Two months ago, Bala Mohammed, minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), gave all commercial sex workers in Abuja two days to quit or leave the city. The territory’s Social Development Secretariat which was mandated to implement the order, has since carried out three raids, but prostitution remains big business in Abuja.

The FCT administration has used different tactics to discourage the female sex workers from plying their trade. It began with persuasion when in June, the secretary for social development, Blessing Onuh, visited the call girls at their respective abode to give them the minister’s order. She told them that the secretariat’s task force would commence arrests and warned them not to take the matter lightly.

“I’m out to instruct the girls that the FCT minister has given them 48 hours to vacate the city and quit the job,” said Mrs. Onuh two months ago. “They constitute a nuisance in the city and the FCT administration will not tolerate them.” Afterwards, the secretary donated N50,000 to the girls after they complained that they had not eaten all day.

Shortly afterwards, 35 offenders were arrested when the task force, made up of officials of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), the secretariat and the police, conducted its first raid. The second raid in July nabbed 50 suspected prostitutes. The most recent raid, held last Wednesday, netted about 60 sex workers, including a man and woman caught in compromising situation in a car around midnight.

The suspects were eventually taken to Wuse Police Station before being charged to a mobile court where they were tried by the magistrate, Aminu Abdullahi.

Guilty as charged

At the court session in August, the prosecuting counsel, Eze O. Eze, accused the girls of soliciting men for commercial purposes. The session was held under a tree and most of the girls, who had no lawyers representing them, pleaded guilty to the offence.

The court convicted those who pleaded guilty and sentenced them to two months imprisonment or N3000 option of fine. Those who pleaded not guilty were told to reappear at the court on Friday, 20th August, for hearing and they were given bail on condition that the bond was signed by a resident of the FCT. At the end of the court session, bank officials were on hand to collect the fines from the convicts. The payments were made to the environmental protection board’s account.

However, investigations revealed that the group arrested in the first raid in June were never charged to court. In July, the magistrate had suspended his judgment against the women, because they were “first offenders.” Sources at the environmental monitoring unit told NEXT that they were in a hurry to discharge the girls because the “pressure from outside was too much. After the July arrest, we received several calls from high-profile personalities in this country, including National Assembly men, governors, commissioners from the states and high military officials, asking us to release the girls,” said one source, who declined to be named. “We had no choice because we do not want to lose our jobs.” The officials said they were not even able to keep the girls for more than one night and had to hold the court session on Saturday instead of Monday.

“The DPO was not willing to keep them again because of several calls coming to him,” said another source.

We have no jobs

Some of the suspects who pleaded not guilty insisted that they were not women of easy virtue, while others claimed they were going about their own affairs when they were caught. Maureen Opah, a native of Liberia, said she was about to enter a car when she was arrested.

“I sell chicken on the street and, in fact, I had chicken in my hand when I was arrested,” one of them said.

However, Sade Ayileka, deputy director of social services with the secretariat, denied that innocent bystanders were rounded up. She said the team invaded popular red-light districts in Abuja to apprehend the suspects.

“We consider their dressing, the location they were in at the time, the time they were there,” she said. “How can a lady be standing by the roadside at the dead end of the night, half naked?” Some of the sex workers who spoke to NEXT after their trial said they were lured into the profession because they could not get gainful employment.

“I lost my husband a few years ago and I have three children,” said Chidinma Michael. “My mother was sick and I spent all I had.” She said she approached a friend for help. Instead of giving her a loan, her friend showed her how to make ‘free money.’ “So that was how I started coming out to the street,” said Ms. Michael. “My children are now at home and have not eaten since yesterday when they arrested me.” She was eventually given automatic employment at the social development secretariat to assist in rehabilitating other sex workers.

Mrs Ayileka accused the women of laziness. She cited a medical doctor who was arrested some time ago whose colleagues had to beg for her release because she was supposed be on call the next day.

“Some of them are graduates. A lot of them are working-class ladies,” she said. “There are lots they can do with little money instead of degrading themselves.” She said the FCT administration would rehabilitate those who are willing to change. At the skills centre in Lugbe, a suburb of the city, girls could choose from 10 different skills, including hairdressing, tailoring and computer studies. Upon completion of the course Mrs Ayileka said the girls would get equipment relevant to their fields of training.

However, though many of the girls filled out the application forms, the training is has not commenced.

A wider net

In the meantime the FCT administration promises the raids will continue, and may be expanded to the men who patronize the girls.

During one raid, which lasted from 11 pm on a Friday night to 4 am on Saturday, a retired director of one of the federal ministries was arrested for allegedly patronizing one of the girls.

When he was caught, the embattled man claimed that the lady with whom he was caught was his daughter; but on getting to Wuse Police Station, he changed his story, saying that she was his fiancée.

At the station, the man, who introduced himself as Mr Clem, accused the FCT minister of going beyond his limits. “When I was a Director, I know Bala. He was a deputy director. How come now he wants to decide how we live our social life in the FCT?” said the man. “He should concentrate on the Abuja Master Plan and forget about the sexual life of the residents.” Mr Clem was arrested on Gimbiya Street, where he was reportedly caught negotiating with a prostitute. However, he was eventually discharged.

The FCT administration has said that all that will change soon, as men who patronize prostitutes will also be tried in court.

“Because if men do not patronize them, they will not be there,” said Mrs. Ayileka. “But we will take it a step at a time; let’s start with the girls first.”

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