A Look At Nigeria’s Anti-LGBTQ Law and How We’ve Come 8 Years Down The Line

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Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) Pride Month is celebrated each year in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, New York City. In the early hours of June 28 that year, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular bar that served as a safe haven for the city’s gay, lesbian and transgender community. While police had raided gay establishments before, on that particular night, members of the LGBTQ+ community decided to fight back, sparking an uprising that would launch a new era of resistance that would later be celebrated. Today, Pride Month is a time when LGBTQ+ communities around the world come together to honor their struggles, their rights as human beings, and their victories. Celebrations include pride parades, picnics, parties, workshops, symposia, concerts, and memorials are often held during this month for members of the community who lost their lives to hate crimes or HIV/AIDS.

One of the main purposes of this commemorative month is to recognize the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals have had and continue to have around the world, while also uplifting members of the LGBTQ+ community and the movement. The month-long celebration was given the name Pride to encourage feelings of dignity rather than shame as the community comes together to celebrate and support LGBTQ+ rights. But while the rest of the world celebrates, things are not quite so rosy back home. 

It is no longer news that to date, Africa still ranks as the worst continent for queer people. Sharing the facts and statistics can almost feel redundant; like screaming into a dark tunnel with no light at the end of it. Yet one cannot help but recall the words of the great writer, feminist, civil rights activist, and LGBTQ icon, Audre Lorde, who reminded us that our silence will not protect us. A widely shared report released in 2020 showed that 32 out of the 54 countries in the continent still uphold and maintain anti-gay laws. High up on that list is Nigeria – where discrimination, violence, and intimidation not only thrive but is also generally accepted and encouraged when it comes to LGBTQ communities. Over the years and even more recently as the country grapples with maddening insecurity, hyperinflation, and the ominous, fast-approaching 2023 general elections, many have argued that Nigeria has far too many problems of its own and that LGBTQ rights are the least of our worries. And yet, while citizens continue to wait (seemingly in vain) for these numerous issues to be addressed, the Federal Government seems to always find the time to pass questionable, controversial, and sometimes harmful laws and acts. A salient example would be Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) – an act that criminalized queer sex, marriage, and civil unions between individuals of the same sex.


The Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA)

Now, let’s pause here for a second and take it all the way back to 2011 when the Nigerian Senate disregarded the desires of the country’s western allies and passed a strict bill banning same-sex marriage and public display of affection by gays in Nigeria. The Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition bill (2011) was one of the first laws passed by the then five-month-old Senate. Sponsored by Domingo Obende (People’s Democratic Party; Edo state) shortly after the senate was constituted that same year, the bill was met with a lot of global outrage and criticism, with the United Kingdom and some other governments in Western Europe even going as far as threatening to pull aid to countries that pass laws persecuting homosexuals. But despite all this pressure, and fully aware of the implications of the law in Nigeria’s foreign diplomacy, the Nigerian government still enacted the anti-gay law three years later in 2014, which states that:

Persons who enter into a same-sex marriage contract or civil union commit an offence and are each liable on conviction to a term of 14 years in prison.

Any person who registers, operates, or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisations or directly or indirectly makes public show of same-sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offence and shall each be liable on conviction to a term of 10 years in prison.”

Of course, a lot of mixed reactions trailed President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to sign the bill, with many questioning the rationale behind it. Why criminalize same-sex relationships at a time when a lot of the world was beginning to legalize them? Since sodomy was already outlawed in the country, and homosexuals were not publicly calling for same-sex marriage, why pass such a bill? Well, there are a number of probable reasons for this: 

Firstly, as an oil-rich country and still confident in its oil reserves at the time, Nigeria didn’t really need Western aid in the same way many other African nations did. Evidence of this belief is made clear in the scornful response from the President of the Senate at the time, David Mark, who was quoted as saying,  “countries who would prefer not to give Nigeria aid on the account of its aversion to same-sex marriage should keep such aids to themselves,” adding that the country’s values would not be swayed. And speaking of values, one doesn’t have to look very hard or far to see that when the former President’s spokesman, Reuben Abati said that “more than 90 percent of Nigerians and religious leaders are opposed to same-sex marriage, so the law is in line with our cultural and religious beliefs as a people,” he knew exactly what he was talking about. But in the end, homophobia was not the only motive behind the bill. 

 

The Game of Politics 

In his 2011 presidential campaign, President Goodluck Jonathan promised to transform Nigeria into the powerhouse it was meant to be. Two years later, it had become increasingly clear that things weren’t going as planned. From heart-wrenching terrorist attacks courtesy of Boko Haram, an era-defining split in the ruling People’s Democratic Party (which saw several dozen lawmakers and a handful of regional governors cross over to the opposition), and even the controversial suspension of former Central Bank governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi over elite corruption… Let’s just say that by 2014, luck was not on President Goodluck’s side (although now, having tasted the bitter fruits of the Buhari administration for the past 8 years, some Nigerians have found themselves feeling a little nostalgic). In light of his growing unpopularity and hoping to seek re-election in 2015, many have argued that Jonathan’s support of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was a calculated populist move meant to shift the focus away from his shortcomings and garner him the domestic support he so desperately needed. In a continent where many still view homosexuality as “un-African” and in a profoundly religious country like Nigeria, it is fair to assume that the bill was used to stir up anger at the idea of imposed Western values, helping create solidarity at home by directing anger outwards.

