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Sunday, 28 November 2010

State-sponsored homophobia: Experiences from Nigeria

Source: 'Struggle for equality: Sexual orientation, gender identity and human rights in Africa', The Heinrich Boell Foundation

By Dorothy Aken’Ova

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Nigeria like in many other African countries face legal challenges on grounds of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Both male and female same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Nigeria. In the 12 states of the Muslim North of the country that have adopted Sharia law; same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death or by up to 14 years imprisonment throughout the country.

The lack of tolerance is also evident in the statements of political and religious leaders that denounce the rights of LGBTI people.

In February 2009, the then Foreign minister, Ojo Maduekwe has gone even so far to claim that LGBTI people do not exist in the country. At the Universal Periodic Review of Nigeria, a process which involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years, the minister stated:
“Mr. President, […] the United Kingdom wanted to know the position of Nigerian Government on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.  As we have indicated in our National Report, we have no record of any group of Nigerians, who have come together under the umbrella of “Lesbian, Gay and Transgender” group, let alone to start talking of their rights. Of course, as citizens, all Nigerians have their fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. During our National Consultative Forum, we went out of our way to look for the Gay, Lesbian and Transgender group, but we could not come across Nigerians with such sexuality.  If they are an amorphous group, then the question of violence against them does not arise, let alone negotiating special rights for them. With regard to same-sex marriage, this is illegal in Nigeria, and until the law is changed, it remains so. The British in their wisdom bestowed the law against same-sex marriage to us, for which we are grateful.”
This is despite the fact that more than ten non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have openly declared the protection of LGBTI rights as one of their focus areas of work. These include Alliance Rights Nigeria, the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (INCRESE), the Centre for Youth Policy Research and Advocacy (CYPRAD) and the Support Project in Nigeria (SPIN), The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIER), Queer Alliance and Global Rights Nigeria.

Each time I hear any of these claims I recall a conversation between two Nigerian young women who met at a conference in the United States:

Chi: I travelled home with my partner. It was difficult. We could not hold hands in public. Funny, it was right there but they could not figure it out. Or do you think they were pretending?
Kika:  Possibly, but maybe not. Friendship between girls is often without extra meaning back home.
Chi:  Funny. My parents know but they have chosen to look the other way. They remind me to get a man when I am through with my studies and settle down.
Kika: Silence
Chi: Many times people do not even know my partner is female, she looks so dyke! That may have fooled them in the village. Hey, come to think of it, are there butch women in Nigeria?
Kika: And what have you been taking me for?
Chi: (laughing out loud) Interesting. Is this what dykes look like in Nigeria?
Kika: Hey, stop teasing, am I not dyke enough?
Chi: (still laughing) I can’t wait to get home. I’m going to tell Pete that I met a Nigerian dyke. The way they carry on, you’d think no gays exist in Nigeria much less dykes.
There have also been several attempts by political and religious leaders to deny the “Africanness” of homosexuality.

In defence of the introduction of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition) Act 2006, President Obasanjo stated on national news that “homosexuality is unnatural, ungodly, and un-African”. The bill was sponsored by the presidency to “check excesses of a group of young people whose behaviour has become increasingly embarrassing.” Similarly the former Anglican Primate of the Church of Nigeria, Peter Akinola has argued in a position paper submitted by the church to parliament that:
“Same sex marriage, apart from being ungodly, is unscriptural, unnatural, unprofitable, unhealthy, un-cultural, un-African and un-Nigerian. It is a perversion, a deviation and an aberration that is capable of engendering moral and social holocaust in this country. […] Outlawing it is to ensure the continued existence of this nation. The need for doing this is urgent, compelling, and imperative.”
The Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2006 was first tabled to the national assembly by Justice Minister Bayo Ojo in January 2006, but it wasn’t passed during the first reading. One year later in January 2007 the bill was approved by the Federal Executive Council and resent before the national assembly. The proposed bill called for five years imprisonment for anyone who undergoes, performs, witnesses, aids, or abets a same-sex marriage. It also prohibited any display of a same-sex amorous relationship and adoption of children by gays or lesbians.

The same bill also called for five years imprisonment for involvement in public advocacy or associations supporting the rights of lesbian and gay people. Included in the bill was a proposal to ban any form of relationship with a gay person. The intent of the bill was to ban anything remotely associated with being gay in the country.

The bill received some opposition from within parliament and widespread condemnation from local and international human rights and development organisations for violating the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly guaranteed by international law as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and for compromising the fight against the HIV/ AIDS epidemic in the country.

Davis Mac-Iyalla
One of the strongest opponents of the bill was Davis Mac-Iyalla, a LGBTI rights advocate who heads Changing Attitude Nigeria (CAN), a country chapter of a pro-LGBTI organisation based in the United Kingdom. Mac-Iyalla had already been repeatedly arrested by police in pro-LGBTI demonstrations in
previous years. His stiff opposition and fierce criticism of the Anglican Church in Nigeria fnally forced him into self-exile to the UK.

The bill eventually failed to come to a vote in the national assembly and died with the end of the Obasanjo administration after general elections held in April 2007.

In January 2009 a similar bill to ban “same gender marriage” was tabled before the national assembly. The Same Gender Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2008 defines “Same Gender Marriage” as “the coming together of persons of the same sex with the purpose of leaving together as husband and wife or for other purposes of same sexual relationship.”   It places criminal sanction of three years imprisonment for defaulters. It also does not recognise marriage entered into outside of the country.

This bill like the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill of 2006, goes beyond criminalisation of same sex marriage. It has provisions criminalising consensual sexual conduct between adults to be punishable by two years imprisonment.   The major difference between the 2006 and the 2008 same-sex marriage prohibition bills is the provision of stiffer penalties for those who aid and abet or witness the solemnisation of the union between persons of same sex, meant to further alienate LGBTI persons and deny them access to support and services. 

Like the previous bill, the 2008 bill aims to create a platform for indiscriminate arrests and imprisonment of individuals solely for perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity.  At a public hearing on 11 March 2009 local and international civil society urged  the assembly to reject the proposed legislation. It has since not received any further attention and civil society is hopeful that it will die with the end of the current administration on 29 May 2011.

Meanwhile, fuelled by the mere introduction of the same sex marriage prohibition bills, violence and human rights violations against LGBTI people continue throughout the country.
  • In February 2006, the national defence academy expelled 15 cadets suspected of homosexual acts after anal examinations. 
  • In August 2007, police in the northern city of Bauchi arrested 18 men suspected of same-sex relations, charging them with belonging to an unlawful society, committing indecent acts, and engaging in criminal conspiracy. They are currently out on bail and reporting to court for their trials. 
  • In the same year two civilians and two military men were arrested in Kano for allegedly engaging in gay relationships and were only released after intervention of the Coalition for the Defence of Sexual Rights. 
  • In April 2008, two young women were arrested and tried and sentenced by a Sharia court for lesbianism to six months of imprisonment and 20 lashes.
The conversation between Chi and Kike about how far they have gone in asserting their rights represents the voices of many others who are asserting their queerness as African citizens. Why must we create a different standard for homosexuals when it comes to defining citizenship? Africans are not a homogenous group; we must admit that there is a place for everyone, queer and straight alike. After all, what is truly African but our diversity and dynamism? Let us accept it, nurture it, and celebrate it.

Dorothy Aken’Ova is a feminist and sexual rights activist. She founded and is presently the director of the International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (INCRESE), an NGO located in Minna, Nigeria. She manages community programmes that initiate dialogue on issues of sexuality that are considered taboo.

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