I grew up adoring Michael Jackson. He was a normal but phenomenally talented black kid then, part of The Jackson Five with his brothers. He grew up and started acting strangely – his skin became lighter, his hair longer, his features became caucasian, his voice did not sound like that of a grown man and he kept monkeys and snakes as pets. Yet his talent and fame kept growing exponentially, so all those things could be overlooked. Then in 1993 he was accused of molesting Jordie Chandler, one of the young boys he was fond of going around with. The vast majority of Michael Jackson fans around the world could not believe this. How could such an icon be involved in something so prurient? There was a predictable media firestorm over this and, by the time the dust cleared, Michael Jackson had settled the case privately with U$25 million. According to Michael Jackson, he wanted to move on and did not want the spectacle of a drawn-out court case. Many took this as a sign of his guilt, but since the victim concerned and his parents had accepted the settlement and their testimony could, therefore, not be relied upon to pursue a criminal case against Jackson, the case was closed. The Jordie Chandler case inspired further investigations into Michael Jackson’s lifestyle and what was unearthed was pretty disturbing. People close to him referred to him as a ‘Chicken Hawk,’ a slang for paedophile, and revealed elaborate and desperate measures to shield the world from the truth of who Michael Jackson really was.
In 2003, Michael Jackson went on trial again for molesting Garvin Arvizo, a cancer survivor he had taken under his wing. Recalling how the first case went in 1993, I knew this was not going anywhere and in 2005 Michael was acquitted of all charges. Michael Jackson was tried by a court of law and won. The case continued to be tried in the Court of Public Opinion till his death. Regardless of how the criminal case went, the disturbing facts still remain. Michael Jackson slept in the same room and on the same bed with young boys who were his visitors. Over time, five of the boys accused him of masturbating them, showing them pornography and kissing them. Police found pornographic material when they searched his home. The parents of some of the boys received expensive gifts from Michael, including homes, cars, jewelry and shopping trips. Michael Jackson died in 2009 as one of the greatest musicians the world has ever known. He, however, epitomized the dark side of the cult of celebrity and how it sucks up everything and everyone in its wake through the use of intimidation, money and the sacrifice of innocence.
Olanrewaju James, a.k.a Baba Ijesha, is no Michael Jackson. He is, however, a household name in the Yoruba movie industry. This qualifies him as a local celebrity. Recently, allegations of rape and sexual molestation of a minor were made against him. He allegedly raped the minor when she was seven years old. She told no one but, apparently, it affected her in a number of ways. She only recently confessed her ordeal to her foster mother, another Yoruba entertainer known as Princess. Knowing that she probably might not get him to confess, Princess set up CCTV surveillance and invited Baba Ijesha to her home. She left the now 14-year-old girl alone with him and said she had an errand to run. Baba Ijesha then proceeded to touch the young girl inappropriately, and when he moved his prey to the kitchen where there were no cameras, Princess’s ‘DIY’ team monitoring him swooped in. He was shown in a video begging for mercy. At least, he admitted that he did something wrong, though it is not clear exactly what he will formally plead guilty to. Since then, Baba Ijesha has been cooling his heels in detention. When a statement allegedly from the police started making the rounds claiming that Baba Ijesha was entitled to bail and would be released within the next 24 hours, there was such an outcry that the Lagos State Commissioner of Police held a press conference to update the public on the state of the investigation. Yes, he confirmed, Baba Ijesha might be entitled to bail, but not yet. The charges were still being drawn up and investigations were ongoing. For now, he is still behind bars. Baba Ijesha will get his day in a court of law. What interests me is what is going on in the Court of Public Opinion.
Over the past week, reading various opinions online and watching one video for or against Baba Ijesha after the other, I have been appalled, infuriated and saddened. I keep asking myself a number of rhetorical questions. Do people know who a minor is? What the sexual abuse of a minor is? What it means to be the victim of sexual assault and be afraid to tell anyone, not even your parents? Do people know that rapists are not mad men roaming the streets naked? That sexual predators can be men of distinction, pillars of the society? Do people know how frustrating it is to know that you are not likely to get justice in a case involving someone more powerful or famous than you are? That it is your word against theirs, and ‘they’ will always have the upper hand? Do you know what you would do to protect your own daughter or to get justice for her? I read and listened to the comments of women about another woman fighting for justice for her daughter and I shivered. Who are we? What have we become? How come we have such a massive cult of shameless enablers? It is okay to speak up in favour of a friend or professional colleague. It is okay to be a character witness, there is nothing wrong with that. It is, however, wrong on so many levels to demonise victims of sexual abuse in any way in order to protect the image of your favourite celebrity. It is not right to minimize the pain another human being feels, their pain does not have to be yours but you can’t take it away from them. This is not the first time a celebrity sexual abuse case will drive people crazy and it will not be the last.
Our systems need to make it more difficult for the powerful and well-connected to get away with sexual assault. Now that there is a vigilant ‘Me-Too’ movement in some parts of the world, especially in the United States, it is unlikely that Michael Jackson would have gotten away with it, if he had been tried today. The fact that the police here are painstakingly going through the allegations against Baba Ijesha means we are succeeding in ensuring a level of accountability. We need to keep up the pressure so that law enforcement agencies and the courts of law can do what is required. Let us encourage victims and their families to speak up. If you are one of those appealing to Princess to ‘forgive’ I have a suggestion for you. Why don’t you send your 14-year-old daughter to sleep in a garage overnight, and forgive whoever does anything to her there? If you are one of those shaming the poor girl who has now been abused and traumatized all over again, shame on you. To all those making videos and posting messages saying, “I don’t support rape, but…” please stop. If you don’t have anything to say to affirm the dignity and the rights of victims, please, keep quiet. I stand with Princess and all the mothers of sexual violence victims like her who struggle, often in vain, to seek justice. If you are not willing to stand with her, I plead with you, do not stand in her way.
•Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social entrepreneur and writer. She is the founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is the First Lady of Ekiti State and can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com