Rethinking Sexual And Reproductive Rights In Nigeria


t is no news that many women around the world today are still being denied key sexual and reproductive rights i.e. their right to enjoy control over and make decisions on their sexual and reproductive health without discrimination, coercion, detention, or violence. But perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in Nigeria, where a woman cannot autonomously decide the number and timing of children she wishes to have.

Although governed by two separate anti-abortion laws—the penal code for the Northern states and the criminal code for the Southern states. Northern and Southern jurisprudence are aligned in their stance on prohibiting abortions. For example, the criminal code stipulates:

"S228- Any person who, with intent to procure miscarriage of a woman whether she is or is not with child, unlawfully administers to her or causes her to take any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind, or uses any other means whatever, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years.

S229- Any woman who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, whether she is or is not with child, unlawfully administers to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind, or uses any other means whatever, or permits any such thing or means to be administered or used to her, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for seven years."

The only caveat to these laws comes from the authority of the case, Rex v. Bourne (1938), which states that a woman is allowed to have an abortion to save her life or to preserve her mental and physical health.

To be certain, Nigeria is not the only, or even the most prohibitive of African countries in this regard. As at 2015, 93 per cent of African women at child-bearing age, lived in countries that have restrictive abortion laws. In Gabon, Egypt and 9 other African countries, abortion is not permitted under any circumstance, and there are no legal provisions allowing abortion to save the life of the mother or in cases where the pregnancy was conceived from rape.


Of the 54 countries that make up the continent, only 3 countries have completely liberal laws on abortion. In South Africa, Cape Verde and Tunisia, women are allowed to terminate their pregnancies at will, with limits solely on the gestational age of the foetus at which this can be done.

There are many reasons why women, young women being in the majority, opt to have abortions—such as wanting to complete their education, having conceived the child through rape, or lacking socioeconomic resources to raise a child. Near the top of their list of considerations is also the social stigma attached to being pregnant outside wedlock. In Nigeria and many other countries around the world, popular sentiments around pre-marital pregnancy seem to rest on the unstated assumption that it is the woman who impregnates herself. While this is biologically impossible, the attitude of society to pregnant unmarried women would make one think otherwise.


In many cases, the burden of caring for children born out of wedlock falls squarely on the shoulders of women, in addition to public ridicule and the loss of social standing in a community that now sees them—but not their sexual partners—as people of questionable character. Therefore, thousands of women in Nigeria procure abortions to avoid being shamed and shunned as ‘loose women’ in the community simply because they are pregnant and unmarried.

Unfortunately, the stigma doesn’t end there. Society frowns heavily, and even more so on women who upon becoming pregnant, decide to have abortions.

The lack of proper family planning initiatives and education programmes in Nigeria further exacerbates the harsh effects of these anti-abortion laws. Most women who get abortions do so because they did not intend to get pregnant when they did and would thus have grateful benefitted from pregnancy-prevention measures. “If all the people who need contraception get it, [and] if the need for contraception is met, we will be left with a small number of women who get pregnant without wanting to,” explained Dr. Talemoh Wycliffe Dah, OB/GYN and Director of Soteria-Afrique Rural Initiative, during a recent interview. By extension, therefore, there will be much less abortions when contraceptive usage increases and the rate of unwanted pregnancies decreases.

It is estimated that 81 per cent of unwanted pregnancies in developing countries are as a result of an unmet need for modern contraception. In effect, many affected women do not have access to proper contraceptive options nor do they know that what options exist and where. In Nigeria, for example, only 11 per cent of women in reproductive ages (15-49) are using any modern contraceptive method.

It is no surprise therefore that countries that have good family planning structures and high contraceptive prevalence figures have very reduced rates of abortions when compared to those who do not. However, in the words of Dr. Dah, “Nigeria’s [low] contraceptive prevalence rate [remains] an enigma.” This is particularly so because when one considers that “other African, European and Middle Eastern countries with similar religions and cultures have very high rates.” Furthermore, despite the efforts that have been made within the Nigerian civil society to increase access to contraceptives, very little progress has been observed in this regard.

One explanation might be that for all the similarities Nigeria shares with other cultures, the sacrosanctity of our cultural values is distinctly pervasive in our society. To most Nigerians, it is an abomination to even broach the topic of abortion, and the few times the topic rears its head in popular discourse, it is almost always seen negatively through the tinted eyes of ‘culture’ and ‘morals’. It is therefore almost impossible to find people interested in critically engaging with the law or positively developing the law beyond its current anti-abortion stance.


