‘We Are Terrified as a People’: Nigeria’s Gays Live in Fear Amid New Crackdown

The country arrested dozens Tuesday as its anti-homosexual law took effect, but activists say they are prepared to fight back amid the atmosphere of intimidation and persecution.

Pius Utomi Ekpei /AFP/Getty,PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

Dozens of gays were reportedly arrested in Nigeria on Tuesday as the country’s draconian anti-gay law takes affect. As Nigeria begins implementation of a new anti-LGBT law—the so-called “Same Sex Marriage Act”—the local community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered activists is in an uproar. The law in question calls for 14-year sentences for anyone convicted of same-sex relationships. “Living conditions and realities for LGBT have been … hell, frustrating, challenging, demonizing, violence filled, stigma-inflicted, just name it,” says Rashidi Williams, the Organizational Director for Nigeria’s Queer Alliance, “Conditions moved from worse to worst. We are terrified as a people.”

In addition to banning same-sex marriage, the law also includes this passage: “A person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation, or directly or indirectly makes public show of same sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offence and is liable to conviction to a term of 10 years imprisonment.” Likewise, just showing support for “the registration, operation and sustence of gay clubs, societies and organisations, processions or meetings in Nigeria,” could receive the same punishment.

This is the more damning portion of the law, as it could broadly apply to not only gay activist groups, but also HIV-awareness groups who just happen to treat LGBT people. Indeed, a statement by the UN’s AIDS policy arm, UNAIDS, notes that, “The new law could prevent access to essential HIV services for LGBT people who may be at high risk of HIV infection.”

This is a major concern for the local LGBT community, which has long been more concerned with access to health care. “When people hear the ‘Same Sex Marriage Bill’ people feel that we are probably pushing for gay marriage,” says Dennis Ojiyoma, a former community organizer for the LGBT community in Nigeria’s North, “The LGBT community in Nigeria hasn’t even gotten into that stage. They don’t even talk about it. They’ve never raised it. All they want is to live their lives the way they want to be.”

Previously, Nigeria’s sodomy law—in place long before this law was even a gleam in President Goodluck Jonathan’s eye—already called for prison time for gays in the South, and stoning in the Muslim-majority North. “It’s a very common occurrence,” says Dennis about the stoning from sodomy convictions, adding that it’s “not being recorded down because these things happen in small communities.”

The current law itself, has been in the offing for about eight years, since it was first proposed by former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s cabinet in 2006. Since then, the government hasn’t been able to muster enough political support to pass the bill, until just last week.

But Williams is still very scared for the safety and security of the LGBT community in Nigeria. “We cannot fold our arms and sit back whilst this law destroys the very essence of our humanity. We shall fight back to the last,” he says, “There is panic in our community. People’s fears have been heightened those who have been open all this while are gradually returning back to the closet…Laws such as this destroy society and thus there is need for civil disobedience.”

Update: "Today I got a call from Nigeria about some arrests that happend in Benin City at about 6 p.m. Nigerian Time,” said Michael Ighodaro, a former Nigerian activist who, like Dennis Ojiyoma, has asylum here in the U.S., “Policemen came with a proposedly gay man who knew the houses of other gay men in the city. They found five gay men, two of whom are my childhood friends."

According to Michael, the process works like a plea deal: someone is arrested and charged with a crime, and in order to make a better deal with the police, he agrees to help track down other gay men.

A Nigerian raid on an LGBT group generally goes something like this, according to the account Obinna Asiegbu, another local activist, who experienced one first hand a few months ago. “The party was going on well without any disturbance until the Hisbaah Commission, otherwise known as the Islamic Police, surrounded the vicinity arresting gays and non-gays alike,” he says. “I didn't get arrested because I claimed ignorance and I maintained my calm, asking one of the Hisbaah member what is happening as if I didn't know. ... They arrested as many as their vehicles could contain.”

Dennis had a similar experience a few years ago when he was arrested under the sodomy law. A friend of his had been arrested, and made a deal with the police to help the cops arrest others.

After being arrested, Dennis was held in a prison for four days with no food or water. “The first day I was tortured and beaten up and stuff like that. And I was told that I needed to give them a list of people that I thought were gay,” he recalls, “I told them that I did not know who they were talking about; that I worked in a hospital and that, on our counseling form, we didn’t ask people if they are gay, or straight, or bi, or whatever, but that we treated people. And so they tried and tried—they did all they could—but I didn’t give them any names.”

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Whatever the case, Williams Rashidi maintains that civil disobedience is the way forward, saying, “We would not pack up and for the sake of this law stop social activities.”