Mutilating The Truth

These are not easy times for Nigerian Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland, Dr. Kemafo Nonyerem Chikwe. Caught in the web of a controversy in faraway Dublin, she is expected to defend herself over her denial of the existence of the spectre of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Nigeria. The whole saga began when a Nigerian illegal alien in Ireland, one Ms Pamela Izevbekhai, faced a threat of deportation back to Nigeria. She sued the Irish government, arguing that if she was forced back to this country, her two daughters, Naomi (7) and Jemima (6), would be subjected to female circumcision. She also claimed that another daughter, Elizabeth, died from blood loss as a result of the procedure.

Izevbekhai’s case caused a whirlwind of controversy, involving the media, human right groups, the government and the courts. The protracted legal battle raised a lot of many issues, all of which eventually defined what it means to be a Nigerian. Let’s start with Ambassador Chikwe’s defence of her country. In an interview she granted the Irish Times, published on Wednesday, April 1, 2009, the ambassador insisted that FGM was a “non-existent issue” in Nigeria and she accused Izevbekhai of “disparaging” her home country. Izevbekhai, she fumed, “has selfishly disparaged Nigeria. She has dented the image of the nation, making it look like a barbaric country . . . and she has also damaged the chances of people who may be seeking asylum through legitimate means by creating doubts in the minds of the authorities.” According to her, “FGM happens to be an ancient practice that is no longer in the consciousness of Nigerians. It is something that is completely insignificant in the present Nigerian culture.”

Now, that’s where Chikwe shot off the mark. The truth is that FGM is still prevalent in almost all communities in Nigeria, with differences only in the level of practice. While it is higher in some societies or sections of the country, it is less in others. Only yesterday I threw the question to a group of Nigerian journalists, who hailed from different cultural backgrounds, asking them if the FGM occurs in their communities. The answer was in the affirmative. They said even though the practice has reduced, it is still prevalent.

This confirms the official findings of the Federal Government last year, which told a United Nations committee that the prevalence rate of FGM in the country was 32 percent, and that in some regions the figure was as high as 65 percent. In a response to queries last May from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the government cited the findings of a survey carried out by its own National Bureau of Statistics in 2006. “The findings revealed that 32.6 percent was the prevalence rate of FGM in Nigeria. Surprisingly, the rate was higher in the urban (40.0 percent) than in the rural areas (29.0 percent) of the country,” the submission from the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development said. “It was also higher in the southern than in the northern states. While the South-South, South-West and South-East recorded 46.7 percent, 65 percent and 58.3 percent respectively, the North-Central, North-West and North-East recorded 14.5 percent, 2.0 percent and 1.7 percent respectively.”

Stressing its commitment to promote and protect women’s rights, the government pointed to several initiatives taken towards eliminating female circumcision. These included the passing of legislation in 11 states to prohibit the practice and training on prevention for nurse tutors. The report also mentioned that since 2004 the Federal Ministry of Health had marked the annual “FGM Day”, while information campaigns had increased public awareness on the issue.

Despite this commitment a separate report sent to the UN committee in October 2006 noted that the government’s aspirations that all citizens be treated as equal under the law were “limited in fulfilment” because of the complexity of the Nigerian legal system. “Even where statutory laws exist to outlaw some of these inimical customary and religious practices, practical experience and evidence abound that enforcement level is negligible,” it said, referring to practices such as early marriage, FGM and widowhood rites.

In its concluding observations, issued in July 2008, the UN committee noted the “continued high incidence of FGM in some areas of the country” and urged the government to prohibit the practice. A separate report published in 2007 by the World Health Organisation found that FGM was “widespread” in Nigeria, and varied from one state to another.

Where was Ambassador Chikwe when these official findings were compiled and published? Surprisingly, in her frantic effort to present Nigeria as a 21st century model of protecting women’s rights, she has questioned the veracity of the investigative reports cited above. “Whoever wrote that report is lying about Nigeria and is not patriotic. They are doing it for a purpose. I can assure you whoever wrote this report thought that it would be a way of attracting UN funds and that is the truth,” she told RTE’s ‘Would You Believe’ programme.

I agree with Amnesty International’s executive director Colm O’Gorman that these claims by Ambassador Chikwe are “bizarre and not credible”. It is clearly a case of an ostrich hiding its face in the sand, while leaving its rump in the air. This self-denial was couched in ignorance and supercilious pride in Chikwe’s Nigerianness. In an age of rebranding, our diplomats should research a position before making comments that could turn out to back-fire. Our ambassador in Ireland could have owned up to the truth about the actual existence of FGM in the country, which everyone knows about. Saying it doesn’t exist is a bare-faced lie, and to deny the veracity of the government’s own findings on the ugly practice is adding salt to injury.

This does not, however, mean that Pamela Izevbekhai has a water-tight case against her deportation. The fact of the existence of FGM does not necessarily support her claim of a direct threat to her daughters. First, she’s fighting her deportation because she wants to remain in Europe at all costs where, I assume, she would continue to lead an easy life, which is probably more laid-back than the harsh realities of living in Nigeria. But then her claims are full of bare-faced propaganda and lies. They exposed her desire to live in Ireland even while hiding under the canopy of lies.

In her defence, Izevbekhai claims that her daughters would be circumcised upon arrival, as if girls are being lined up for circumcision all along the streets. The practice exists, yes, but it does so in more traditional communities and among less “educated” or less “exposed” people. With increased awareness, thanks to government initiatives and campaigns of enlightenment by many NGOs, the practice is fast waning. A woman of Izevbekhai’s standing, leading a middle class life in the city, would not have her daughters seized from her by fuming relatives bent on mutilating them.

Proof that Izevbakhai is lying was her recent attempt to sway the Irish Supreme Court with fake documents. Boxed into a corner, she admitted that the documents used in a series of legal challenges had been forged. The counterfeit documents include one purporting to be her daughter Elizabeth’s death certificate, and an affidavit from one Dr Joseph Unokanjo, an obstetrician who purportedly treated the child. In a recently lodged affidavit, Unokanjo of the Isioma Hospital in Lagos confirmed that Izevbekhai was his patient but denied he had signed the previous affidavit or the death certificate. “I can confirm that no baby called Elizabeth Izevbekhai was delivered by me at Isioma Hospital and no baby of that name has ever been treated by me for any ailment, including post-circumcision complications,” the affidavit reads. As a result of this admission, Izevbekhai’s two lawyers withdrew from the case in frustration. They could not do it “the Nigerian way.”

It is clear that one illegal alien’s lie, concocted to gain asylum in a rich country, was countered by a diplomat’s lie to puncture the first lie. Both have not done good to the image of Nigeria, which the government is bent on “rebranding.” They have both shown to the world that Nigerian citizens, at every level, can trade in untruth in order to score a cheap point, which is always self-serving. They consider it a duty. That is one way to define what it means to be a Nigerian.

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