Posted by Emeka Ugwuonye, Esquire | 5 February 2014 | 3,776 times
Extreme domestic violence has become a big problem among the Nigerian communities in America. Several factors are responsible for the build-up of tension to the stage of homicide. As a counsel, I have been involved in Maryland and Washington DC in representing Nigerian families in such situations. In up to five clearly identifiable cases in which I was involved on the side of the men, the men were on the verge of doing something extremely dangerous to their wives (and some to themselves) at the stage in which I intervened professionally.
Nothing excuses homicide and it is totally dangerous, self-destructing and counter effective to kill anybody, how much more one’s spouse. Many factors are responsible and these expose Nigerians particularly.
(1) Nigerian women in Nigeria do not enjoy the type of rights women enjoy in America. Rather, I will put it differently, thus: the concept of rights in Nigeria for women is radically different than the concept of rights for women in America. A Nigerian woman who suddenly arrives in America would realise soon that she could do a lot more and express herself in a lot more different ways than would be the situation in Nigeria. It then depends on the character and personality differences how such a woman would respond to a different perception of rights in America. In majority of cases, but definitely not all, the woman tends to enjoy her new rights to the fullest extent.
(2) Education and exposure are also important factors on both sides. A better-exposed woman, not just those who attended nursing school and had a sudden increase in incomes, tends to understand that rights are more effectively enjoyed when you do so with restraint. What do I mean by this? The right to be equal to her husband still exists, even more so, when a woman chooses deliberately to subordinate herself to her husband’s leadership as the head of the family. You would find this restraint among female Nigerian doctors more than you do among female Nigerian nurses, again emphasising the impact of education. This point is valuable in showing that it is not just because the nurse makes more money than her husband, because female doctors tend to make more money than their husbands, too. However, the female doctors tend to manage their income superiority better.
(3) Still on the importance of education: A better educated man is more likely to react better to a situation where the wife earns more than he does. He is more able to find alternative ways to maintain equality of dignity, balancing out her income superiority. Usually, the men in most of these family homicide stories are low-income earners, which also likely reflects low education and attainment in life. They couldn’t figure out how to overcome the pressures and crises in their marriages without resorting to violence against family members.
(4) Culture: Even though nothing can excuse violence, Nigerian people are culturally disposed to exuberance, egotism and aggression on both sides. Otherwise, what is this overriding need to control the woman? Why should she not be the decider of family financial issues if she earns more? Why not let her be the boss for a change? Also, we flip the argument and wonder why should the mere fact that you earn more money automatically lead to the assertion of superiority over your husband? Couldn’t other things in the family life be equally important as income, such as to avoid tilting the balance of influence drastically because the wife now earns more?
(5) Still on culture: Nigerian families, not being used to the American culture within which the American laws and institutions evolved, tend not to understand how these laws apply and the implications of their actions. For instance, the American family law would tend to be favourable to the women, but only when viewed from the perspective of a Nigerian woman. However, when viewed from the perspective of the American woman, those laws do not give the woman an advantage. Rather, those laws offer equal protection to both spouses and ensure a level-playing field between them.
I think the above is a very important observation about the laws. Why does the American family law seem suddenly in favour of the women when Nigerian women are involved? The answers are many. But one of them, which reflects the culture of Nigerians, is that Nigerians do not trust the legal institutions as something neutral that is meant to achieve fairness. Rather, they would approach the law with a sense of war and competition. So, a Nigerian in a divorce case is more likely to resent and lie against the other spouse. She is more likely to lie that she has been assaulted. But also, the Nigerian man is more likely to physically threaten his wife in a family argument. He is more likely to assert himself because his mind continues to go back to Nigeria where he would have had much more power over his wife.