Undeterred by this fact, several groups in history have ventured through the stormy waters of legal and legislatively reform. In 1972 and 1975, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and the National Population Council (NPC) respectively tried to reform the laws but were faced with opposition and a glaring lack of support. Most notably, in 1981 the SOGON (Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Nigeria) initiated and tabled before the House of Representatives, a progressive bill on the termination of pregnancy. The bill faded out after the first reading because it was met with a high level of hostility and resistance from religious groups and the National Council of Women’s Societies. These opposing groups “feared that the passage of the bill would promote moral laxity” but failed to produce any evidence to support their position. All the same, citizens and organizations who were against the bill sent thousands of petitions to the National Assembly to prevent the bill from passing.

Things seemed to take a turn for the better in the 1990s. In 1991, the Campaign Against Unwanted Pregnancy (CUAP) was formed, with a primary mission to defend women’s sexual and reproductive rights and eliminate unsafe abortion. With a view to reviewing abortion legislation, it organized a reform meeting involving the minister of health and the NMA in 1992. Not surprisingly, this reform movement was also met with strong opposition and thus, never saw the light of day. From then onwards, CUAP, while receiving a lot of international support (mainly through grants from non-profits) and consequently organizing workshops, seminars and lectures on sexual health and women’s rights was never fully able to sway a critical mass of Nigerians. Sadly, it seems CUAP is now defunct.

While the correlation between anti-abortion legislation and unsafe abortions is readily apparent, the trends in abortion-friendly countries reveal a more puzzling fact. In South Africa, for example, where abortions were legalized since 1997 and public health centres are available for this procedure, women still patronise quacks and purchase unsafe pills and herbs to terminate their pregnancies. Revealing the underlying reason for this, Professor Jane Harries, director of the Women’s Health Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, that “many women do not feel comfortable accessing public sector facilities due to stigma and the attitudes of health care providers.” It is thus evident that even legal reform has its limits, especially in societies with deeply-rooted cultural values.

In light of the foregoing, the question remains: how can our societies cut through the high fences of law and culture to safeguard the health and reproductive rights of our women? One solution, advanced by many community health workers and eternal optimists like Dr. Dah, is to keep educating communities and in fact “to educate people more.” According to him, “people who stigmatize others are limited in their understanding.” To bring home to them the scale of this issue and move the reform discussion from an abortion debate to a more wholesale women’s health discourse, what is needed is not just “enlightenment on the vastly different and justified factors that may lead one to get an abortion, but [also enlightenment on] more general [matters].”

In the realm of women’s health, one statistic is particularly telling. Contrary to the opinions advanced by religious and other groups in the 1970s, highly restrictive abortion laws do not lead to lower pregnancy or abortion rates. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “when countries are grouped according to the grounds under which the procedure is legal, the rate is 37 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age where it is prohibited altogether or allowed only to save a woman’s life, compared with 34 per 1,000 where it is available on request.”1


Given the high rate of abortions (13% of all pregnancies in Africa), the consequences of disallowing abortions are not insignificant. By making abortion illegal, the government is directly hurting and contributing to the death of its young and vulnerable female citizens who choose not to go through childbirth. Of the yearly 6 million plus abortions in Africa, which already has the highest number of abortion-related deaths in the world, only 3% of them are performed under safe conditions. Unsafe abortions—defined by the Guttmacher Institute as abortions “performed by individuals lacking the requisite skills or in environments below minimum medical standards”—abound solely because women are scared, ashamed, and consequently have to hide to get abortions. To this end, they patronise unqualified medical personnel to carry out the procedure for them, or they sometimes desperately resort to cruder means like consuming bleach. These processes are often times life-threatening, leading to the deaths of women, who ordinarily would not have died had they been afforded legal and affordable access to proper medical services.

Furthermore, death is not the only consequence of unsafe abortions. Health problems like infertility, haemorrhage and sepsis are common consequences. Because health centres spend scarce resources providing expensive post-abortion care and treatment, unsafe abortion also places an economic burden on the nation’s health system.

Considering the socioeconomic and health-related effects of abortion in our societies, the arguments that abortions are not/should not be legally and socially accepted because of our cultural and religious values thus reveal a complete blindness towards the suffering and lived experiences of many of society’s women. More so, the number of women in Nigeria having abortions says otherwise about these supposed values, and whether they are truly shared by all or imposed on society by only a fraction of its inhabitants. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of yearly abortions in Nigeria rose from 610,000 to 760,000. The figure is currently estimated at more than 1 million annually.

