Nigeria: Hotbed of Homophobic Violence

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday April 17, 2008

Even in Africa--a continent not known for its gay-friendly cultures or governments---Nigeria stands out for the virulence and violence against gay men in particular as well as lesbians.

The cultural residue of colonial occupation and political maneuvering encouraged by the country's influential Christian and Muslim faiths makes Nigeria one of the most challenging African nations in which to live openly as a homosexual. A federal republic whose 36 states and capital territory are home to over 140 million people, Nigeria's current leader is Umaru Musa Yar'Adu, whose April, 2007 election to a four-year term was characterized by a U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor report as "marred by massive fraud, vote rigging and political violence."

That report also noted "government officials at all levels" committing abuses, including "politically motivated killings by security forces, arbitrary arrest and prolonged pretrial detention" as well as "restrictions on speech, press, assembly, religion and movement." Homosexuality, illegal under federal law, is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. In northern Muslim states, which observe Sharia law, those found guilty of homosexual intercourse can receive death by stoning.

Authorization by the governor is required for a sentence to be carried out. While this has yet to happen, convicted homosexuals can expect to spend the rest of their lives on Death Row. In the Christian-dominated south, things are not much better.

"The real threat of death or serious injury is not from legal actions by the state, but from mob violence and unofficial actions by the police who are a law unto themselves," says Davis Mac-Iyalla, Director of Changing Attitude Nigeria. "In that way, there is very little difference between North and South."

Mac-Iyalla, currently living in exile, emphasizes another troublesome similarity between the Christian south and a Muslim north: "One of the few common perspectives between Islam and popular Christianity in Nigeria is a hatred of homosexuality."

Rev. Pat Bumgardner, global justice ministry chair of Metropolitan Community Churches (one of the few U.S. organizations on the ground in Nigeria), observes, "Even if there weren't a Christian-Muslim split, the situation would still be complicated by the fact that the primary religious voices are fundamentalist."

The MCC, a Protestant denomination that was founded to be gay friendly, is fighting, as Bumgardner puts it, "to put a different face on religion and say fundamentalists don't represent people of all faith. It is possible to be Christian and gay and believe that is good."

MCC works mostly in the capital, the sprawling city of Lagos. Its House of Rainbow is a community of very young gay men, for whom MCC offers a spiritual home and a safe space to be themselves "in a country where just to exist is a criminal act and punishable in some very extreme ways." House of Rainbow also serves as a hiding place where LGBT Nigerians receive counseling and support from others who are gay.

Those attempting to live openly face hostile society and laws. They've become political footballs for various forces, especially Peter Akinola, the Anglican archbishop of Nigeria. Akinola recently served as president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, the umbrella group for most of the churches of Nigeria.

Now, Akinola is aligning himself with anti-gay Episcopalians in the U.S. and is starting a breakaway denomination. Mike Hersee of Changing Attitude Nigeria, believes Akinola is using the issue of homosexuality: "It's power dressed up as morality." Hersee notes that Akinola's power grab is happening in a place where "religion holds much greater sway than it does in more developed countries. This influences all levels of society, including politics."

Christians & Muslims United in Hate
Homosexuality also serves as a rare source of agreement between Islam and Christianity. Hersee describes both religions, as practiced in Nigeria, as being "particularly hard on homosexuality as a convenient way of bonding between Nigerians across the whole country, and also as a way of maintaining the appearance of being vigilant against destructive forces."

A Sept. 7, 2007, report from the German journal Gay Republic Daily, recounted how the newly appointed Bishop Orama of Uyo described gay people as "insane, satanic and not fit to live." He only claimed it to be a misreporting of what was actually said several days after the Archbishop of Canterbury stepped in to condemn the comments. Mac-Iyalla believes Uyo only refuted his comments because of the unexpected furor they created outside Nigeria.

This incident is typical of how homosexuality is, according to Hersee, "always attacked by religious authorities, and in turn by government and ordinary people." Thus there is much more threat to an ordinary quiet life of someone gay or lesbian in Nigeria than in most other African countries. When people know, it becomes necessary to act outraged.

Religious doctrine, as practiced in particular by the Anglican Church, seems inexplicably linked to political agenda. For Mac-Iyalla, that eventually led to a quick exit from the country he was trying to unite. In 2003, Mac-Iyalla was serving as headmaster of an Anglican school. After the death of Bishop Ugede, he was fired by church authorities who had learned of his homosexuality.

Mac-Iyalla then founded Changing Attitude Nigeria, which, Hersee notes, "existed originally to challenge Anglican Church of Nigeria by initiating a listening process that had been agreed to at the last Anglican Lambeth Conference, and to demonstrate to those who claim that there are no gay people in Africa that there are and always have been, as well as challenging their perceptions of gay people from misreading the Bible."

Archbishop Akinola effectively blocked Changing Attitude Nigeria's goal of fostering understanding and acceptance. On the church's website, he accused Ma-Iyalla of various criminal activities, such as defrauding a dying bishop and obtaining church documents by deception.

Unemployable and receiving death threats, Mac-Iyalla was smuggled out of the country to Togo, where he now lives. Changing Attitude Nigeria did have some success, though, when Abuja was bidding to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Mac-Iyalla, Hersee and British activist Peter Tatchell produced "Abuja's Bid-Sins of Omission."

International Pressure
The report meticulously detailed how the behaviors and planned laws of the Nigerian government were in flagrant breech of established human rights agreements. It put an international spotlight on Nigeria and was discussed at the highest levels.