As expected, the news provoked an outpouring of reactions, particularly on Twitter. But while the international community raged and some locals questioned the misplaced priorities of the president, the vast majority of Nigerians saw the signing of the bill as a step in the right direction, with many even praising the President for standing firm in his decision.

Consequences of the Act

In case it wasn’t already clear: Nigeria has never been a safe haven for the queer community. Even before the signing of the act, there had already been cases of police brutality, mob attacks, and widespread homophobic stigmatization. However, any laws pertaining to homosexuality in the past were unclear and not as binding as the general understanding that anything related to same-sex was taboo and condemned both by religion and society. After the Prohibition Act was signed, things quickly worsened. About a week later, Graeme Reid, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights director at Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying:

“The law is so vague that it is likely to lead to the arbitrary arrest of gay people while facilitating extortion and blackmail of vulnerable groups by members of Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt security services”

And just like a prophecy, morbid stories soon began to circulate. By the 5th of February 2014, just weeks following the passage of the SSMPA, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa noted an “increase in cases of physical violence, aggression, arbitrary detention and harassment of human rights defenders working on sexual minority issues”. 

Despite Section 17 of the Nigerian Constitution affirming that “every citizen shall have equality of rights, obligations, and opportunities before the law,” countless people have faced grotesque violence and charges for consensual sexual relations in private, public advocacy of LGBTQ rights, and even just presenting as queer. This includes the 47 men who went on trial in 2019 for public displays of affection with members of the same sex, an offence that carries a 10-year jail term in the country. They were among 57 arrested during a police raid in a hotel in Lagos (the case was finally dismissed in 2020). And these are just the horror stories we’ve actually heard about. It is heartbreaking to even think about all the unknown and unreported incidents; all the unnamed victims of constant brutality and humiliation. 

But against all odds, the queer community in Nigeria is still standing strong and finding ways to unify and carve out safe spaces for themselves.

 

Small (But Mighty) Wins

In recent years, we’ve seen a shift, particularly on social media, where more young queer Nigerians are coming out of the shadows and standing in solidarity as if to declare, “we’re still here”. Although this increased visibility can pose a threat to the physical and mental well-being of queer activists and allies living in the country, it has also gone a long way in humanizing queerness and changing the outdated narratives surrounding homosexuality. But the activism and resilience didn’t just end online.

During the #EndSars protests in October 2020, a non-binary and gay activist known as  Matthew Blaise, walked the streets of Lagos shouting “queer lives matter” at the top of their voice — a bold and courageous move that inspired other LGBTQ+ Nigerians to share their heartbreaking experiences of abuse at the hands of the police unit. This was of course trailed by mixed reactions, with many accusing the LGBTQ+ community of attempting to disrupt the protests and redirect the attention to themselves. But despite considerable pushback, they stood their ground, adamant that they had a right to be heard, especially considering how targeted they were by the police for being gender nonconforming.
From using publicly donated funds to provide food and security for queer people protesting across Nigeria to starting a non-profit organization named OASIS Project, which aims to create a more positive representation of LGBTQ+ persons in Nigerian media, Blaise is just one of the many young Nigerians using their creativity and platforms to amplify queer voices.

Publications like Rustin Times and KitoDiaries — both of which are centered around LGBTQ+-related news and content that is more than just about queer sex. “It’s always interesting to see how fixated people actually are with the sexual aspect of homosexuality,” says Jay Nwosu, a writer, spoken word poet, and non-binary member of the community. “Outside of who we’re sleeping with, it’s like we stop being human in people’s eyes, as though we no longer have interests, emotions, or everyday problems. So it’s great to see content that reminds people that we are just as human as everyone else. NEPA still takes my light!”

This human-based, relatable content is what young creative writers like Akwaeke Emezi and Eloghosa Osunde weave robust and brightly-colored tales about, bringing the lives of Nigerians whose existence is criminalized into focus. Nigeria’s first full-fledged lesbian film Ife takes us on a romantic journey centered around a wholesome, budding love and the ever-looming challenges of being lesbian in Nigeria. Produced by Pamela Adie and directed by Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim, the firm was released in 2020 despite strict warnings from the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) stating that the film violates the country’s strict laws on homosexuality.

While it is clear that the Nigerian LGBTQ+ community’s light has not been extinguished, the fight for equality in the country – and the continent as a whole – still has a long way to go, especially with anti-gay laws still in full effect. “No one is expecting an overnight miracle,” Nwosu says. “But in the end, we only want what everyone wants: freedom and to be treated with respect.” As we stand together and speak up against both global and local matters that affect us either directly or indirectly such as racism, sexism, terrorism, and bad governance, it’s equally important that we stand in solidarity for the basic human rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

We simply cannot be selective about liberation. 

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