A dressing down

Oct 11th 2007 | ABUJA
From The Economist print edition

The perils of wearing supposedly indecent clothes

IT DOESN’T always pay to dress up for a party in Nigeria: it may earn you a hefty fine or even a stint in jail. In the northern city of Bauchi, capital of one of the 12 Nigerian states where people must obey sharia law, 18 young men have been on trial for cross-dressing while celebrating an alleged gay marriage. Charged first with sodomy, which carries a death sentence, they were taken to court in August and accused of the lesser crime of idleness and being vagabonds, punishable by a year in jail plus a few lashings.

But angry crowds, slighted by the downgrading of the charges, attacked the defence team as it left court, and bashed cars and people. Three weeks later, all 18 were rearrested and charged with conspiracy, unlawful gathering, indecent acts, and—again—idleness. Now they face up to ten years in prison if found guilty. A pro bono defence lawyer blames the public outcry for the extra charges they will face when the trial resumes next month.A dress code may be expected in sharia states, but it was in Nigeria’s night-life (and commercial) capital, Lagos, that scores of women were recently picked off the streets for “indecent dress”. Those who refused to pay fines were put on trial. Some of the women said they were sexually harassed in custody. Only after a public outcry were the detentions stopped and the cases thrown out by local government order.

This is not the first time that dress codes have caused a stir in Nigeria. Though there are no federal laws on the subject, many workplaces and universities enforce a stern code. In May, Kano state began requiring all private-school students to obey a Muslim dress code, including the hijab for women, that already applies in public schools. The local government says the rules apply only to Muslims. But to fit in at school and in other public places, many non-Muslims feel they must conform.

Keeping up moral standards is not always why people are being arrested. Crime rates and especially armed robberies are rising, so state and federal governments want to look tough. The head of the Lagos police, Mohammed Abubakar, has recently courted the press by arresting a string of alleged criminals. The police feel it is easier to pick up soft targets, such as the alleged cross-dressers, and leave the real villains alone. Besides, police pay is low and squeezing the public provides easy pickings. Arbitrary detention is common in both town and country.

Nigeria’s new president, Umaru Yar’Adua, has apparently told the intelligence agency to help bring crime rates down by December. In the past, robberies and petty crime have risen in the run-up to the Christmas holidays. If Nigeria is to buck the trend, law enforcement itself, not just people on the street, will need cleaning up. The best broom so far has been the media, which have highlighted the arrests such as those in Lagos and Bauchi.


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