By Adedayo Ogunleye
(The names of some subjects in this report have been changed to protect their identity)
January 14, 2014: Abuja’s bitterly cold harmattan winds were blowing at dusk. The temperature was rapidly plummeting. In Lugbe, an Abuja suburb, the fortune of Yusuf, a young man, was also dimming. As night approached, a group of men paid him a visit. It was not a courtesy visit. These men visited Yusuf because they were thoroughly offended by his sexual orientation. Yusuf is gay, a status viewed with strong disapproval in the larger Nigerian society.
The men who visited Yusuf’s home were convinced that they had a divine warrant to punish him for his sexual preference and straighten him up.
The harmattan provided a perfect setting for the punishment they aimed to deliver, as the blows from the sticks they wielded yielded greater pain in the cold weather. The blows came fast and furious, rendering useless his valiant attempts to shield his face.
One errant lash caught Yusuf’s lips, drawing blood like it was from a faucet. His appeal for pity and muffled cry energised his assailants, who seemed persuaded that they were carrying out God’s orders to cleanse the land.
After beating him, they turned their attention to his property, thrashing his clothes and books. His electronic appliances were carted away, as he was dragged to the nearest police station.
At the station, he got no respite from the law as his ordeal continued, with the policemen mocking him and slapping him before putting him behind the counter for over 24 hours.
He was later released when his friends rallied to ‘bail’ him by ‘settling’ the police.
His experience taught him a new lesson: he had become an outcast in his own homeland.
Yusuf, technically, had gone against the law.
President Goodluck Jonathan had signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill into law on January 7, 2014, seven days before Yusuf’s ordeal. The law criminalises same-sex marriage, homosexual associations, societies and meetings, prescribing a 14-year prison sentence for anyone involved in a same-sex union. It also prescribes a 10-year jail term for a person or group supporting gay clubs, organizations, processions or meetings. It equally declared illegal public displays of affection by gay men and lesbians.
As a consequence of that law, citizens like Yusuf, an indigene of Nasarawa State, experienced a status change from that of a law-abiding citizen to a fugitive under what has come to be known by most Nigerians as the Anti-Gay Act.
A year after the passage of the Bill and its signing into law by President Jonathan, the Lesbians, Gays, Bi – sexual and Transvestites, LGBT, community in Nigeria is still on the run- some having gone underground and others going into self – exile in more tolerant climes.
In Abuja, the nation’s capital, it is estimated that there are not less than 400 members of the LGBT community, mostly made up of gays, lesbians and a sprinkle of bi-sexual persons and transvestites.
Many of these, said Andre, a caregiver and information/human rights officer in an NGO dedicated to caring for marginalized and oppressed minorities across the world, are well educated and upwardly mobile members of the society.
One of the loudest arguments against the LGBT is the one that describes their orientation as promoting an un-African way of life. This regards homosexuality as a conduct alien to African tradition.
Abiola Sanya, a police officer with the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, command is convinced that homosexuality is eminently un-African.
“It is a cursed tradition; it was imported from the West. In the Bible, God destroyed a whole city because of this, so we must be very careful here not to allow it take root among us,” he said.
When asked for evidence supporting his claim that homosexuality is an imported conduct he deflected the question and lapsed into a tirade about how corrupt conduct from the western world could bring about destruction to the African people.
This is a view that is very common among Nigerian. A 2013 Pew survey that interviewed adult Nigerians found that 98 per cent of respondents agreed that homosexuality “should not be accepted into society”.
For the religious conservatives, the passage of the Anti-Same Sex Act into law is “God’s saving grace” for an ailing nation. In a nation fixed in religious identity like Nigeria is, the population is almost equally divided between the pre-dominantly Muslim north and the largely Christian south. Both religions frown at the practice of homosexuality and have harsh condemnation against its practice in their scriptures.
Perhaps this remains the reason why the Anti-Gay Act resonated loudly amongst the public, finding widespread approval across states in the federation.
However, for a minority of the population, the war against gays is an unnecessary pastime. For such people, there are more critical national issues that require legislative attention than the sexual preferences of some people.
Cletus Agwu, an Abuja-based lawyer, criticized the timing of the law, wondering why gay people were suddenly “a front-burner issue with the many hydra-headed problems bedevilling the nation”.
“Government goofed on that one. It was clear that the government was shying away from the issues that matter with that move. Why did it become so important to jail gays when the many looters and known paedophiles walk freely in our streets, and even aspire to elective office?” he asked.
Agwu added that he has no problem with how an adult chooses to express his sexuality as long as it is with a consenting adult.
But not many Nigerians are as liberal in thinking as Agwu and the majority are indifferent, if not outright hostile, to the plight of the LGBT community. This has bred an atmosphere of intolerance, leading many of them to flee to the country to more accepting societies-if they can afford to do so. Those left behind have been forced to go underground and create enclaves as they seek to survive in a society that views them as deviant, freaks and sexual perverts.
