“Madam, you are at Caramelo,” the cab driver mutters as he pulls up at a gate next to the nightclub and kills the car engine. For a moment, this reporter cannot make sense of the scene before her.
A broken fence and gatehouse, a tarpaulin cover, a deserted street corner as opposed to the ever busy nature of the area, especially on Fridays, and an overly courteous security personnel.
Inside, there are no scantily clad strippers teasing potential clients from poles. There are no lap dances on offer either. The door to the strip club is shuttered to customers and Caramelo is deserted.
“Welcome, Ma. You're welcome” repeated one of the polite bouncers with a stutter. He was polite and intimidating all at once. He would ignore the regular security checks. "Please, the strip club is not opened yet. But, you can relax here," he added, pointing to the area where the live band conducts their performance daily.
The area is shorn of life. No music. No dance. There are only a few grim faced, visibly scared customers at the spot.. This place should have been filled to the brim at this time -- 11:30 p.m to be precise but it's not.
Caramelo, one of Abuja’s upscale, ritzy and popular nightclubs, has been reduced to a lifeless spot. The air used to be thick with cigarette and Shisha smoke around this time but the air is unusually clean tonight.
It is not always this way.
The Police raid
Men of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) raided Caramelo on Wednesday, April 17, 2019.
Some strippers were arrested during the brawl between policemen and security personnel of the club. Weeks later, Caramelo, located at plot 630 Cadastral Zone, Utako, is still unrecognisable.
As the waiter arrives my table with the drink I ordered, I seek to know what has happened to the ever buzzing Caramelo.
"We were here as usual when some people came," the waiter said on condition of anonymity.
"They said they were Environmental Board. They came with lots of policemen. Everybody started running. We lost a lot of money that day because customers ran away without paying for food and drinks.
"As they approached the club, the bouncers engaged them in a scuffle. Some were even injured. They tore down the door, darted in and arrested some girls, workers and customers who had no identity cards. Most of them were girls," the waiter states.
Coordinator of the Abuja Metropolitan Management Council (AMMC), Umar Shuaibu, had alleged that the facility occupied by the club was originally designed as a health clinic.
Umar also accused Caramelo of noise pollution, no thanks to loud party music, nude/strip dancing club activities, intractable traffic challenge resulting from uncontrolled patronage of the nightclub within the residential precinct.
But, this waiter assures Pulse that the club would be back on its feet in a few weeks. He believes the raid is a gang-up of some sort against his organisation. He considers the raid the handiwork of competition.
"You see, there are so many clubs in Abuja, but most of them are usually empty all day of the week and during weekends. This thing happened to make people stop coming here. But, we're working and in a few weeks, we'll be back and better”, the waiter says.
At other night clubs the fear of an imminent police raid hangs over tipsy heads. Business is slow wherever we turn and it is clear that the raids has affected the city’s night economy. At least for the moment.
The manager of Caramelo who pleads that his name be left out of this story, expresses concern that the raid has negatively affected the patronage the place usually enjoys.
Some of the women arrested, Pulse understands, were charged for prostitution. There were allegations of rape by policemen and that the officers who raped the women in their custody used sachet water bags popularly known as 'pure water' as condoms.
The police authorities say they are investigating the grievous allegations.
Protests against police brutality
The alleged sexual assault of women arrested by officers of the Nigerian Police Force triggered protests in Abuja and Lagos as well.
At a protest organised by some non-governmental organisations on Saturday, May 4, 2019, in Abuja, the protesters described the incidents as a violation of the fundamental human rights of women.
The protest which kicked-off from the Old Parade Ground saw Nigerians dressed in black shirts and bearing placards with various inscriptions.
“Sex for bail is rape”, “It’s her today, it could be me tomorrow”, “To be a woman is not a crime”, “Women’s rights are human rights”, “Don’t rape us, protect us”, they chorused while marching through the streets of Abuja.
At the FCT Police Command, they met a team of gun-wielding policemen who formed a human barricade thereby denying them access to the premises.
Rebecca Umar, a representative of Stand to End Rape and other NGOs, said the duty of the Police is to protect citizens and not harm them.
“It is not a crime to be a woman. We will not be silent, we are here because of the recent happenings at Utako (Caramelo) and other places,” she said.
“We are here to tell the police that you, the police, is supposed to be our friend. We are women, we should be free to wear whatever we want to wear without being arrested. The police is supposed to defend us, not rape us."
Another representative of Stand to End Rape who spoke at the protest, Silvia, claimed that over 100 women have been arrested by the Police in Abuja and “branded prostitutes" without any evidence.
“According to the accounts of these women, they were raped without condoms and some policemen used sachet water bags as condoms. This is a violation of human rights. The AEPB has been taken to court on similar case and the lost."
On her part, Aisha Yesufu, urged the Police to focus on curbing the insecurity problem along the Abuja-Kaduna expressway rather than arresting women on the streets of Nigeria’s capital city.
“I have the right to wear a hijab and another has the right for mini and not wear anything. It is our fundamental human rights, you do not have a right to label a woman a prostitute because of the way she is dressed,” Yesufu said.
The Police says it is investigating the involvement of its men in the arrest and alleged rape of some of the ladies.
Similarly, Laolu Akande, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo's spokesperson, says the matter would be investigated.
"Regarding some of our women who were reportedly harassed and wrongly arrested in Abuja recently, a thorough investigation of what happened is ongoing. This administration will not tolerate any violation of the individual freedoms of our people and all infringements shall be punished," he tweeted on Sunday, May 5, 2019.
As Nigerians await the outcome of these investigations, many have called for a more people friendly Police following the increasing cases of brutality by men of the Force in the country.
Commercial sex work in Abuja
A drive through some red light districts in the city center on the same night, shows that the raid has not affected the thriving trade of sex for cash in Nigeria’s capital city.
There are more skimpily clad young ladies on the streets of Abuja, even after the raids. My cab arrives at one of the night clubs at about 2am to take me home.
In the distance, girls dressed in flowing hijabs huddled under the street lights, awaiting customers. Abuja always fashions out a way to beat the system, whether in hijab, miniskirt or bum shorts.