Revulsion Over Nigeria Rape Video Shows Power of Social Media

In Nigeria, rape video depicting an apparent gang attack on a woman by college students sparks a criminal investigation, and raises questions of how much smartphones have changed Nigerian society.

Fellows Fall 2011

By David Francis

October 12, 2011

Also published in The Christian Science Monitor

On Sept. 17, a popular Nigerian blogger named Linda Ikeji wrote that she was in possession of an hour-long tape of five students from Abia State University gang-raping a young woman. Ms. Ikeji is a widely followed and popular writer known for her accurate celebrity gossip and entertainment reporting. Her claim to be in possession of such a tape drew immediate attention.

Ikeji, who declined to comment, offered a 10-minute segment to anyone who could help identify the men in the video.

"These boys can't get away with this. Please if there's any Women Rights Group, police, lawyers, journalists, who can take this up, please contact me; I will bring the video to you, wherever you are or send via email," she wrote.

Within days, the video was widely available. Taken with a mobile camera, it graphically shows five men taking turns raping a young woman in a university dormitory. They laugh as the woman asks them to kill her.

Public reaction to the rape video, even a month later, has been characterized by shock, as one would expect in a society where rape is rarely reported and where rape victims face public shame if they come forward. But just as significant as the public anger itself is the way in which that anger has been transmitted: by the very smartphone technology that has transformed Nigerian society and the way it shares information.

According to the website Nigeria Police Watch, only 1,952 rapes were reported in 2009 in a nation of 154 million people. Victims are often afraid to come forward because of public shame associated with being raped. When rape is reported, is it rarely prosecuted.

The video circulated around Abia State University for weeks before being sent to Ikeji. After it went viral, it was brought to the attention of police, who declined to investigate it. Officials at the university, located in the Niger Delta, said they would not investigate the video because they could not confirm it was shot on campus. State officials also declined to intervene. Mercy Odochi Orji, the wife of the Abia state governor, claimed "no such inglorious act and ugly incident" took place in her state.

Her statement combined with the general negligence of the authorities turned online anger into outrage. Social activists mobilized and began campaigns to remove officials in Abia, while women's rights groups here protested and said the refusal to investigate would discourage other victims from coming forward. Vigilante Internet users indentified the men and called for revenge. One Twitter post offered a $1,250 reward for information on the attackers.

The federal government finally intervened. Last week Nigeria's Youth Minister Bolaji Abdullahi called on the university and local authorities to investigate the rape. Two arrests have already been made. But the investigation has since stalled, as J.G. Micloth, the Assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of Abia State Police command Criminal Investigation Department, announced last week that he had suspected investigations after concluding that the alleged rape victim had not visibly fought the attackers, and had therefore consented to the gang crime.

Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, is also one of the poorest. Half of its population lives below the poverty line, while much of the rest of the population lives just above it. Yet mobile phones are cheap and ubiquitous. More than 43 million mobiles are in use here. Most have access to the Internet.

This access, according to Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi, is not only responsible for the investigation of the rape, but is transforming Nigerian society. Before cellphones became widely used, most of the country lived in isolation. Information was local: rarely did it travel from state to state. News of a rape in the Niger Delta would have little impact beyond the area where it took place, he said.

"The presidential election last spring changed this," says Mr. Ogunlesi, who is an editor for NEXT, a daily newspaper, and is well known here for his broad presence on the web. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan "came to Facebook and opened a page. He engaged with young people online. This is the first time a politician had done this."

The election allowed Nigerians to establish a network of socially conscious young people across the country. This group then drove people to the rape video when it came online. The heinousness of the crime and the pain felt by the victim - both are clearly visible in the video - stoked public outrage. Ogunlesi said that many Nigerians who would have dismissed rape in the past grew angry when the tape became public.

"It was this collective anger that forced the government to act," Ogunlesi said. "It was first blogger and tweeters, then civil society that challenged the police."

Ogunlesi said the level of social engagement the video after the video was made public is unprecedented in modern Nigeria.

"People are asserting a power they didn't know they had," he said, "but it's unfortunate that a video like this marks the beginning of the new age of social media in Nigeria."

David Francis reported from Nigeria on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).