Somewhere in Abuja’s Central Business District stands an unremarkable bungalow that serves as a Special Treatment Centre for people with alternate sexual orientation. It is one of the many facilities that provide medical care for the LGBT community across the nation.
In the lobby, where this reporter had to wait for over an hour to see Andre, who speaks for this persecuted community, were about 12 young men, all of them gay.
The feeling of being hunted and persecuted that they often experienced outside was conspicuously absent. In its place was a feeling of community and security, as the chatted happily. The centre is a refuge from the intolerance and discrimination that had turned them to fugitives in their own country.
They hugged, touched and petted each another. A light-skinned young man with the remarkable name of Jane was having his braided hair dressed by Stanley, a muscular but younger-looking man wearing a tunic.
A few curious glances went this reporter’s way as they wondered about the identity and mission of the stranger in their midst. To erase any suspicion, our reporter joined in the small talk about the movie playing on the TV and until someone introduced national politics.
After an hour-long wait, Andre was free to talk. Of average height, light-skinned, meticulously dressed and with impeccable spoken English, he came across as a product of the upper-middle class. After exchanging pleasantries, he revealed that he is 25 years old and a Political Science graduate of University of Abuja. He said he hails from the Yoruba-speaking part of the country.
Andre laments that the experience of the LGBT community since the enactment of the Anti – Gay Act is one marked by discrimination and victimisation. Though homosexual himself, he says his defence of the rights of humans goes beyond gender.
“Human rights are not privileges, are they?” he queried. “I believe that all humans have rights, whether they are physically challenged, albinos, or even of different tribes, or races. It is a sad development that here in Nigeria, LGBTs have been marked out as the scapegoat… the one that bears the sins of mis-governance in the nation,” he said.
Challenging the prevalent view that homosexuality is a foreign culture, Andre argued that it has been a part of Africa for ages. According to him, it is legalised homophobia that is alien to Nigerians and not same sex-relations between two consenting adults.
“Homosexuals in small numbers have always existed in our part of the world. For instance, in the North, they have always been known as Dan-dawodu; they were never persecuted. They were never discriminated against, even if they might have been perceived as weird or strange. There are cross-dressers among Fulani herdsmen and majority of them are homosexual. No one used to bother them for being strangely dressed,” he observed.
Things changed, the young man said, with the passage of the law.
“All of a sudden, the government taught our neighbours and colleagues to fear us… to despise and hate us, having demonized us in their eyes. Suddenly we were being hunted as if we were monsters to be purged out of the community,” he ruefully declared.
The Price of Fear
According to Andre, a major source of anguish for young LGBTs, even prior to the enactment of the law, is ostracism by family members.
In the conservative Nigerian family, few things could be considered as a greater source of embarrassment or shame than having a gay brother, son, or a lesbian sister or daughter.
Often, the family reacts to the traumatic discovery of a member’s ‘aberrant’ sexual orientation with frantic attempts to ‘purge’ the individual of his ‘strange desires’ through spiritual deliverance in churches, mosques or even traditional shrines. The failure of these measures often leads the parents to throw out the child.
In an article published on ThisIsAfrica.me, Michael Ighodaro (real names) recounted how he was ejected by his parents from their Benin City family home because he was discovered to be gay. After a few years in Abuja, unable to cope, the young man fled to the United States.
Dapo Adaralegbe, now Stephanie Rose, also experienced harsh treatment at the hands of family and school mates while studying Law at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile –Ife. After university authorities refused to recommend him for the mandatory one-year programme at the Nigerian Law School on account of his sexual orientation, he fled first to Spain and then the Netherlands, where he has since undergone surgery to become a woman.
With rejection comes withdrawal of all forms of support, as described by Ighodaro, who stated that his parents practically disowned him, leaving him to fend for himself. For people like Andre, Ighodaro and Adaralegbe (now Rose), this rejection is nothing but a de-personalization or rejection of their personal identity.
“It’s like they want to nullify or invalidate my existence. I didn’t learn to be gay, I wasn’t recruited or indoctrinated with it. From the age of seven, I had noticed my attraction to people of the same sex. I remember being curious and staring when I see a man peeing on the street way back then,” Andre said.
While he conceded that that particular interest may have indeed been a child’s curious reflex, Andre insisted that, for him and many others like him, sexual orientation was fixed at birth.
“If I asked you, at what point did you choose to be heterosexual, what would be your answer?” he shot at the reporter suddenly.
“I was born heterosexual,” the reporter replied.
“That’s my point exactly,” he fired back. “If you were born heterosexual and you expect me to accept that, why is it so difficult for Nigerians to accept that some minority among them can be born homosexual?”