It has never been more imperative that Nigeria move beyond doctrinal debates and become a society that cares about the health, safety, and welfare of all women—including women who for whatever possible reasons opt out of childbirth. The sooner the government—and indeed the citizens—accepts that the laws and social constructs we currently have in place are not just failing to stop women from getting abortions, but are actually directly putting women in harm’s way, and simultaneously draining our health and economic sectors, the better for us all.


1 Emphasis of the author.

Three graphs have been omitted from this feature, and can be found in the original piece here.


Permission to republish this article was obtained from The Republic: A Journal Of Nigerian Affairs. No part of this article may be used, republished or modified without prior written approval from the publisher, The Republic. All rights reserved.


The City And Its Bride: Slum Growth In Lagos


This is the first of a three-part series on the incentives and cost of slum clearance and displacement in Nigeria. This piece looks at the history of urbanisation and slum growth in Lagos.

Image:  Olalekan Jeyifous .  "A visual conversation on how slums are frequently viewed as unsightly eyesores."

Image: Olalekan Jeyifous.

"A visual conversation on how slums are frequently viewed as unsightly eyesores."


etween 1999 and 2000, countries pledged to “improv[ing] the living conditions of the world's most vulnerable and marginalised urban residents” and creating cities without slums. At the core was the need to ensure that no region or population segment is exempt from development, and therefore, disenfranchised. By 2050, slumsa - underserved and overcrowded tenements with no municipal services - were to become a thing of the past.

While this has led to a decline in the global slum population, notably in African countries, the paradox remains kneaded in uncontrolled urbanisation — in that the more cities develop, the more attractive they become. Particularly in high-growth cities with commercial advantages, people troop into ‘the big city’ in search of educational and/or employment opportunities; in lure of a land of milk and honey.

The problem, however, is two-tailed: one, that cities are not growing fast enough, at least in infrastructural terms, to accommodate the wave of migrants. Secondly, the migrants are often unable to afford the hight costs; therefore fuelling a pattern of overcrowded spaces and an outpouring of slums. In the case of Lagos, both ring true as the impending megacity grapples with a population of over 20 million people, overburdened infrastructure, a poor planner to population ratio, and a severing housing deficit.


For Better, For Worse

Call it magnanimous hospitality or border porosity, Lagos boasts of an hourly influx of 86 people. Perhaps for its economic dominance in Nigeria and West Africa and its extensive ports, Lagos has had a long history of cushioning intra- and inter-regional settlers - from the Aworis to the traders, fishermen and Lebanese ‘hustlers'; to the Afro-Brazilian returnees in the 19th century, Biafran refugees and expulsed Nigerians from Ghana in the 60s and 70s.

As the commercial and political centre during the colonial period, Lagos also grew rapidly, becoming a viable hub for trade. It thrived economically, particularly after the 1970s Oil boom which propelled a further influx into the city. Coupled with the fact that agriculture became less sexyb and other Nigerian states remained stagnant relative to Lagos, dual waves of migrants flooded the city to take advantage of its rapidly advancing infrastructure, and expansive welfare policy.

With prosperity came a change in its social culture1, a bubbling night life and a baby boom, which further skyrocketed the population. On another hand was patronage and kleptocratic politics, mismanagement, excessive fiscal spending, and high volumes of importation - most notable of which was the 1975 ‘cement armada’ collusion leading to an inflated budgets and importation of millions of tonnes of cement for construction in Nigeria.

The result of these bouts of endemic corruption would be a volatility in inflation, which transcended across the cost of building material; in turn, rapidly hiking real estate prices. By the time Nigeria dipped its foot in democracy in 1979, the military elites had sunk public (short-term) debt to $7.5 billion. Concomitantly, its neo-colonial market economy had prevailed, leaving the fattest bone for the wealthiest — not the patient — dog.


Till Capitalism Do Us ‘Part

Though Jakande embarked on low-cost housing projects during his 1979-1983 tenure as Governor of Lagos State, truly ‘affordable’ housing - at least for the urban poor - was near impossible, and housing prices were further offset by excessive demand. In 1982, however, when Oil crashed and interest rates spiked, economic crises loomed in Nigeria as employment, among other macroeconomic variables, declined. By 1985 and 1986, debt had reached $19.55 billion and $23.40 billion, respectively; rendering Nigeria incapable of paying her (trade) bills.

In the light of defaults and a failed Paris Club Agreement, Nigeria embarked on an IMF-backed Structural Adjustment Program (SAPs) in 1986 which mandated liberalist policies and rapid deregulation. Rather than alleviate poverty, this capitalist hangover threw Nigeria into a macroeconomic imbalance; inducing economic hardship2 and reducing access to finance, particularly for the poor.

