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Revulsion over Nigeria rape video shows power of social media

In Nigeria, rape video depicting an apparent gang attack on a woman by college students sparks a criminal investigation, and raises questions of how much smartphones have changed Nigerian society.

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The federal government finally intervened. Last week Nigeria's Youth Minister Bolaji Abdullahi called on the university and local authorities to investigate the rape. Two arrests have already been made. But the investigation has since stalled, as J.G. Micloth, the Assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of Abia State Police command Criminal Investigation Department, announced last week that he had suspected investigations after concluding that the alleged rape victim had not visibly fought the attackers, and had therefore consented to the gang crime

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Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, is also one of the poorest. Half of its population lives below the poverty line, while much of the rest of the population lives just above it. Yet mobile phones are cheap and ubiquitous. More than 43 million mobiles are in use here. Most have access to the Internet.

This access, according to Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi, is not only responsible for the investigation of the rape, but is transforming Nigerian society. Before cellphones became widely used, most of the country lived in isolation. Information was local: rarely did it travel from state to state. News of a rape in the Niger Delta would have little impact beyond the area where it took place, he said.

“The presidential election last spring changed this,” says Mr. Ogunlesi, who is an editor for NEXT, a daily newspaper, and is well known here for his broad presence on the web. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan “came to Facebook and opened a page. He engaged with young people online. This is the first time a politician had done this.”

The election allowed Nigerians to establish a network of socially conscious young people across the country. This group then drove people to the rape video when it came online. The heinousness of the crime and the pain felt by the victim - both are clearly visible in the video - stoked public outrage. Ogunlesi said that many Nigerians who would have dismissed rape in the past grew angry when the tape became public.

“It was this collective anger that forced the government to act,” Ogunlesi said. “It was first blogger and tweeters, then civil society that challenged the police.”

Ogunlesi said the level of social engagement the video after the video was made public is unprecedented in modern Nigeria.

“People are asserting a power they didn’t know they had,” he said, “but it's unfortunate that a video like this marks the beginning of the new age of social media in Nigeria.”

David Francis reported from Nigeria on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).

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