Incidents of violent discrimination and assault have increased, Andre and his friends claim, with the enactment of the law.
On February 14, 2014, the satellite TV channel Aljazeera reported that a group of people armed with wooden clubs and iron bars, screaming that they were going to “cleanse” their neighbourhood of gays and saying “we are working for (President) Jonathan”, dragged 14 young men from their beds and assaulted them in Abuja.
Four of the victims were later marched to a police station where officers allegedly kicked, punched and cursed them, according to Godswill Arazu of the International Centre on Advocacy for the Right to Health.
Arazu told Aljazeera that he was forced to drive all the way from the metropolis to Gishiri, an Abuja suburb, when he was alerted that a group of about 40 people was conducting a “house-to-house neighbourhood vigilante mission” to “cleanse” the area of gays. He called the police himself.
According to him, to his surprise, the police detained the victims of the assault and released the perpetrators. The four were later released by the police because there was no evidence that they were gays and they had not been caught having sex with each other.
Andre said such attacks have increased. He added that reports of such attacks are not attended to by the police and remain under-reported by the media because of the prevalent bias against LGBTs.
“Nobody cares. The police look the other way and even you journalists don’t even care. As for the journalists that report it, all they want is a sensational story or they go all moralistic in their reporting, demonizing us, thereby worsening our situation.
“It’s the reason why we rarely talk to reporters. If not that you were referred to me by someone I trust, I wouldn’t have even attended to you at all. Nigerian journalists have hurt our cause with their stories, and you know, what this does is increase the homophobia and the attacks,” he said.
According to Andre’s records, as many as 60 people have suffered violent attacks from neighbours for their sexual orientation since the enactment of the law. As the information/human rights officer of this minority group, he documents such cases and tries to mediate where possible.
His goals include peace building and crime control within the community, which often bring him into regular contact with the police.
When asked whether his run-ins with the police have exposed him to the danger of prosecution, he replied that for him, being gay is an identity not a profession, and so the police could not accuse him of anything.
“You cannot just walk up to anybody to arrest the person for being gay. With a little bit of discretion, I have managed to steer clear of prosecution. But every time my work brings me into contact with the police on the behalf of one of our people, they get curious and wonder why I am so interested in the case. They ask me questions like “who you be sef?” and ‘”wetin be your own for this matter?” he said.
In 2014, 38 people were arrested in Bauchi State, with some being charged to court for belonging to a gay organization.
Amnesty International also reported in 2014 that 10 people were detained in four southern states.
Andre also spoke of a new trend that arose in 2014 – extortion against LGBTs by the larger community of ‘straight’ people who demand for money with the threat of exposing the victim’s sexual orientation to the authorities.
“I have had to intervene several times in communities like Lugbe. Members of the community exploit our identity in ways that they never used to. Before there was a law against us, no one threatened us like this. But now, they demand that our members pay them protection money or get reported to the police,” he alleged.
Sylvester, one of Andre’s friends in the centre, recounted how his neighbours in Lugbe ganged up against him, reporting him to his landlord so that he could be ejected from his one-bedroom apartment because he was ‘different’ from all other tenants.
“They knew I was gay because my partner was always around and we often hold hands or cuddle. They told my landlord that I would corrupt their children and that he had to send me packing. It was Andre who saved the situation, by begging the landlord,” he said.
Another companion, Kelechi, said he was forced to pay money to his colleagues at work in a three-star hotel in Abuja to avoid being ‘outed’. According to him, it became a norm to always ‘settle’ them to avoid embarrassment. However, his ‘settlements’ did not prevent the hotel manager from sacking him when the news of his sexual orientation reached his office.
“At times, it gets real ugly,” Andre said. “Violence happens even amongst members of the LGBT community who try to extort their partners.”
He narrated the story of two young men in the Gishiri, who had consensual sex under the condition of payment. According to Andre, things got sour after the money promised was not paid and the cheated party resorted to threats of violence.
The other partner called for help but when it came, he was hesitant to reveal what had transpired between them.
Andre posited that such violent incidents were rare in the LGBT community prior to the enactment of the law, arguing that the criminalization of same-sex relations has emboldened those with criminal tendencies in the gay community. He said other more grave consequences have emerged as a result of the Anti-Gay Act.
Fleeing from loved ones
According to Diego Ortiz, communications director at Immigration Equality, a national advocacy organization that assists LGBTs seeking asylum in the United States of America and promotes HIV immigration rights in the U.S, between January and February 2014, 35 Nigerians contacted the organization for help – more than half of the 52 who sought immigration help in 2013.
Andre explained that majority of Nigerians are unaware that a subtle brain drain is occurring on account of the Anti-Gay Act.
“Many of my friends have fled the country,” he stated. “I would have left too, but I chose to stay back to help others here and to raise awareness for the plight of the LGBT here in the homeland,” he said.
