• 25 Jun, 2024

IFA Grace Jerry Tramples VAPP Act, Abuses Blind Female Tenant

IFA Grace Jerry Tramples VAPP Act, Abuses Blind Female Tenant

 

Intrigue, power play as a disability NGO founder muzzles a PWD alleging rights abuse.

By Gideon Oladimeji

On its website, the Inclusive Friends Association makes an emphatic point to funders and others visiting: It has passion for protecting the dignity of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in Nigeria.

But Grace Jerry, its founder and executive director, swept passion for dignity aside on April 1. A lady she employed and housed in a ‘boys-quarters’ apartment behind hers stepped on her ex-boss’ tripwire.

Jerry exploded in verbal and psychological violence and threat. But for self-restraint, she allegedly boasted, she could have got the cane, and whacked the tenant.

Oluwamayowa Eleanora Boyo, 24, couldn’t see the rage on her madam’s face that noon at Efab Estate, Apo, Abuja. The volley of swearing and gas-lighting coming at her, however, rocked her enough. So she protested.

“Not my portion!”

The rage simply escalated.

To make a point of her power and clout in the middle of the drama, Jerry wheeled herself out the door, and ordered her guard to call the estate’s security post. Two police officers later fox-trotted down to her house. One cocked his AK47, declared his loyalty to Jerry, and blocked the gate. Damilola Sijuwade, the blind tenant’s roommate, witnessed this. Her conclusion: Jerry was all out for power play. The second witness was Sheu Adebayo, the former chairman of the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWD), Lagos. He could only confirm Jerry, his friend, held his niece Eleanora, her roommate, and their mover’s vehicle until around 3pm—after he came and broke up the stand-off that he said erupted around 10am.

Jerry didn’t deny she violated her tenant’s rights; she just clammed up when ER sought verification. But the shock her action generated rippled through a section of Nigeria’s disability community. The Nigeria Association of the Blind, Abuja; the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP); the Network of Women with Disabilities (NWD); and a disability rights lawyer—all insisted the lady had a legal ground there. And Jerry, too, has a case to answer.  Apart from the Disability Rights Advocacy Centre (DRAC), most of those organizations ER spoke with initially condemned the act, and urged Eleanora to seek justice. One even vowed its readiness to move in, and help set a precedent.

But the IFA founder wouldn’t admit the gravity of what she did.  In the wake of the incident, sympathetic sources from DRAC, other disability NGOs, and individuals prodded her. All she kept singing were different refrains of her one-liner: Eleanora is an ingrate.

“After all I did for her for two years,” she said in one of those conversations.

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Eleanora

 

In theory, IFA, in its thematic areas and campaigns, emphasizes and advocates for rights as a social approach to disability governance. But, in practice, Jerry finds it convenient appealing to charity. And she wielded that as a counterpunch to the right abuse allegations swirling around her now.

Likewise her sympathizing friends and some NGOs: On second thought, they realized the dilemma. Their responses to ER lacked the energy to affirm the rights Eleanora said Jerry violated here, though these advocates somehow revealed they knew better. DRAC particularly parried the responsibility and the urgency to take the matter up against Jerry.

In a way, they just set a code—that disability NGOs and their owners can flout the Discrimination Act 2018 and the VAPP 2015, and prey on lesser PWDs. That’s a luxury persons without disabilities and for-profit organizations can't afford. But for the wheels within wheels in the disability community, nothing goes amiss if such violation becomes a sweetheart affair.

Violence. Vehemence
As much as they tried to talk down the incident, Jerry and her colleagues couldn’t ignore its ramifications—in domestic abuse and labour issues.

In self-defence, Jerry insisted she, in her graciousness, took in Eleanora, and helped her. But Lukman Salami, a lawyer and JONAPWD chairman, Lagos chapter, explained morality, on either side, hardly has no place in legal relationships. That is if there was even anything Jerry could claim she did for charity here, though she painted the lady a freeloader.

Eleanora said she never applied for a job at IFA after she graduated from UNILAG in 2022. Based on their past advocacy relationship, Jerry just hastened to invite her to Abuja to serve her NYSC year at IFA—as an executive assistant. The NGO offered her N20,000 monthly and accommodation. Jerry retained her after the youth service, and, in a gentleman’s agreement, added N30,000 to Eleanora’s salary. But the free ride she usually hitched to work in Jerry’s car ended. Eleanora said she navigated the Abuja transport system alone every workday. Paid tenancy also started, and all her bills added up to N450,000 the first year. No tenancy contract, per se. ER confirmed the debit alert of the amount she transferred to Jerry Grace Alache on May 15, 2023.

The rent expires mid-May.

But Eleanora had been done with everything. “I was spending more on accommodation, transportation, and other things than I was earning,” she told ER.  And her job? Not much of a lifetime opportunity. In the first place, she’s no rookie in advocacy. Jerry knows. She once conferred the lady with an award for a Ford Foundation-funded IFA’s campaign she aced while at school.

