current rep members that were identified claim that the allegation was wrong? The US government at this particular point in time has nothing to gain by defaming the characters of these honourable members. They put themselves in harm’s way.”
He carpeted the lawmakers, saying they demonstrated what he called primitive behaviour and should be sanctioned if the allegation was found to be true after investigation.
The analyst observed that this was not the first time members of the National Assembly visted the US, United Kingdom, France and other parts of the world for conferences and seminars, without incident.
Another analyst, Ben Okezie, said the security agencies should invite the men for questioning to ascertain the veracity of the allegations against them.
He said, “In other climes, they (the lawmakers) would have been invited for questioning by the secret service and if they were found wanting, their constituency would have called them to question. But you can’t judge them until after investigation, so the House of Representatives should ask the Interpol to find out.”
A retired military officer, Lt. Col. Sola Oremade, also called for a thorough probe of the incident, which he said had further dented the nation’s image.
“A thorough investigation should be carried out, but I am sure the allegations cannot be false. If they are indicted, the law should take its course.” Oremade said.