On 1 October Nigeria commemorates the moment when our national flag replaced that of the empire. It marks the day in 1960 that the people of the country gained independence from Britain for the first time. Full independence took a little longer − until 1963, when Nigeria’s Declaration of Independence was signed.
To mark the day, Nigerians may consider the 1999 constitution, which opens: “We, the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” But when I think about that phrase I am reminded that there is a part of the population that is still not classified as people: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Nigerians.
Fifty-five years after independence, LGBT people — alongside women of all sexual orientations in the country — are the most marginalised section of society in Nigeria. And while there is a level of agreement that women and girls are mistreated in the country and that we need to end, among others things, female genital mutilation (FGM) and increase investment in girls’ education and women entrepreneurs, the LGBT community remains a punch bag for many Nigerians.
Prior to the Anti Same Sex Marriage Act 2013, Nigeria’s legal stance on homosexuality was the Victorian criminalisation of anal sex, also known as “the act against the order of nature”. But as LGBT equality gained momentum in the West, Nigeria opted to go the other way and choose the alleged moral obligation of “upholding family values”.
In 2006, under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo, the government presented a bill to the House to constitutionally criminalise not just the homosexual act, but also the behaviour and the expression of it in order to maintain and protect family values. It was also a response to the LGBT community beginning to own up and come out: I had come out publicly on national television just prior to this time.
There is an issue of ignorance of the concept of gender and sexuality among Nigerians. In 2010, NOI Polls, Nigeria’s leading pollster company, sampled the views of Nigerians on the law and a staggering 98% of Nigerians supported it, even though it proscribed 14 years imprisonment for “known” or “perceived” homosexuality.
When President Goodluck Jonathan signed the bill in January of 2014, 93% of Nigerians supported it, despite the global outcry against the law and the impact it would have on the LGBT community in Nigeria, their health, friends, families and well-wishers. The attacks were immediate and severe. This was not because they were not happening before, but because the LGBT community had the mechanism to document any abuse or attacks.
For example, Solidarity Alliance, a coalition of LGBT community organisations in Nigeria, released a report on the rate of abuse targeting LGBT people in 2014, which recorded 45 abuses in the 2014 alone. Families, friends and neighbours of LGBT people in the country carried out 73% of them.
The hate and anger towards LGBT people has been influenced by the legitimatisation of hate by the state and religion. Over 80% of the population is religious and religion dictates the politics, education and even healthcare system in Nigeria.
Immediately after the signing of the law, religious leaders were fast at rushing to outdo each other over who had the best interest of the country at heart. The Catholic Church sent a congratulatory message to the president on his act of bravery. They accused the West of turning Nigeria and Africa into a “dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices”.
In a position paper released by the Nigerian Diocese, the then Archbishop of Nigeria Peter Akinola said: “Same sex marriage, apart from being ungodly, is unscriptural (sic), unnatural, unprofitable, unhealthy, uncultural, un-African and un-Nigerian. It is a perversion, a deviation and an aberration that is capable of engendering a moral and social holocaust in this country.”
He purposely used words like “perversion”, “un-African”, and “unnatural” to scare millions of Nigerians to reject homosexuality and support the government.
While Muslims have not been as vocal as their Christian counterparts, they have been more proactive in enacting strong Sharia law in Nigeria, which means even more severe punishment for LGBT people. For example, a few days after President Goodluck Jonathan signed the anti-gay bill into law, 11 suspected gay men were arraigned in a Sharia court in Bauchi. The punishment for homosexuality in the Sharia states of northern Nigeria is very simple: stoning to death.
However, it is also important to note, that the same region of northern Nigeria is where we have the yan daudu, a social group of effeminate men who dress, act and take on the role of women within the Hausa culture of northern Nigeria.
All this said, it has not been all doom and gloom for the community. With the advent of the internet and social media, the world now knows the cross this community has to carry. There is now more engagement on the issues of gender and sexuality.
This has also helped the level of social acceptance in the country. In 2015, Bisi Alimi Foundation, in conjuncture with The Initiative for Equal Rights, commissioned a poll carried out by NOI Polls that found support for the law is falling. In comparison to the 2010 (98%) and 2013 (93%) poll, the support has now dropped to 87%.
While this might seem like the glass half-full or half-empty, depending on who is looking at it, the good news is that among young people between 16-25 years old, the acceptance rate of LGBT people is at an all-time high of 30%.
As Nigerians remember the “labour of our hero past” it is also important to think about how Awolowo, Azikwe and Bello did not fight for Nigeria to be an independent country for some. Fifty-five years later, we live in a world and at time where hate has no excuse and where equal opportunity should not be a utopia but a reality that gives men, women, boys, girls, straight or LGBT Nigerians the opportunity to contribute to the good of the nation.
The road ahead is tough and the night is long. The work that needs doing is challenging, but the flame of hope has never burned brighter