Acts of violence are increasingly becoming a normal trend in Nigeria. Reports of assault, rape, malevolent spousal harm, and a jilted lover inflicting life-threatening injury on an ex-lover are a staple of news in the country today.
On a regular basis, in the pages of the national dailies and other media, we read about incestuous violations: a father secretly molesting his daughter, a minor, until she gets pregnant; a grandfather stealing the innocence of his grandchild and scarring her for life.
Piqued by this emerging culture of violence, some civil society organisations, media practitioners and human right activists came together to demand a piece of legislation that will criminalise any kinds of violence/abuse against human beings in Nigeria, in whatever form or guise. This coalition of change agents asked for a law that will prohibit all shades of physical, sexual, psychological and domestic violence, provide maximum protection and effective remedies for victims, and prescribe appropriate punishment for offenders.
Consequently, the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act saw the light of day. It was passed by the 7th National Assembly and signed into law by the then President Goodluck Jonathan on May 28, 2015. It became a handy legal instrument that will check all forms of violence/abuse.
The VAPP Act represents a substantial improvement on the penal and criminal code in relation to violence. It provides for compensation of victims as well as the protection of their rights. The Act is wide in scope, covering almost all the observable kinds of violence in the Nigerian society.
The Act forbids “harmful traditional practices,” a term defined in the Act to include “all traditional behaviours, attitudes and/or practices, which negatively affect the fundamental rights of women, girls, or succession rights, spousal battery, forceful eviction from home, forced financial dependence or economic abuse, abandonment of children, harmful widowhood practices, female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision and forced marriage.’’
Furthermore, the VAPP Act stipulates punishment for separation of individuals from family and friends; depriving persons of their liberty; incest; indecent exposure; and violence by state actors (especially government security forces) among others.
While previous laws simply recognised rape as a criminal act relating to female forced vaginal penetration without consent of females, the VAPP Act defines rape in robustly modern terms. The law defines rape as when a person intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with any other part of his or her body or anything else without consent, or where such consent is obtained by force or means of threat or intimidation of any kind, or by fear of harm or by means of false and fraudulent representation as to the nature of the act or the use of any substance or additive capable of taking away the will of such person or, in the case of a married person, by impersonating his or her spouse.
By redefining rape in ample terms, the VAPP Act offered equal protection to both males and females. It overrode the deep-seated misconception that only women can be victims of rape. This outdated culture-based view has had jurisprudential implication in Nigeria for a while because our laws did not accommodate the possibility of the rape of a male person.
The Act also mirrored the evolved concept of sex. In the past, it was difficult to successfully prosecute a case of forceful anal or oral sex under the umbrella of rape simply because our laws did not explicitly cover rapes of such sort. Sex has transcended the conventional organs taught in a biology class two centuries ago. These days, the anus and mouth are conceived of as sex organs. The VAPP Act is attuned to this reality.
The VAPP Act also prohibits female circumcision/female genital mutilation, a barbaric misogynistic practice that is still alive and kicking in many communities in Nigeria today.
The Act prohibits any form of incestuous act. It provides that any person who knowingly and wilfully has carnal knowledge of another within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity and affinity has committed incest and is liable on conviction to a minimum term of 10 years imprisonment without an option of fine where sex was without consent, and where the two parties consent to commit incest, five years imprisonment without an option of fine.
One of the very peculiar provisions of the Act is its distinction in interpreting an attempt to commit an offence as an offence in itself. Thus, it is appropriately stern. It has no loophole that an accused person can exploit to evade justice.
The VAPP Act has the potential to bring succour and remedies to victims of violence who are suffering in silence. It provides a path to justice as well as rehabilitative, psychological and social support for their recovery and reintegration. The Act ensures that the violators are held to account and the victims are adequately compensated and protected.
Overall, the VAAP Act is an inherently good piece of legislation. It should ordinarily be widely applicable across all states of the federation. However, it has limited and qualified applicability because it is an Act of the National Assembly on an item that is not on the exclusive list. Only the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory Abuja can entertain and grant any application under the Act. In other words, the Act is effectively in force only within the Federal Capital Territory.
Given its positives, it is imperative that the State Houses of Assembly take urgent steps to domesticate this transformational law across the federation. The universalisation of this Act will make Nigeria a much saner and safer space to live in. This is one crucial law that the entire country needs.