Essentially, the financial deregulation gave the upper hand to the rich, as the poor lacked the capital base, savings and collateral assets needed to secure loans and/or property3; neither affording the interest rates offered nor the high rental costs resulting from an acute supply deficit in dwelling units4. As with jobs, this further paved the way for the informal markets to fill the exclusion gap, leading to a proliferation of slums in Nigeria.


Unveiling The Bride

In Lagos, urban spaces became more politicised5; effecting a widening housing gap, and an uprise in make-shift homes6 and informal settlements on illegally7 occupied land. While some may argue that the rise of slums is embedded in the poor maintenance culture of Nigerians and traditional approaches to urbanism8, one cannot ignore the role of the governments negligence9, apathy and antipathy10 allows for low-income houses deteriorate into slums.

Irrespective of the reason, the prevalence of slums in Lagos continues to be a nightmare for the technocratic administration obsessed with perfecting the art of a megacity and creating facsimiles of European towns. From an external view point, slum growth mirrors an unresponsive government, insecurity and informality; de-incentivising Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and deconstructing the image needed to harness its economic prowess.

The result, therefore, is a vicious cycle of inequality, for which each time Lagos walks down the development altar, it unveils urban slum growth. This, in addition to Lagos’ land frontier, an inpouring of in-migrants and immigrantsc and insufficient capacity, forges a love-hate relationship between the city and the urban poor. Migrants, who are often faced with a skills mismatch, work informal jobs - averting tax - and forming informal settlements; leaving the urbanising city of Lagos in a limbo.


a UNCHS categorises slums by the high rates of population per household, poorly built structures and physical impediments including shortages of safe water, sanitation, electricity and other basic social amenities. From a legal perspective, they are considered as ‘illegal’ due to a lack of security of land tenure and are often excluded from public goods provision.

b A concept known as Dutch Disease.

c According to the UN-Habitat, the Lagos population grew a 108.5 percent from 3.5 million in 1985 to 7.3 million in 2000. The population of Lagos is currently estimated at 17-21 million, though the LASG caps it at 23 million.


1 Nwanna C., (2012), Gentrification in Lagos State: Challenges and Prospects, British Journal of Arts and Social Sciences.

2 Folarin S., (2010), The Spatial Economy of Abjection: The Evacuation of Maroko Slum in Nigeria in Encountering the Nigerian State: Africa Connects, pp. 55-78. Palgrave Macmillan.

3 Agbola T. and Agunbiade E. M.,(2009), ‘Urbanization, Slum Development and Security of Tenure: The Challenges of Meeting Millennium Development Goal 7 in Metropolitan Lagos, Nigeria’, pp. 77-106.

4 Ajanlekoko J. S., (2001), Sustainable Housing Development in Nigeria - The Financial and Infrastructural Implication.

5 Peil M., (1975: 309), The Common Man's Reaction to Nigerian Urban Government, African Affairs, Vol.74 (296).

Fourchard L., (2011), also explores this in 'Lagos, Koolhaas and Partisan Politics in Nigeria. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research', Vol. 35 (1).

6 Simon F. R., Adegoke A. K. and Adewale B.A., (2013), Slum Settlements Regeneration in Lagos Mega-city: an Overview of a Waterfront Makoko Community, International Journal of Education and Research, Vol. 1 (3).

7 Alagbe O., (2006), Combating the Challenges of Rise in Urban Slums in Cities in Developing World: A Case Study of Lagos State.

8 Immerwahra D., (2007), The politics of architecture and urbanism in postcolonial Lagos, 1960–1986 Journal of African Cultural Studies. Vol. 19 (2), pp. 165-186.

9 Alagbe O., (2006).

10 Agbola and Agunbiade, (2009).


Hakka Allah Yena So: It’s God's Will

Image:  The Nation

Image: The Nation

As generally perceived and shown by research, Northern Nigeria remains the poorest region in the country. In more ways than one, it lags behind the South, as though inherent in the Nigerian constitution; a sort of twisted symbiosis in Nigeria’s functionality. As a nation, we have exhibited an unconscious permissiveness of poverty, and have found solace in attributing the blame and responsibility to someone- or something- else

‘It is well’ we say, as we turn a blind eye to the socio-economic imbalances, for which we ought to furiously and intently ask whys and hows. For those who have, the answers they have found range from unequal revenue allocation and insecurity to educational deprivation during the colonial rule, to poor governance. Also prevalent is the relationship found between culture and religion, particularly in the North: one in which religion and culture merge, and are exploited.