“I’ve been in the development space since I was born,” Eleanora said, “and I have been trained and involved at Baobab Women doing campaigns, including SGBV advocacy for women and girls with disabilities, since 2018.”

She didn’t flaunt all that to minimize her experience during her stint at IFA. She had the opportunity there to work on an inclusive education project the Disability Rights Fund sponsored; she also picked up a number of skills for administering NGOs; and she widened her network in the Abuja development space. But nothing convinced her of any career path or professional mobility in being an executive assistant or some assistant project officer. “It was one thing I didn’t know how to do,” she said.

Eleanora fired off her resignation email last August, and copied two officials. One of them acknowledged it, and told her to prepare for an exit interview. For a casual, undocumented worker that she was, that ritual couldn’t have stopped her if she’d decided to take a walk.

Jerry eventually called Eleanora to her office a month after she received the resignation e-mail. Not for negotiation, employment regularization, or anything.

“She was telling me I was immature and an ingrate.”  Some of IFA staffers said the same thing. “She said as I grow in age  I should grow in wisdom.”

Their relationship took a new twist right after that meeting.

Jerry first unhinged Eleanora’s apartment from her power generating set in August. Her fridge, Jerry complained, was overloading the set. Eleanora denied switching the fridge on. Her roommate Damilola later discovered in October they had also been cut off the mains. And Jerry kicked against Eleanora’s generator roaring behind her bedroom.

“Our neighbor had to connect our apartment to his mains supply,” Damilola, a lawyer, said.

Host takes Hostage
It would be no surprise on April 1 when the hostilities climaxed. Eleanora and her roommate were moving house that very day, the mover’s truck loaded.  They both knew they still had up till May. So they kept the key to the apartment.

That decision unpinned Jerry. She let off grenades of expletives and vitriol Eleanora and her roommate said they endured.

The gun nut at the gate, on Jerry’s order, would not allow the mover’s truck pass out.

A melee followed.

truck1

 

“The problem was Eleanora’s. She didn’t want to release the key,” the DRAC source who would not want their name in the story said. “If you are leaving somebody’s property, you should not take their key along. The lady could be indicted for that.”

But Eleanora explained she had problem navigating from the new area while coming to town. The reason she had to leave Jerry’s compound while the rent was still running was to get familiar with the new area. She said she wanted to hang around at Efab for the remaining weeks to help her find her bearing across the old and new routes, especially at night.

“Now I had to get an aide that guides me about the new route to where I work in town,” Eleanora said.

All this baffled the DRAC sympathizer. “But I know Jerry to be a nice woman,” the source said. The Abuja NAB’s vice chairman said he knows many disability NGO founders, too. “They are the most hostile to persons with disabilities,” Kalu Eze told ER. “It’s a big shame Jerry did this to a blind lady.”

Jerry’s friend insisted it was a case of Madam thinking her employee is being hard-nosed; and the employee thinking her Madam is being inconsiderate.

But Lukman considered it a legal ground for Eleanora to seek remedies.

“If the terms of her employment included free accommodation, she became a subservient tenant. And her tenancy ceases the moment she resigns,” the lawyer said. But they got to the level of landlord-tenant relationship when Eleanora started paying rent.

“There is no law that gives room for self-help—even if she’s owing. And now that the tenant believes her rent is still running though she is moving out, it doesn’t lie with the woman to forcibly evict her,” he said. “What the woman did by collecting the key was forcible eviction. The lady can approach the court to seek remedies.”

Friend turns Crusher
The rattle intensified as Eleanora proclaimed her rights, and started making phone calls. Damilola later talked her into releasing key. She accepted, and tossed it on a centre table in Jerry’s apartment. Jerry exploded again. And the situation degenerated further.

Adebayo, whom Jerry had called, arrived.

“Eleanora, I will crush you, I will send you out of Abuja” the roommate recalled in a written statement what Jerry said. “I have what it takes to crush you and send you out of Abuja.”

Then Jerry affirmed how much of a fairy auntie she is as a person, the only reason she wouldn’t crush the blind lady.

“But just know it’s finished for you.”  

Eleanora snapped her fingers.

“I reject it.”

That drove Jerry up the wall again.

Adebayo warned his niece to stop it, and ordered her to go on her knees.

“Never ask me for recommendation, you will not be getting any recommendation from me or my NGO for any job you did,” Jerry continued, occasionally calling her stupid, dumb, Damilola said.

Fundamental Breaches
“Section 14 of the VAPP Act criminalizes emotional, verbal and psychological abuse,” NAPTIP’s officer from the VAPP department, Ijeoma Amugo, told ER. Her agency implements the Act. “The section can be used in this case. Of course the lady will provide evidence—or witnesses.”

Jerry hardly cared about any VAPP provision in the heat of her righteous indignation.

She hollered at Eleanora, already on her knees, to straighten up, and lean away from the table she held on to for navigation. Damilola then left the room.  