The government did temporarily back down a little on its virulent homophobia and took control of it in Buchi State, where 18 men were arrested when the police raided at a private party. At every successive hearing, they keep postponing it, however. The men are still in jail.

'People have been abused and reportedly tortured at the hands of their own families.'

Such rough justice weighs heavily on those who flee the country. "Anyone who is found out to be returning to Nigeria because they have failed to gain asylum on the grounds of homosexuality is essentially walking into an execution chamber." Mac-Iyalla says. They will be known to the authorities."

Mac-Iyalla asserts that the homophobia which permeates Nigerian culture is a byproduct of colonial rule: "It's ironic that Britain, who was primarily responsible for instigating the legal, religious and cultural intolerance of homosexuality in Nigeria in places where there was previously tolerance, is condemning people to return to the environment with the kind of lethal intolerance it has itself now rejected as being inhuman."

Incidents of Homophobic Violence
Although prosecutions for incidents of anti-gay violence are virtually unheard of, those accused of homosexual acts are frequently taken into custody and held on the basis of nothing more than suspicion. Hersee says this terror campaign has transformed Nigeria into a place where no one--including or especially police--does anything to help victims of anti-gay attacks.

In Lagos, for example, Omotayo Joshuah was attacked by a gang saying they were "cleansing" Lagos of homosexuals. He was able to tell his mother why he was attacked before he died of his injuries. But no one has made any effort to find his murderers.

Hersee also cites a 2005 case that occurred in Katsina, a northern Nigerian state that imposes Sharia law. Accused of sex after they were seen leaving public toilets together, the men were jailed for six months. The police said they could not find any witnesses, but the Sharia court repeatedly gave them more time to come up with witnesses.

These men were lucky: They eventually were freed due to lack of evidence, Hersee believes such an incident--one of many such-- "reveals a completely twisted legal system where a flimsily perception of homosexuality leads to the court doing its best to provoke the police into coming up with evidence suitable for conviction and potentially stoning to death."

Not only do church and state work against gay men and lesbians, but so do blood relations. "A lot of people have been abused and reportedly tortured at the hands of their own families," Bumgardner observes. "A young man was turned over by his father to his uncle, who imprisoned him on a military compound and tortured him trying to get him to profess heteronormativity."

A similar attempt at conversion occurred in Port Harcourt, where five lesbians were raped by a gang of boys who said they were "curing" them of homosexuality.

Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act
Much of the current tension can be traced back to 2006,when Nigeria's Minister of Justice, Bayo Ojo, proposed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act to Parliament. The bill would have given a compulsory five-year prison sentence to anyone involved a homosexual relationship, as well as restricting any from assembling, organizing, or participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The bill only failed on a technicality when Parliament disbanded its session. It was brought up again in 2007.

Scott Long, director, LGBT Rights Program, Human Rights Watc recalls how "Parliament announced February 12 they were going to hold hearings on it Feb. 14. A few gay and human-rights activists were able to go to Abuja, testify at the hearings and show a different voice. Partly because of their visibility, the bill died in Parliament and was never brought to the floor for a vote before Parliament was disbanded for the national elections.

The public debate "caused a noticeable increase in violence against LGBT people," Hersee says. "The fact that it was being introduced by the Government gave people with a tendency to violence and a dislike of LGBT people the feeling that there would be de facto immunity from prosecution for attacking gay people."

He also believes that Archbishop Akinola was one of the main instigators of the bill. Hersee likens this collusion between the Legislature and the church to the situation in nearby Cameroon, where "a correspondent of mine described government as being the police force of the church. In Nigeria, both Christianity and Islam have comparable influence to that description in their own areas of the country." Although Parliament ultimately declined to pass the bill, Lagos State approved almost identical legislation.

How We Can Help
We can do something to help this dire situation. Bumgardner emphasizes the importance of taking "a non-imperialist approach and know that anything we do will be paid for by the people on the ground in Nigeria." That means choosing words and actions carefully so as not to put gay Nigerians into further jeopardy.

MCC has sent people there just to eyewitness the experience and provide some financial support for the community. But otherwise, Bumgardner says, they "say OK, you articulate the strategy and tell us where we fit in."

Backing up Bumgardner's assertion about perceived "imperialist" interference, Long adds, "This is an issue couched in Nigeria as us versus the west. The more they see this as pressure from outside, the more the government and the Christians will become resistant."

Change is far more likely to come from the cumulative effect of international efforts that shine a light on systemic mistreatment as opposed to defending their orientation. "Nigeria is a new democracy," Long warns. "they're sensitive about their human rights record. If they understand this is an issue of sex, they're not going to listen."

Also the U.S. needs to step up pressure. "Our government could influence change in the world in terms of queer rights being seen as human rights, but it has been notably silent on that front," Bumgardner complains. "We should not underestimate the import of local city councils to pass resolutions calling on the Nigerian government to decriminalize queer existence; certainly ambassadors to Nigeria are important, as is striving to make contact with consulates and high commissions."

Long encourages people to contact Nigerian feminist and human rights groups. "They're in a dangerous situation and have shown tremendous courage," he says. There's also Increase Nigeria (a sexual rights group in the north) and LEDAT (Legal Dissents and Assistance).

Ultimately, social change may take a backseat to economic change. "When economic situations tend to promote greater freedom of thought, the power of religion begins to weaken and it becomes easier for even believers to belong to a church while fundamentally disagreeing with some of the major points of doctrine," Mac-Iyalla points out. "This ultimately leads to greater freedom of thought and acceptance of individual diversity."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.