When thinking of the North, the first thing that comes to mind is Islam. Perhaps as a result of the summers I spent in Kaduna as a child, mesmerised by the vocal range of the call to prayer bellowing from minarets; or, the fact that Muslims make up over 90 percent of Northern Nigeria. Islam - which was introduced to the North through the Bornu Empire as early as the 11th century and then used as a uniting tool in the 19th century after a jihad launched by Usman Dan Fodio - has been both instrumental and transformative to the North.

Unofficially, this jihad established the Sharia law in 1812, and a presence of a “Northern block” - similar socio-cultural ties in religion. These ties were further “re-established” by the British colonial rule when creating a Northern Protectorate that mirrored Dan Fodio’s Sokoto Caliphate. Though the official power was transferred to the High Commissioner, the existing structures remained in place, allowing the British to implement an indirect rule through traditional Muslim leaders, under which an extremely powerful Muslim elite was created.

This elite would then rule the region with an iron fist and see that though culture was evolving, it remained conservative. This resistance would transcend to the 21st century, and involve the former Kano state Governor, Shekarau’s Nazi-esque task of book burning of littattafan soyayya, - romance novels primarily written by women - the strict rules in Kannywood and anything considered against the “Islamic and Hausa culture.”

This resistance to culture change is also evident in the gender relations and dynamics in the region - one in which women are put at a disadvantage. In the North, and widely, culture and religion are puppeted by men in power; with pleas for the enforcement of women’s rights, the abolition of child marriages and a Gender Equality Bill referred to as “an attack on religious and cultural beliefs.” Rather than strengthening ties and creating a common (equal) ground, ‘culture’ has instead been abused, and become systematic subjugation.



The historical undermining of culture and religion spans beyond the arts, education and women, and continues to extend to areas such as health. In the case of the latter, most notable is the (lack of) response to the 2004 polio crises and 2005 measles epidemic that occurred predominantly in Northern Nigeria — which left only 5.3 percent of children in Kano immunised. As opposed to adopting effective measures to eradicate polio, Islamic clerics in Kano instead advised the people against the vaccines on the grounds of the drugs as tools to render Muslim women infertile.

As with the 2005 measles epidemic, this saw an increased morbidity and mortality rate in Northern Nigeria, and widened the poverty gap. A decade later would prove no different, if not worse, with the reaction to a new strain of cerebral meningitis in 2016. Meningitis, which had accounted for up to 500 deaths as of April 2017, was seen as an offspring of impunity within the most affected states - Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina and Kebbi. That is, in the words of Zamfara state Governor, Yari, “God’s punishment for sin.”

This statement not only reeks of manipulation but also reflects one of two things. First: a person entrusted with the highest political power in state government believes that the spread of the viral disease, in a meningitis belt country, devolves the government of its responsibilities. Alternatively, that this high level official alludes to a widespread belief in God’s wrath, therefore baiting his government's inefficiencies on the conservatism of the masses.

Either scenario is a different side of the same coin: the first posing an interplay of a systemic ignorance veiled as religion, and parcelled to relevant state office(s). In addition, there is an obvious exploitation of this same ignorance in the people — perhaps, owing to literacy rates as low as 49 and 14.5 percent in Kano and Borno, respectively, stemming from its colonial roots. Whatever the case, this response, vis-à-vis the proactive response of Lagos state in the wake of the 2015 Ebola crisis, remains at a tangent.



Such archaism and practice of 13th century Islam, as the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi calls it, cannot continue to coexist in this 21st century world. “We can’t fix the North until we face our [cultural and religious] taboos” and bridge the ignorance gap. This, of course, neither suggests an enforcement or acceptance of western values, nor does it say that cultures in Northern Nigeria are inferior. 

The problem is neither with Islam itself, as many thriving Gulf countries, as well as Malaysia, have upheld their cultural and Islamic values, yet embraced advancement. The problem, however, is the use of culture and religion as a political tool to impose socio-intellectual obscurity on its followers, as opposed to a people preserving mechanism. The ignorance of the masses is the strength of the elite. 

Perhaps a form of hybridity may be the answer. The North, however, needs more leaders and citizens like Amina J Mohammed and Sanusi Lamido Sanusi who speak against the normalisation of oppressive cultural elements that suppress development. It requires its populace to break free from such confinements and the idea which its leaders hide behind — the idea that Northerners are content with the little they have.