Outside, the movers, marooned on the premises, counted the hours, and the rising bill. “We paid N45,000 later, instead of the N15,000 original fee,” she said.

Adebayo noted he got there around two, almost two hours after Eleanora’s mum from Lagos first alerted him. Her father called, too. But Jerry slapped him back with a curt I-don’t-know-you.

Around 3pm, Eleanora, Damilola, and the movers eventually followed Adebayo out of Jerry’s compound.

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Damilola

Damilola insisted Jerry locking them in, when they were no criminals, was false imprisonment. “And her threat is something for which one should lose sleep,” she said. “It means she’s after Eleanora wherever she goes in Abuja.”

The issue of locking the gate, Lukman said, is a constitutional matter—a breach of fundamental human rights. “Right to liberty, right to freedom of movement. And under Common Law, that is false imprisonment. Her liberty was curtailed. You called the police—her rights to the dignity of human person violated. These are constitutional issues that give that lady a right in law,” he said.

Even her closet sympathizer at DRAC admitted Jerry got it wrong by calling the police and threatening Eleanora. NWD’s founder Lois Auta said she didn’t support doing that to a PWD. “Jerry has a case to answer,” she told ER.

The NAPTIP officer again referred to Section 10 of the VAPP Act. “That section deals with deprivation of a person’s liberty—when the lady was prevented from leaving,” she said.

Fury of a Rescuer Scorned
ER asked Jerry what she had to say, looking at the implications of all these allegations. Rather than respond, she went about pulling wires. Some of her NGO colleagues said this wasn’t a matter to blow out of proportion—when Eleanora had already uploaded the video of her ordeal on social media.

In pushing Eleanora’s parents and uncle, Jerry almost blackmailed them. Her pressure on them to rein their daughter back from making a splash of the April 1 incident wasn’t subtle. She loaded it up with the recapping of how she rescued and fed Eleanora in Abuja.

As best as her memory served her, Eleanora recalled her welcome into Jerry’s world.

“There was one guaranteed meal daily, especially dinner, throughout May,” she said, noting she had not got her own kitchenware then. At a point, Jerry’s cook even suggested Eleanora pitch in something, too.

“And I went to Mrs. Jerry, told her I wanted to contribute N10,000 for feeding.”  

Jerry never said no.

From her N20k per month, Eleanora said she contributed some amounts a couple more times. That was even after May, when she’d stopped eating the one-meal daily ration.

But none of Jerry’s repining and do-gooding recaps washed.

“Eleanor is like your daughter,” Eleanora’s mum said. “Reach out to her. She’s old enough to do what is right for her.”

Adebayo said something along that line too, neutral as he tried to be. “I can't stop Mayowa,” he told ER.. “And both of them know the implications. If there was any wrong done, the law is no respecter of person.” 

Jerry, the NGO owner, would rather stew than reach out to the blind lady alleging victimization.

Yet, not long ago, before she appointed herself Eleanora’s rescuer, they both had the best of relationships.

After Eleanora emerged one of the six champions of IFA’s Gender/Disability-Based Violence campaign across Nigeria Dec. 2021, Jerry invited her to Abuja for an award. Uju Kennedy, before she became the minister for women affairs, presented the award in Feb. 2022.

Jerry couldn’t wait for such a passionate advocate to graduate then. After two invitations, Eleanora yielded.

Decent Work a Right—not Act of Grace
But passion and growth are two different things, Eleanora told ER. Likewise passion and decent work, especially for a blind lady trying to fulfill purpose in Abuja.

A survey by the Trade Union Congress and the Solidarity Centre in 2022 revealed most workers with disabilities in Nigeria don’t have decent work.

By decent work, the International Labour Organization (ILO) means “work that is available to all equally, is productive and delivers a fair income and security in workplace, provides equal access to social protections—such as pensions and adequate affordable healthcare—and affords workers freedom to participate equally in decisions affecting their work.

Jerry and IFA didn’t offer Eleanora any of these.

“If they didn’t put me on any project, I couldn’t earn any additional pay,” she said.

The Abuja NAB vice chairman wondered the kind of employment this was—where the lady paid Jerry far more than she received from the organization. “In most cases when they tell you they run disability NGOs, it’s always about the money, and their interests,” he said.

His association sent Eleanora their solidarity (the only support so far from any disability organization); and the blind cluster also promised to spread the news to NGOs funders.

What she [Jerry] did, the official said, is capable of making her lose sponsors.

“It should serve as a lesson to others.”

The VAPP Act punishes anybody convicted of violating section 10 or 14 with a year’s imprisonment or a N200,000 fine. Or both. An attempt to violate the sections is equally punishable on conviction: six months or N100,000. Or both.

If that means justice, Eleanora already embarked on the lonely quest for it, and has got to a crossroads. The elite of her community, in sympathy with her alleged abuser Jerry, wait there. Their studied silence determines what eventually makes Eleanora, Jerry, and over 30 million other PWDs human.

Might—or right.

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