For the same reasons, Nigerian divorces tend to cost more per family income than divorces among other races and groups. What do I mean? Whereas non-Nigerians who divorce tend to narrow down their family disputes to issues that are really at stake, Nigerians expand their family disputes far and much wider than what is manageable within the court system. He is more likely to accuse her of adultery even though there is no evidence of it. She is more likely to accuse him of domestic violence based on exaggerated and perjured evidence. They are both more likely to accuse their respective families of being the ones influencing their spouses. In other words, the man would insist that it is his mother-in-law that is causing the problem and the woman would insist that it is her husband’s mother that is causing the problem.
There is clearly an effort to game the system. And as a lawyer representing these people, you realise the cost of representing them goes up dramatically because you are being asked to work on the much-expanded facts of conflict. For instance, you now need evidence to capture the involvement of the parents of the spouses in the conflict. But if it were families from other groups, they would hold each responsible for their marital problems without blaming them on their parents.
As a lawyer, when I get involved in the family law cases of Nigerians, my first task is to get my client to understand that the other party has rights and what those rights are. Then I explain to him or her what the law intends to achieve and what would be a legitimate expectation for him or her to have. I also explain the financial implications of how they choose to go about their differences. The problem is usually that the man doesn’t want the woman to have anything and the woman doesn’t want the man to get anything. This leads often to the winner-takes-all mentality that breeds extreme sense of injustice that tends toward extreme resentment and frustration, and then homicide.
In one of the cases that I can use as an example, and there are many, this Nigerian man had an argument with his wife. The man had gone to the grocery stores and bought food for the family, including some rice. He and wife recently had an argument. The woman cooked some of the rice and when the rice was done, she served herself and the children, but did not serve the man. The man then went to the kitchen and tried to serve himself some rice. The woman told him it was her rice and he should stay away from it. The man said: “No, I bought the rice”. A fight ensued. The man called me on the phone, as his lawyer. I did everything I could to explain to him that the rice in the pot was “her rice” and he should stay away from it. He didn’t quite understand it because in Nigeria such a thing would never happen. I finally got him to understand the situation by asking him whether he wanted to be in handcuffs and spend the night in jail. He realised that the rice was not enough for him to spend in the night in prison.
On another occasion, the same client finally got arrested by the police for beating his wife, except that he did not really touch her. The woman just lied. And when the police got there and found that the man was 6:3ft tall and had a bottle of small stout beer (his first for the day, though the police thought he was drunk), the police handcuffed him immediately and took him to jail that night. (Isn’t it a rather dumb idea to “relax” with beer right after your wife had called the police to the house after an argument?)
When he managed to get a phone from the prison, he called me. I was about to board a flight from Seattle to Washington DC, when his call came in. He only uttered the following words: “She finally put me in jail”. And that is the way the Nigerians perceive these things – it is for them a matter of power and subjugation. For the woman, she finally put him in jail. And for the man, she finally put him in jail; as if putting him jail was any logical objective. Nobody bothered to understand the legal and factual dynamics that led to that situation. Anyway, I immediately called my office to arrange for his release on bail. I landed a few hours later and drove straight from the airport to the detention centre where he was held. I met with the Commissioner and negotiated the terms of his bond. He was out in minutes, but was ordered not to return to his house.
That case went to trial. The woman lied all the way. But as a defence counsel in that case, my work was to establish sufficient reasonable doubts to avoid conviction. At the end of the trial, the judge stated in her ruling: “Counsel for the defence was able to sow a seed of doubt at the outset of his case. That seed of doubt ultimately mushroomed into a forest of reasonable doubts, and I have a constitutional obligation to find him not guilty of these charges.”
The man broke down in court and wept like a baby. That saved his life. If he had gone to jail in that case, he would have been pushed over the bar, leading to the extreme events we are discussing here. There is a lot more to be said about this problem among Nigerian communities in America. It is not only nurses that get killed by their husbands. We had a story of a Nigerian professor in Pennsylvania who killed his Jamaican wife and then committed suicide. We need to spend more time on this and to explore causation and solutions further.
•Emeka Ugwuonye, Esquire, whose photo appears alongside this piece, is the Group Founder/Principal Administrator of Due Process Advocates (DPA) as well as President/CEO at Eculaw Group. He wrote from Maryland, USA.
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