Speaking with Aljazeera last year, Ighodaro recounted how one September evening in 2012 in Abuja, he was the victim of what he believes was a homophobic attack. According to Ighodaro, a follow-up with death threats in his phone and email inboxes had him terrified for his safety and he fled the country, seeking asylum in the United States.
For him, the multiple-entry visa stamped in his passport from an earlier visit to Washington, D.C., to attend an international AIDS conference became his entry ticket to a new life.
“Can you imagine the magnitude of human resources that the nation has lost due to the homophobic reactions of our people?” Andre asked again.
The health implications of the enactment of the law also stare the nation in the face, but the authorities refuse to acknowledge or consider the issue.
According to Andre, one of his friends- a member of the community visited a government-owned hospital in Wuse, Abuja, to treat a particularly stubborn Sexually Transmitted Infection, STI. The friend, Andre alleged, experienced rudeness from a nurse because of his sexual orientation, a situation that made him become wary of seeking treatment from ‘experts’.
“How many other people do you think have had similar experiences?” he asked without waiting for an answer.
For the LGBT community, getting medical services is an uphill task as they are confronted with unbridled discrimination.
The Special Treatment Centre acts as a stop-gap here by providing ‘commodities’ for the community. These include condoms, lubricants and drugs as needed. The centre also provides free HIV/AIDS test and counselling, with a referral list of medical personnel where LGBTs can get confidential medical attention.
According to the Same Sex Prohibition Act, persons who support LGBTs are liable to be charged for a criminal offence and may get as much as 10 years’ jail time as punishment. This means that the operators of this Centre stand constantly at the risk of prosecution and imprisonment.
This threat has curtailed the activities of similar Non-Governmental Organizations, NGOs, who used to organize community outreaches, Focus-Group Discussions, and dialogues within the LGBT community to equip members with useful information on healthy sexual conduct.
This has also affected the provision of needed medical services for this group, as access to HIV treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people has been severely affected by the law.
Nigeria has the second largest HIV epidemic globally, with an estimated 3.4 million people living with the virus. The disease affects many more gay men than heterosexuals, with 2010 statistics estimating national HIV prevalence at 4 per cent compared to 17 per cent among gay men, according to UNAIDS.
What are the consequences of this?
At an HIV/AIDS conference held in Melbourne, Australia, in 2014, when asked about the effect of the Anti-Gay Act on provision of medical services to the LGBT community in Abuja, Arazu replied: “We have evidence to show that the law is killing people.”
According the records at the Special Treatment Centre, visits for HIV/AIDS testing and counselling has dropped to 10 to 15 people per month from about 60 people a month.
“Our findings have shown that around 73 per cent stopped accessing health care services, for fear of being discriminated against and for fear of being arrested for who they are,” Arazu said. “For fear of going to prison, people prefer to stay at home on their sick bed.”
The implications are alarming. If people cannot access health care freely for fear of being jailed, the HIV virus will thrive within the community and even the larger society.
Nigerian health officials have presented arguments that the law has not had an adverse effect on HIV/AIDS intervention mechanisms, but the results on ground contradict the arguments. In Nigeria, HIV prevalence is about 4 per cent, but much higher among male homosexuals – 44 per cent in Abuja and 27 per cent in Lagos.
The statistics suggests that although homosexuals represent an estimated 3.5 per cent of the Nigerian population, this demographic accounts for more than 40 per cent of new HIV infections.
In an article published by the South African National AIDS Council in 2014, Jan du Toit, Director of the Africa Centre for HIV/AIDS Management at Stellenbosch University, stated that the law has had a “devastating effect” on managing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria.
“What this means, is that many HIV-positive males or those wanting to find out their HIV status will be reluctant to do so, fearing prosecution from authorities,” he said.
Like Arazu, Andre challenged government’s claim that the law has no negative consequences on the war against HIV/AIDS. He drew attention to the fear entertained by the LGBT community when confronted with the need to seek medical treatment.
“The government keeps saying law does not affect service provision. But when you tell people that they are going to go to jail for 14 years for being who they are, how can it not make a difference?” he asked.
The psychological effects of this discrimination against the LGBT are not hidden.
Kelechi spoke of a constant fear of being outed and the assault that may accompany unplanned disclosure. He also described a burning resentment against the ‘intolerant’ majority that constitutes the Nigerian public.
“I am scared someone who knows I’m gay will just expose me in public. It makes me sick and tired of being a Nigerian,” he said.
The waiting area was still bustling when this reporter emerged from Andre’s office. Jane and Stanley were miming a song by Flavour, a Nigerian hip-hop artiste. It was obvious that they felt secure here- much more secure than they would feel outside in their own homes. It appeared that this was their real home where support, acceptance, and care were in abundance.